Ted Kennedy: The Day the Presidency Was Lost

A young reporter listens in as Ted Kennedy flubs simple, but key question.

ByABC News
August 28, 2009, 1:34 PM

Aug. 31, 2009— -- 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."