It happened on a bright summer morning 30 years ago this week. I was present at the moment when Ted Kennedy's campaign for the presidency suddenly imploded – almost before the race had even begun.
In August of 1979, Kennedy was the overwhelming favorite to seize the Democratic nomination for president. The incumbent Jimmy Carter – staggered by soaring gas prices and a hostage crisis – seemed poised for a knockout by the last surviving brother of America's storied political dynasty. And then, all of a sudden, Kennedy's aura of inevitability was unexpectedly shattered.
On the lawn of the family's compound in Hyannis Port, Kennedy was about to give the first television interview of his nascent campaign to Roger Mudd of CBS. As a young reporter for LIFE Magazine, I was listening in the wings with photographer Co Rentmeester. (Listening and trying to hide from the CBS producer – who was livid that we had crashed what he thought was his exclusive party). We were awaiting our own turn to take pictures and ask questions of the all-but-declared candidate for president.
As the cameras rolled, Mudd popped the now-famous question: Why do you want to be president? Even if he had not been a Kennedy, what followed was stunning: a hesitant, rambling and incoherent nonanswer; it seemed to go on forever without arriving anywhere. Mudd threw another softball, and Kennedy swung and missed again. On the simple question that would define him and his political destiny, Kennedy had no clue.
When it was over, Mudd took off his microphone and wandered down to the seawall alone. I followed him. To my amazement, the man then considered Walter Cronkite's heir apparent seemed convinced his interview was a bust. "You really think it went all right?" he kept asking. "I don't know. Kennedy's tough. He just doesn't give you anything."
I told him I was sure that Kennedy's stunning incoherence on the eve of his presidential campaign would be a huge story. (And, I realized to my chagrin, it was a story only television could capture; I couldn't possibly convey in print what had just happened on videotape.)
And then it was my turn. Hustled into a limo, I was suddenly alone with Kennedy for the 10-minute ride to the Hyannis Port dock; the family sailboat, and Ted's son Patrick, had been waiting there for hours. It seems unthinkable now, but Kennedy had no entourage or handlers; there was nothing like today's phalanx of twittering advance people, Blackberrys blinking, who specialize in stopping interviews, and freezing reporters with icy glares.
My notes of that ride with Kennedy, if there were any, have vanished. But they hardly matter. Because Kennedy was practically speechless. To my prepared questions, he gave a couple of perfunctory, rote answers – but mostly he stared straight ahead, his mind far, far away. We rode in awkward silence much of the way to the dock.
What was the meaning of that thousand-yard stare? Did Kennedy know something that Mudd did not? Did he realize that he had just mangled a question so badly on national television that it would torpedo his presidential chances? Most intriguing of all, did Kennedy want it that way? Was it, consciously or otherwise, an act of political self-destruction?