Ted Kennedy: The Day the Presidency Was Lost

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

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."

Ted Kennedy's Run for President

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?

To be sure, there were other obstacles between Ted Kennedy and the presidency in 1980: the taint of the Chappaquiddick scandal; a terribly divided party; and a Republican opponent named Ronald Reagan. But when Kennedy's interview with Mudd aired in the fall of 1979, the impact was devastating, electric. Kennedy was running all right. But he was running with no message, no reason he could articulate for wanting to be president.

I don't know what Kennedy was thinking during our limo ride that day. But I will always suspect that – despite the battle he waged for the nomination in the months ahead – on that August morning Kennedy knew something: The campaign was over. His heart just wasn't in it. He knew the game was up.

Kennedy Legacy

When we arrived at the dock that morning, I tried to coax Kennedy to recreate an iconic pose his brothers had struck for LIFE. Would he take off his shoes and walk along the beach while photographer Rentmeester snapped pictures? (A LIFE cover had captured Bobby skipping at the water's edge, his footprints trailing in the sand.) "I don't think I want to do that," Kennedy protested.

It wasn't that he thought such poses would feel staged. It was that he wanted to be his own man. "My brothers were associated with those images," he said. Kennedy posed for a few pictures on the dock. And with that, he clambered into the sailboat.

We watched as the lines were cast off, the sails flapped in the breeze and the boat edged away. Ted Kennedy's ill-fated campaign had just begun. And as his boat disappeared into the harbor, a secret service boat trailed in its wake.

Chris Whipple is creator and senior producer of the ABC News series "What Would You Do?"

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events