Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and Their Race for the 1980 Democratic Nomination: A Conversation with Political Correspondent Jon Ward

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jon Ward has chronicled the drama of American politics for two decades. As a White House and national affairs correspondent, he has covered two presidential administrations and also elections. Currently he is Senior Political Correspondent for Yahoo News and is the host of The Long Game podcast, which looks at the value of key institutions in American culture, such as the political parties, the media, and the church. He’s the author of the book, Camelot’s End: Kennedy Vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party. The book was published earlier this year, and Ward and his family live in Washington D.C. I’m pleased to welcome Jon Ward to Thinking in Public.

Jon, you’re now Senior Political Correspondent and the day-to-day headlines are very much your interest. Americans read your work eagerly, but in this book you go back to the 1980 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. I want to look at big questions of history and meaning, but my first question I simply, as young as you are, how did 1980 become enough of an interest that it ended up with this book?

Jon Ward: Well, it’s kind of an indirect answer to that. Thank you for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be on. The indirect answer is that I may be in the news business of covering the things that are day to day, but I really do have a deep hunger for deeper stories, for more complete stories. And books have always been a passion of mine, probably one of my great passions, so I’ve always wanted to write books. I had been on the lookout for good stories that could be turned in to book-form narratives.

I happened upon a conversation in 2013 at a Democratic national committee meeting between two operatives. I was in the middle of this conversation with them and they started reminiscing about Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and Carter chasing a drunken Kennedy around the stage on the final night of the convention and I just didn’t really know a whole lot about any of that night or really the Kennedy candidacy. It struck me as something that people of a certain age who maybe if they hadn’t, maybe even if they had lived through it they’d find it interesting, but certainly there’s plenty of people now who weren’t even alive at that time who I think would find it interesting.

As I kind of just probed in to the story, I realized nobody had done…. Everybody focuses on 1980 as being the year of Reagan, and nobody had really told this story. So, I kind of launched in to it at that point.

Albert Mohler: Well, the fun thing about doing Thinking in Public is that I really only talk about the books that I think are worth talking about.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: And with the authors I want to talk to. By the way, your book is just outstanding. I had a hard time putting it down.

Jon Ward: Thank you.

Albert Mohler: Partly because I am a political junky and the intersection of Christianity and culture and politics has been my fascination for years. But I came of age politically—I’m about 20 years older than you are—I came to age politically in the middle of all this.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: So, the first president I remember is Lyndon Johnson. The first race I remember is ’68, but I was only nine years old, didn’t understand much. 1972, we were living 30 miles from where both the Democratic and the Republican National Conventions were held at Miami Beach. Just a fascinating worldview clash, but not quite. Nothing like what was coming. Then in 1976, I worked for Ronald Reagan’s campaign as a student volunteer, organizing high school students for Reagan in south Florida. Yet 1976 was a very weird election for a Southern Baptist teenager.

Jon Ward: Yeah. You worked for Reagan in ’76, you said?

Albert Mohler: I worked for Reagan in 1976. Then Governor Reagan.

Jon Ward: Wow.

Albert Mohler: I was in it for the battle of ideas. That kind of was the forging of my political self.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: The big question that was always asked of me is, How would you not vote for Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist deacon, you Southern Baptist teenager?

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: I had reasons by the way. I have personal respect for President Carter, with whom I have engaged with. He’s actually been my guest on Thinking in Public.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: I feel like I know him, because I think he’s just like my grandparents. Southern Baptist grandparents. Even the way he talks and thinks. But I never really knew Jimmy Carter the politician, and then I became editor of the Christian Index in Georgia. So, all that to say, the 1980 campaign I was back in for Reagan. But the interesting thing, that I thought was impossible, was that there could be a race on the Democratic side and that Ted Kennedy of all people would turn out to be a genuinely credible contender against the incumbent Democratic President of the United States. Ted Kennedy of all things and yet…. You told the story brilliantly, but I just want to ask you point blank, as someone who covers politics today: In retrospect doesn’t it look even odder than when you first think about it that Ted Kennedy came that close to actually winning the presidential nomination in 1980?

Jon Ward: Well odd, I don’t know. A lot of people ask me, “Why did he get in.” I think if you look at just the political realities of the fall of 1979 I don’t think there’s any way he could have avoided being sucked in to this vortex. Again, I think the question around Ted Kennedy always is, did he actually want to run himself. Then when you fast forward to the spring of 1980, after all that’s happened, and then the summer and the convention, I don’t know. I guess I just haven’t thought of it in terms of how odd it was.

Albert Mohler: Yeah.

Jon Ward: There’s something behind your question that I’m not getting though. What is it that you find to be odd?

Albert Mohler: Yeah. I think it’s the fact that I’m 20 years older. Chappaquiddick.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: In other words, I lived this chronologically.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: So, I lived enough to see Ted Kennedy as the obvious successor to Jack and Bobby.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: And then for it to be an open question as to whether Ted Kennedy could even maintain credibility to stay in his senatorial seat. That’s what basically knocked, and you say this in your book, that’s what knocked him out of the ’72 race.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: Now in 1980, I don’t know. I can just tell you that at least in my part of the world in 1980, this seemed inconceivable, but real.

Jon Ward: Yeah, well I guess what is kind of behind… The explanation for your question, I guess if you’re a Republican in 1980, a conservative in 1980, looking at why the Democrats might even consider nominating Kennedy I think obviously everybody is familiar with the mythology of the Kennedy’s and how appealing that is to Democrats. Maybe you don’t get it on an emotional level, but it’s much talked about.

Albert Mohler: I get it at a historical level. I get it at the observational level.

Jon Ward: Yeah. Right. I hope that the description of Teddy’s speech at the convention and “his dream will never die,” you know, the ending of that speech, I hope that that brings across some of the emotional wallop of it. I certainly understand it better now after having written this book. I think the other side of coin is just how alien Jimmy Carter was to so many portions of the Democratic party. He was really an outsider in so many ways. He was not from Washington. He didn’t have connections to Washington. And he kind of worked actively during his presidency to keep that that way. He didn’t want to be affiliated with the Washington establishment. His aides were both arrogant and insecure. They were young. They were immature. They kind of went out of their way to thumb their nose at people like Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

And so, you add all of that together, you put the fact that Carter has—I mean the year 1979 was just a terrible, horrific year…

Albert Mohler: Indeed.

Jon Ward: …for Jimmy Carter and for the country. And so, his political fortunes were so bad that the door was wide open to somebody, and it was kind of long enough since Chappaquiddick that the Kennedy campaign and the Kennedy inner circle thought, “Well maybe people have forgotten about this.” It turns out that they really hadn’t, but it was kind of part of their over confidence and arrogance and entitlement that led them to miscalculate on that, I think.

Albert Mohler: Let’s rewind history just a little bit and go back to 1976. Jimmy Carter emerges on the political horizon. One-term Governor of Georgia, and Georgia governors were term-limited then.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: And you know, at Thanksgiving, now infamously, he announces to the family that he’s going to run for president and his own mother, known to the country as Ms. Lillian, asked honestly, “President of what?” That’s how implausible it seemed even in 1974 that Jimmy Carter would be running for president. And yet you point out the fact that he was a man of indomitable will.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: And politically he worked the caucus and primary system, such that he really developed the modern way that presidents run for the office.

Jon Ward: That’s correct. You mentioned that 1968 was the first convention you remember, and that’s a really momentous convention year, because that’s the year that prompts massive changes to the way that our primaries function. This is another thing that being an English literature major with very little history in the process of politics, this was a revelation to me. That we haven’t always nominated presidents the way that we have. It bears some relevance to what we have seen, even with the way that Trump got elected, or got nominated, in 2016.

Albert Mohler: Right.

Jon Ward: You have a Republican party that the majority of the party doesn’t even want Trump to be the nominee. Well, before 1972, up until 1968, the party would have been able to really block somebody like Trump from being the nominee, but after ’68 that changes.

Albert Mohler: Yeah, and in 1968 the Democrats really did put forward an establishment choice with Hubert Humphrey, but the Republicans in 1968 also had the experience of all of a sudden having the primaries really determine at least from then onwards the nominee, because Richard Nixon who had just lost eight years previously to JFK, he actually wins and comes in with more primary votes than anyone else had in 1968 to the Republican Convention, which closed off the challenge from Ronald Reagan on the right and Nelson Rockefeller on the left. And so, from then on, on the Republican side also the primaries become so important.

But Jimmy Carter knows the playbook, and the Democratic party had to change its nominating process after the chaos and the riots of 1968.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: So, you arrive at 1976 and there’s a huge group of Democrats running for president, just massive.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: And Jimmy Carter is not on the front of anybody’s list.

Jon Ward: No, and I think, going back to your point about his comment to his mother and the early planning stages, it gets to his ambition and his will that he started planning for a run for president in 1972, I believe it is. I think that’s when the first conversations were with his kitchen cabinet. There were 17 candidates in 1976. Not quite as many as we have now in 2020, but very close. He was really considered to be—I guess if you were to compare him to somebody in the current Democratic field…. I don’t know. Who would be a good comparison for that. He’s not a quite a Yang. He’s more like maybe a Senator Bennet.

Albert Mohler:  Yeah.

Jon Ward: Or Bullock from Montana. That might be a good comparison. Sort of a rural, western state. Not really well known. Not close to the establishment, seaboard cities. He’s considered to be an afterthought, but because his campaign knows that you have to really focus on Iowa and then you have to run hard in every primary and focus on delegates they’re really prepared to outlast the other candidates. There’s an interesting story in the book as well about how some operatives from within the party, from within the state party in Florida get most of the candidates to stay out of the Florida primary so that they can get Carter to run head-to-head against George Wallace, so that they can kind of rid the South of the scourge of George Wallace and their linkage with the segregationist former governor of Alabama. That turns out to actually help Carter at a key moment where other candidates are starting to gain momentum.

Albert Mohler: Carter worked the caucuses. He could do the math in ways that the other primary candidates really had not. Kind of in the way that George H.W. Bush shocked the Republicans just a few years later. Turns out winning in Iowa matters.

Jon Ward: It does. I think people continue to…. Every four years we have a debate about whether we should de-emphasize Iowa caucuses or change the order. Is Iowa getting too much in terms of just financial reward and political reward from being there? They managed to stay there, and I think even with a crowded field this year, even with a primary that could end up being a longer primary because of proportional representation on the Democratic side, Iowa is going to play a big role again this year in terms of culling the field. Because that’s just the way it works. People come out of Iowa, you have expectations of who is going to win, who is going to lose, and a lot of times those expectations are upset.

Albert Mohler: So, I went to be a newspaper editor in Atlanta in 1989. So, Carter’s been out of office almost a decade and Carter’s cabinet and staff, but Georgia is still very much populated by people who were veterans of the Carter administration. One of the men I had to deal with, due to denominational issues was the former Attorney General of the United States, Griffin Bell.

What I discovered when I went to Georgia is that most Georgians who were politically active said they really didn’t know Jimmy Carter. It didn’t mean that they didn’t have an acquaintance with him. It’s just that they really didn’t know him. You talk about the fact that he really ran largely, at least in a pact with segregationists, when he successfully ran for governor, but he operated as governor as kind of a social liberal. In fact, you site Randall Balmer as saying basically that he redeemed himself from his race with his tenure in office. But it left people wondering if they really knew who Jimmy Carter was.

Jon Ward: You know, I’ve been thinking about this, his ’70 run for governor because of the backlash to Joe Biden’s about working with Senator Eastland in the Senate, who was a segregationist Mississippi Republican, because the import of Biden’s comments—I thought they were poorly phrased—but the principle behind them was that you have to work with people who you might disagree with and even think stand for things that are wrong and morally repugnant. Carter’s 1970 run for governor seems to be an example of that, because in 1966 he ran and lost and tried to basically run as a racial moderate, a racial progressive, where he reached out to African-Americans, and in 1970, after going through a spiritual awakening in the years in between, he runs this campaign that really courts the white supremacist vote, Lester Maddox and others, you know, people from the white citizens council groups and so on.

I asked Carter about this, and he made an interesting comment. He said, “I never made a racist comment, but I also didn’t do anything to irritate them.” So, he wins with their help and their votes were key to him winning. Then he turns around at the inaugural address, and he makes this famous comment, “The time for racial discrimination is over.” There are audible groans, according to newspaper accounts, in the crowd when he says that.

Albert Mohler: Yeah.

Jon Ward: Then he goes on to appoint a high number of minorities to government positions. His Law Day speech in 1973 or 1974—I forget which year that was, but that was the one where Kennedy was at—is just a whole scale indictment of the Georgia legal and political establishment for not doing enough to help the poor, to help people who are in jail. Somebody told me this the other day that I didn’t even know, that when he was president he and his administration cracked down on segregation academies in the South, which I think created some backlash among Southern states.

It raises all kinds of interesting questions about what kind of compromises one has to make sometimes to make progress. In politics those become pretty difficult questions.

Albert Mohler: Well, and they’re contextual. This was during the 1970s. And by the way, I only want to quibble with you a little bit. James Eastland was a Democrat. Not a Republican.

Jon Ward: Correct.

Albert Mohler: Yeah.

Jon Ward: Yeah. Somebody else actually just texted me the other day complaining about somebody on TV saying that.

Albert Mohler: Yeah no. He was a Dixiecrat until he left office.

Jon Ward:  Right.

Albert Mohler: You know, a conservative Democrat. As a matter of fact, with this controversy over Biden, I’m frustrated with the major media intentionally not mentioning that every single one of the Senators he’s criticized for communicating with were Democratic Senators with a very powerful hold on the Democratic caucus in the Senate. I don’t think most in the media are leaving that out by accident. And that really does change even the context of reporting on the current Biden controversy. This was not just a Senate issue. It was a Democratic-caucus-in-the-Senate issue. That hit my buttons. Sorry.

Jon Ward: No. That’s okay. Just to respond to that.

Albert Mohler: Yeah.

Jon Ward: I totally understand the technical objection, but I also don’t…. We don’t have to get in to it. There’s a whole debate on Twitter between different people about what it means that Dixiecrats kind of moved over to Republicans, but to me I don’t really feel that it’s that significant. I know other people get upset about it.

Albert Mohler: Well I mean, people like Eastland and Russel never did. Strom Thurmond did, but anyway. That’s another book you should write. Consider that an assignment.

But when it comes to Jimmy Carter, there was a will there that was present. One of the points that you make in your book, and I think brilliantly so in the narrative, is that that will did not exist in Edward Kennedy. Ted Kennedy out of kind of the logic of his family, you make clear, more or less had to run for president under the circumstances of the Democratic party in 1980. But in that now infamous, and I watched it live, that now infamous interview with Roger Mudd, when he was asked why he is running for president it’s the most awkward pause in the history of American politics. He didn’t know why.

Jon Ward:  If you don’t mind me asking, do you remember where you were when you watched that?

Albert Mohler: Yes, because I didn’t have many options. I was in the living room of my parents’ house. There weren’t that many rooms, and there was only one television set, so that’s where I was.

Jon Ward: So yes. I guess I’m not surprised that Al Mohler was watching Roger Mudd rather than Jaws that Sunday night.

Albert Mohler: No, that’s exactly right. I love, was it Bob Dole’s comment, that 75% of Americans watched Jaws, 25% watched the Roger Mudd interview, and they were watching the same movie.

Jon Ward: I think it goes back to, you have to kind of trace things back to the fact that when Ted Kennedy graduates from UVA Law school after the 1960 election, he and his recently wedded wife, Joan, they want to move out west. They want to go maybe to Arizona. Maybe go in to law. Maybe go in to politics. Instead of kind of charting his own path at that point, obviously that’s a move that would sort of take him out and away from his family’s reach, but his father tells him—he vetoes that. He says, “Nope. You have to go to Massachusetts ,and you have to get ready to basically be appointed or to run for the Senate in 1962. We’re going to appoint a placeholder.” From that moment his adult life and his career are really dictated by his father.

I think the other part that kind of gets to his lack of willfulness is that when you’ve kind of been given so much and not really allowed to exercise your will, perhaps that muscle deteriorates. I mean he was a child of a lot of privilege and then also was told what to do. I think it took him a long time in life to find a constructive way to channel much of his energy. He channeled much of his energy in to other pursuits that were immoral and destructive, whether it’s alcoholism or sleeping with a lot of other women besides his wife. I think towards the latter half of his life he found a lot of meaning in being a constructive legislator and working with Republicans. There was just so much complication to his life and a lot of tragedy too. I think you can’t overlook that as well.

Albert Mohler: That was the word I was about to use. And the tragedy I think people would assume would come with the horrifying deaths of so many of his siblings from the early 1940s on and in particular two political assassinations.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: But, you know, the tragedy really was so much earlier than that.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: In your book you cite that conversation that Senator Kennedy remembered in his memoirs, in which his father, when Ted was about 13 or 14, sat him down and said, “You can have a serious life or a non-serious life Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make, but if you decide to lead a non-serious life, I won’t have much time for you. You make up your mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.” Just as a father and as a son, that’s one of the most heartbreaking exchanges I’ve ever read.

Jon Ward: Yeah. There are many ways in which his father was not an admirable guy, but I was also struck as I learned about the ways in which him and his father, I think during the time that he was ambassador to the UK, did have times where they bonded. Joe Kennedy Senior is another complicated guy; he was also quite unfaithful to his wife, advocated for appeasement of Hitler. But he was a very loving affectionate father to his children as well.

Albert Mohler: He was a patriarch in his own way. That’s the best word for him. He was the patriarch of a dynasty that he created out of his will.

Jon Ward: Yeah. His willfulness is actually similar to Carter’s. I’ve actually never thought about that comparison, but his will to success, power, and money is really formidable.

Albert Mohler: We can go back to that Roger Mudd interview, CBS, with Ted Kennedy. By the way, the reason why most Americans, including I think the reason why I tuned in with such interest was that the network had teased that Roger Mudd was going to press him on Chappaquiddick.

Jon Ward: Oh, wow.

Albert Mohler: That was spell-binding, by the way, and horrifying. I myself barely 20 years old and it was just a horrifying moral documentary, and Kennedy completely failed to acquit himself in that interview. But it was subsequent to that that Roger Mudd asked him why he was running for president, and I won’t even read—as you recorded, it was a 336 word non-answer—and then you quote Roger Mudd as saying, “Oh my God. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know why he’s running.” And he didn’t.

Jon Ward: Yeah. You watched it in the moment. I went back, and I had to go to Nashville to find the full footage of this interview, and I watched it in its entirety. To me 40 years later, the thing that stood out was first 30 minutes, which was all about Chappaquiddick.

Albert Mohler: Right.

Jon Ward: I guess because I’ve read so many accounts of his answer to the question of “Why do you want to be president,” that was anti-climatic  because his answer, if you really do watch it without any pretense, is not great, but it’s also not as if he’s unable to answer it at all. There are words coming out of his mouth.

Albert Mohler: It’s the look on his face.

Jon Ward: They don’t add up to a lot. What’s that?

Albert Mohler: I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I just have to say, it’s the look on his face. It’s the panic in his eyes when he’s asked that question. You make this point in the book, I would put it a bit differently: if you’re going to run against an incumbent president of your own party, you have got to have a reason for running. You would think that if anyone would have an answer…. You go to the greatest moment of his rhetorical life, which was the 1980 Democratic convention “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech. If he had had that speech in his answer to Roger Mudd, he might well have won that nomination race.

Jon Ward: It’s possible. I think there’s circumstances. I think the House actually played a huge role in both keeping Kennedy from the nomination and keeping Carter from the presidency at the end of the day. Much like the economy often dictates the terms of an outcome of an election. I think if you want to look at the difference between his answer to Mudd and his speech at the Garden, it’s pretty obvious what the difference is. On the front end it’s like you’re just jumping into something that you just assumed was going to be a cake walk. You haven’t really done the hard work to think about the answer. All your life has been spent being given things on a silver platter. And ten months later, nine months later, he has gone through the gauntlet of a presidential primary where he has traveled the country, met a lot of regular Americans who you don’t meet in Washington, and really kind of looked himself in the mirror and decided maybe a little bit more who he actually is.

You also have to factor in the thing that Rob, Bob Shrum, told me which is that when he started off his campaign, they were already running a general election strategy figuring that they would be able to easily beat Jimmy Carter. And so they were already kind of running to the middle. What happens is after he loses Iowa, he gives the Georgetown speech in which he starts to move back towards a more full-throated defensive liberal Democratic values, and that’s also part of it. His heart is more in it as the campaign goes on, because he doesn’t have to fake it.

Albert Mohler: There’re so many things to talk about here. But you could argue that Roger Mudd had at least something to do with ending Kennedy’s political prospects for the nomination. You can also argue that Ted Koppel had something to do with Jimmy Carter losing the general election. With the Nightline and Ted Koppel. As I remember, then it didn’t even have a name. It was just this new news program, put at the end in order to review the Iran hostage crisis every night. He started giving a number. This the 111th day of the captivity of the American hostages in Iran. It was just a steady drumbeat.

You also talk about…. Let’s talk about Carter as president. It’s very difficult to come up with a philosophy of government that absolutely defines Carter. He was on so many issues very liberal, especially I think of the White House conference on families and events such as that. Carter’s support for the ERA and for abortion rights. Although, he stated that he was personally opposed to abortion. You see that argument that Cuomo would make quintessentially in 1984 at Notre Dame. But there’s also the sense in which it’s Jimmy Carter the hostage to an unbelievable array of circumstances in the United States and in the world just on the brink of the 1980s. It was really a very difficult time all around.

Jon Ward: Yeah, and those events came to a head in ’79. At the end of the year, you have the hostages taken, but in the spring and summer you have an energy crisis and inflation. And those two things together really put the screws to Americans. The energy crisis and the gas lines and then eventually riots kind of put the country on edge in a way that I imagine felt a little bit similar to the race riots and assassinations of the ’60s. And probably prompted some PTSD on the part of many Americans, because you had these gas lines where people would have to wait—this happened in ’73—but they had to wait sometimes hours, sometimes overnight to get gas. Violence broke out. People were getting stabbed and shot. There was a truckers’ strike.

And so there was a sense of sort of the country coming apart. This is what all leads up to the “Malaise Speech.” Carter is away. He’s in Asia. I think it’s significant that he’s been traveling for much of a month and has these three or four days scheduled to be in Hawaii to kind of get some down time and to actually rest. They have to cut it in to about an hour. Talk about a sense of being overwhelmed. You come back from that much travel to the other side of the world and you’re not thinking straight. You’re not thinking clearly. He comes back to confront this crisis. He disappears to Camp David and does the 10-day Camp David Summit and then gives the Malaise speech, which by the way, I actually found the Malaise speech to be quite a good speech to be honest.

Albert Mohler: A lot of people thought it was immediately after it was given.

Jon Ward: Right. Yes. But it’s not remembered as such.

Albert Mohler: No, and he never even used the word “malaise.”

Jon Ward: Correct.

Albert Mohler: Rather the word “malaise” kind of became the definitional word of the speech, but the problem—and this gets to a huge question of consequence—the problem was that Jimmy Carter still appeared to be a victim of circumstances, unable to get on top of the political equation, with a chaotic administration, that he had helped make more chaotic, and with messaging that was going in every direction. The political challenge to him in his own party didn’t come from the right. It came from the left. I want you to help put that in context. How was it that in 1980 the left that had been electorally destroyed in 1972 in the McGovern race, it came back in Teddy Kennedy? It’s just a huge part of the Democratic party’s identity. Try to explain that. You do it in your book very well.

Jon Ward: I think what you’re talking about is the section where I talk…. I lean pretty heavily on Tom Edsall and Mary Edsall’s book, Chain Reaction, where they talk about the fact that Watergate in ’74 gave Democrats a false sense of confidence. They, as we often are in whatever moment we are living in, could not see the tectonic plates shifting underneath them in terms of electoral constituencies and coalitions and the South moving wholesale against Democrats and over to the Republicans. And so, because of Watergate, they felt like momentum was on their side, the wind was at their backs, and the country shared their values.

One of the things I found most interesting was that a day or two after Kennedy’s speech at the convention in August of 1980, the New York Times’s editorial page—which is more liberal now than it was then, but it’s always been to the left—talked about how Kennedy’s liberalism was out of step with the times. This was the ’70s, as you know because you lived it, was sort of a backlash to the excesses of the ’60s and all of this turmoil in ’79 even made people hungry for stability and for a leader who projected strength and optimism.

Albert Mohler: It does tell us something really interesting that in the year 2019 a book about the presidential election of 1980 is this compelling and makes this conversation so interesting. And in some sense, it does look like we are looking back through the lens of history at a time now largely forgotten by many Americans and frankly that happened long before most Americans were yet born. But at the same time, it also looks strangely like the headlines of today and that’s another part of the story.

Well, looking at the insurgent left you might say, it really did represent in a lot of ways though, also the power of the Democratic party establishment that always saw Carter as an outsider. He declared himself to be. In one sense, Senator Edward Kennedy was the consummate insider, and oddly enough, ironically, he continued that throughout the entirety of his career in the Senate and lasted many, many years after Jimmy Carter left the White House. There are so many ironies in this story.

Jon Ward: Yeah. I found that interesting too, that it was an insurgency against the incumbent, by the establishment. I think that’s what you’re getting at, right?

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Jon Ward: Yeah. I found that interesting too. I think a lot of categories are flipped in that way. I find it interesting to think about the comparisons between Trump and Carter, because there are similarities in the way that they both despise the establishment. They both despise the Washington insider. I think one difference between them is that even when things are chaotic that kind of works to Trump’s advantage, and part of that is the time in which we live, but whereas with Carter chaos just reflected very badly on him. He did not have the kind of personality that could deal with that or project through that a sense of control, whereas Trump sort of thrives on chaos. It’s a very interesting contrast.

Albert Mohler: Yeah. I didn’t mean to jump so quickly to the present. But to continue that thought, I’ve had the reflection that Jimmy Carter was an interregnum in the Democratic party’s power and the structural influences.

Jon Ward: Yes.

Albert Mohler: I think Donald Trump is a redefinition on the Republican side. I don’t think there is an old Republican party structure just waiting to step back in after Donald Trump. I think it is a different end game.

Jon Ward: Yeah. And there has also been people who have said that Trump might be similar to Carter in the sense, and I don’t know that this is true, but the theory is that Carter represents sort of a final fracturing of the coalition that held Democrats in power from the New Deal to Reagan. For about 50 years they were in control of Congress for most of that time. They didn’t hold the presidency in as much of a dominant way, but they certainly held it at times, but they really did control the Congress for all 50 of those years. Others have said Trump represents sort of a similar breaking-up of traditional Republican constituencies. He’s certainly remaking the party. I don’t think Republicans have dominated politics for the last 40 years, like Democrats did for the previous 50.

Albert Mohler: True.

Jon Ward: But there is an interesting way in which…. I mean people are going to debate this actually for decades. What this actually represents. It certainly is a radical shift in the party.

Albert Mohler: Yeah and a lot of it will have to do with whether or not Donald Trump wins a second term.

Jon Ward: That’s true.

Albert Mohler: Because that redefines a presidency. No one knew that better than either Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush. A two-term president doesn’t get to write his own history, but a one-term president gets to write very little of that history. It’s all written on to that one term.

As you think about Ted Kennedy, and we think about liberalism in the Democratic party, this old school liberalism that Ted Kennedy became the representative icon for. How do you read the insurgency? I’ll just put it this way, what appears to be a demonstrated leftward shift in the Democratic party now? I wanted to ask you, you’re a senior political correspondent now, how much continuity and how much discontinuity exists between the liberalism of a Ted Kennedy and the liberalism of many of the Democratic candidates now?

Jon Ward:  It’s a great question. I have…. Writing this book presented that question in a different form, which at the time that I was writing it the form of the question was: where does Barack Obama sit in the trajectory of the Democratic party? If you look at Kennedy in the ’70s and into the ’80s and then Clinton and then Obama, it’s hard to chart the course there. It’s not exactly clear, but what I do think is clear is that I think candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders…. I think they are in some ways throwbacks to the kind of liberalism that Kennedy and other Democrats of that era stood for.

Because if you isolate out economic policy and their focus on income equality and their focus on the poor, that’s different than what Bill Clinton talked about, which was the middle class. I just read Steve Kornacki’s book, The Red and the Blue, and had him on my podcast. Obama did this as well. Clinton and Obama, the two Democratic presidents between Carter and now, they talked about the middle class. What we see now, the Poor People’s campaign here in DC, you have the conference this last Monday talking about the poor, and that’s a shift. I think one of the things that has caused the Democrats to potentially move away from a focus on the poor versus the middle class, the theory anyway is that starting in the mid-’80s and into the Clinton-era Democrats, in order to keep up with Republicans, started taking more money from corporations, then from Wall Street. That’s one way in which I think you can connect modern-day Democrats to Ted Kennedy.

On social issues, I think there’s also some connections. Teddy Kennedy was talking about gay rights back in that time period, which not a lot of people were doing that back then. Teddy, I believe I didn’t look a lot in to this, you might remember more about this than I do, but I believe on abortion he was pro-life at one point or close to it. Does that sound right to you?

Albert Mohler: Well all the Kennedys were.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: Until basically…. It was the Robert Kennedy candidacy in 1968 that led them to convene, the Kennedy family, to convene a group of Catholic theologians at Hyannis Port in order to find a way. That’s when post-Vatican II, they came up with the idea that a Catholic politician could have basically two different dimensions. They could be privately opposed to abortion, but not to impose that by means of government, till there was a consensus. That was the argument from the late 1960s.

Jon Ward: Okay.

Albert Mohler: But by the time you get to the present, the most amazing thing right now is that you’re not going to find a major Democrat saying… I mean look at what’s happened to Joe Biden on the Hyde Amendment. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat now saying that abortion is a moral wrong, even as their personal conviction. That I think is a huge shift. Teddy Kennedy died before that shift in the party.

Jon Ward: That’s true. I’ve been exploring this very issue on my podcast. I interviewed Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who is part of the Poor People’s Campaign. He grew up in rural North Carolina as a conservative white Evangelical. He’s now obviously, a progressive Christian. We talked about some of the things that Reverend William Barber was doing to kind of create distance between the Democratic candidates and his organization. A lot of this is sort of asking the crowd at their event not to applaud in a rally form. He also asked Pete Buttigieg to move into the crowd at a rally in front of the White House. Sort of these interesting symbolic moves.

But I asked Jonathan about prophetic distance when it comes to policy, and he talked about…. Because I do think that you can make a critique of conservative evangelicalism as not having enough prophetic distance from the Republican party or from politics in general, but I asked Jonathan, what are progressives doing in Christianity to maintain that distance? He talked about immigration a little bit, but I pressed him on abortion and there wasn’t a whole lot of distance between his position on abortion and the Democratic party’s.

I had a conversation with another person about the fact that there just isn’t a lot of willingness to grapple with the issue of when life begins, which there’s a lot of complexity in my view to the abortion issue in terms of politics. But on the left there’s not a lot of willingness to grapple with that question, which makes it sort of just two sides hurling invective at each other.

Albert Mohler: Yeah.

Jon Ward: I mean that’s part of why it is that way.

Albert Mohler: One of the worldview exercises I do with students, is that I sometimes hand them the 1960 platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties, but I take the title page off and black out the party names. When you look at most of the positions of 1960, you really have a hard time knowing “Is this the Democratic platform, or is this the Republican platform?”.

Jon Ward:  Right.

Albert Mohler: There is this massive Cold War consensus of the 1950s and ’60s. And that holds together on many issues for a very long time. ’72 is a radical departure in the McGovern platform, but on abortion this is… By now a part of my Augustinian reading of history is that political parties, when left to their own devices, follow their own logic more consistently. I think that’s what’s happening. We’ve got a secularizing—and I don’t mean this in a partisan sense, just as objectively as I can—we’ve got a more secularizing, progressionist party living and kind of following out that logic. At the same time, you’ve got…. When you look at some of the bills being passed by states like Alabama and human personhood bills, heartbeat bills, this is the logic of a pro-life position now embraced by the Republican party working its way out. It’s not even everywhere.

But there is, at this point, no external pressure to prevent the two parties from moving in these two directions towards their own worldview consistency. I think that’s what’s different. There’s not a Soviet Union looming as a great threat. That maintained a certain consensus. I don’t know what this means for the future of America, but it does make me look back to 1980 with the thought, in some ways it looks kind of quaint now.

Jon Ward: Oh, yeah.

Albert Mohler: Because despite all the conflict in your book, which makes the book so fascinating, and despite the fact that Jimmy Carter lost in this massive landslide to Ronald Reagan and that as you say, is kind of the bigger story, the reality is that both the left and the right still had a common enemy in 1980.

Jon Ward: Right.

Albert Mohler: And so, there was a huge foreign policy consensus still in 1980.

Jon Ward: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: And on many other issues, it’s just a different age.

Jon Ward: Yeah. When I started writing the book it was 2013, 2014. And all of the drama in the book actually seemed really significant, and it still does as you said, in some ways, but in the time in between 2014 and now, with the rise of Trump and all the ways that that has rippled through our politics and our country, we’re in a radically different time even from four years ago. I just want to say one other thing about abortion. I think the Democrats, because of Trump, I think the Democrats could have an opportunity to pick up a lot of voters who are religious, who are Christian, maybe other faiths who are maybe even conservative on some things. I know there’s plenty of young people who are evangelicals who probably would be interested in voting Democratic, but I think the abortion issue is one area that’s really hard for a lot of people to get over. I think the Democrats’ inflexibility on that is costing them some votes. I don’t know how many, but I know it’s not a small number.

Albert Mohler: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. I made the same point on The Briefing. I think we’ll come back to it again and again. It does not make sense from a general election standpoint, but one of the points that your book made, I mean the entire premise of your book is, you can’t talk about the general election until you get to win the nomination. That’s the big story that makes your book so fascinating. What it will take to win the Democratic nomination in 2020, might well be what it takes to lose the general election on issues like this. That’s a particular problem for the Democratic party. Again, I don’t mean that in a partisan way, but that was the problem in ’72. It’s the problem again.

Jon Ward: Yeah. This is why I think the way that we structure our primaries is so important. I think worth more of a conversation than what we have. I don’t think I would ever advocate for going back to the old system, but there are values in the old system that relate to… that are actually federalist in nature, that relate to the way that the Federalist Papers lay out the way our government should work, that include more inputs for people with experience and expertise in politics to have a say in who their party, which is a private a group, not a constitutionally-designated system—they would have more say in who their party nominates, because they would have more of a sense of who could actually win and govern well. And I think right now we have democratized our primaries so much on both sides, that it’s really just run by people who are average consumers of politics, some at the grassroots and some not. I don’t think it helps us nominate people who are our best choices.

Albert Mohler:  I am actually in total agreement with that. Oddly enough, I think on the Republican side the person to blame in one sense is Teddy Roosevelt, who pushed for such reforms as he established it in the Republican party, to democratize it, to take it out of the hands of party bosses. I agree with you. I think they’re federalist reasons based upon that logic to have more of a House and Senate approach to the party-nomination process.

By the way, oddly enough, even in 2016 it was the Democratic party that had that with the so-called super delegates. But the opposition to that was such that that party has now changed its policies, probably to make the problem worse. The party probably would not be pushed in such a liberal direction in ’20, if you still had the grandies of the party with at least outsized influence. So here we are again. It’s 1972 in America.

Jon Ward: That’s absolutely right. I will just say, Jonathan Rauch at Brookings, who writes for the Atlantic and other places, he’s done some of the best writing at the popular level about this idea of the fact that we’ve democratized our primaries so much that actually the outcomes of the primaries are less democratic, because they don’t serve the majority of the country. They serve a small minority of the country. The hardcore devotees of each party.

Albert Mohler: It has been so much fun to talk with you. I really appreciate the conversation. And all good things must come to an end, but before we conclude I want to ask you the question that hangs over the end of your book. That is, are we the creatures of our own character and personality to the extent that…. By the time you reach the end of your book, Kennedy is more Kennedy than ever before, and even in his post-presidency you kind of make the point that Carter is more Carter than ever before. This raises theological issues for me. I had to ponder these, and I wanted to throw it to you.

Jon Ward: When you say Kennedy is more Kennedy, what does that mean?

Albert Mohler: Well, he comes to define himself, saying “I am the liberal conscience of the Democratic party.” He owns the fact that he’s going to be the lion of the Senate. He decides he’s Teddy now. He’s not just the brother of Jack and Bobby. He’s Teddy Kennedy. He’s the patriarch in his own sense, and like you say, his private life, even in the latter days was chaotic, especially with all the Florida escapades. But his public life was pretty much a political straight line, and he stayed in the Senate until he died. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter out of office and with the most influential post-presidency of any president since Theodore Roosevelt, again he seems to become ever more Jimmy Carter by your telling of the story.

Jon Ward: What is the theological question out of that? I think I’m getting a sense of it.

Albert Mohler: I think…personal identity. I mean I think we would like to think that maybe we change more over time than we do. One of the big questions is whether we just become so much ourselves that we…. And obviously as a Christian I believe that it’s a different story for Christians, by the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and conforming us to Christ. Just in this grand scope of history, I don’t know, it just seems like a certain form of the fact that the decisions we make early in life, the character we take on early in life, the personality that we first introduce to the public may well be only amplified by the time that they say something at our funeral.

Jon Ward: Well, you know, I’ll reference an interesting comment from Tim Keller’s book on marriage, which is…he says that if we are married for any long period of time, we end up being married to three, four, five different people over the course of our marriage. Maybe you disagree with that based on what you just said. I’m not quite sure. But I guess my take, if you want to use Kennedy as an example, is…. Was he more himself at the end because of the decisions he made early in his life? I don’t know that I would see it that way. I’m not really interpreting this through a christological or theological sense, but I just think from a humanistic point of view, if that’s the right term, I think he overcame some real challenges in his character, in his upbringing, and in the context of his life. I think he endured.

His life is a mixed bag, but as a writer of history there’s a quote from Karl Barth early in the book, that we owe the subjects that we write about a sense of empathy and understanding and grace. That’s the way I attempted to approach it.

Albert Mohler: Well, Jon, I think you succeeded and you’re just really good at very insightful and compelling narrative. That’s true in your political writing.

Jon Ward: Thank you very much.

Albert Mohler: You’re welcome. It’s true in your political writing as well as in this book. But my final question is going to be, what is next? I know you’ve got to have another project you’re working on.

Jon Ward: Well, I have thought about writing a book about growing up evangelical, but that’s only an idea at this point. I’ve long been interested in the ways that the context in which I grew up in, which was charismatic Christianity in the late ’70s and ’80s, became kind of set in to the reform circles around the turn of the century, the ways that politics interacts with evangelicalism. You know, I grew up at a time when the Moral Majority was pretty powerful. I didn’t ever find the Moral Majority to be compelling, but there’s just a lot to the last 40 years of evangelical Christianity, and I have my own experience, and there’s the broader political and cultural lens. So, that’s an idea I’m kicking around, but it’s not very far along right now.

Albert Mohler: Well, it’s interesting. I will tell you what I say to other writers that I find very powerful and compelling. You write it, I’ll read it, and we’ll talk about it.

Jon Ward: Very good. Well, I really appreciate you having me one. Thank you very much.

Albert Mohler: Jon, thanks for being with us today for Thinking in Public.

I’m so glad Jon Ward was with me for this conversation today. Like so many of the books I read, my copy of Camelot’s Endis thoroughly marked. I have underlining and highlighting and words written in the margins. I have my own notation system. I look at this book and I want to talk about something on almost every page. And it’s because this is an unfolding narrative, written with a great deal of both historical and political insight. I should say, that it’s also written with biographical insight. We see the story of two men, Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy, facing off in a presidential nomination race that reshaped history.

We are looking at a specific time. We’re looking at the late 1970s and then the pivotal year 1980. We are looking at two different massive political parties of tremendous influence, most importantly in this case, looking at the inner workings and dynamic of the Democratic party in that transition from the ’70s to the ’80s. When we’re talking about personalities, there are few personalities more interesting than the two major figures in this book, Senator Edward Kennedy and former President Jimmy Carter. They’re an amazing pair. It made the 1980 Democratic presidential race not only epic, but still a matter of interest even now, in the year 2019. We’re talking about almost 40 years later.

But we’re also talking as a new presidential election cycle stares us in the face. We’re watching the Democratic presidential nomination race taking shape right now. You can draw a line from 1980 to 2020 and that’s a 40-year period that finds Americans doing the very same thing all over again. Some of those connections are obvious, some less obvious, but the only way to know them is to read the book. That’s why I put the situation as I did at the end of the conversation. It’s what I say to authors. You write the book, I’ll read the book, and then we’ll talk about the book. I enjoyed doing just that today with Jon Ward.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public, you will find more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.