Why Kennedy Withdrew From 1984 Race

It came up at the dining table on the tennis court, sailing on Nantucket Sound. All through Thanksgiving weekend, conversation at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port kept returning to one subject and one subject only: should Edward Moore Kennedy, 50, scion of the nation's most political family, make a run for the presidency in 1984? Throughout the holiday, Kennedy was clearly a man balancing his family's powerful political legacy with the demands of the family itself—especially those of his own three children for a father free from the stress and threats of yet another campaign. "All three kids felt strongly about it," said one of Kennedy's aides later. "The Thanksgiving holiday had a big impact on the senator."

According to some family members, Kennedy already knew what his decision would be shortly after returning to this country from a European holiday that followed his Senate re-election. But last week he made it formal and unequivocal. "For the members of my family the 1980 campaign was sometimes a difficult experience," he told a crowd of reporters and well-wishers in the Senate Labor Committee hearing room of the Dirksen Office Building last week. "And it is very soon to ask them to go through it all again." He said his wife, Joan, and he were divorcing at last, a painful process for the whole family; for the time being his "first and overriding obligation" was to his children. "I would not be a candidate in 1984, nor would I accept a draft in 1984 for the presidency or the vice presidency," Kennedy said.

The children—Patrick, 15, Teddy Jr., 21, and Kara, 22—sat directly before their father as he spoke, silently seconding this most difficult decision. Kennedy himself was confident and disarmingly direct—a commanding presence even as he gave up—for the time being, at least—the goal that had consumed him more or less continuously for the last 14 years.

If it was clearly premature to write off his presidential hopes in 1988 or 1992—at 50, Kennedy can well afford to wait—there was little doubt that his withdrawal marked a political watershed of sorts. For liberals, the dream that Kennedy would lead them back to Camelot was once again deferred: House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill confessed that he was "surprised as hell" at Kennedy's decision, and many others were equally stunned. By the estimates of most party pros, the contest for the Democratic nomination was now a wide-open affair, and some speculated that Kennedy's announcement might also speed resolution of a battle between old-line liberals and new-style "Atari" Democrats for their party's ideological soul. For those already in the race—especially former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Sens. John Glenn of Ohio, Gary Hart of Colorado, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Alan Cranston of California—there was a sudden scramble to pick up pieces of Kennedy's dominant support. "This is the first time since 1968 that we've had the front runner drop out," said Ohio Democratic Chairman Paul Tipps, a Glenn supporter. "That creates tremendous opportunities and tremendous vacuums."

Liabilities: Beyond the family issue, some saw Kennedy's announcement as evidence that he had finally recognized his political liabilities—Chappaquiddick and the character issue, the residue of his bitter campaign against Jimmy Carter, the fading appeal of his unyielding liberalism—and cautiously folded his hand. "All the problems that were there in 1980 would be there in '83 and '84," said Peter Goelz, a former Carter supporter in New Hampshire. "I think he made a wise decision in sitting it out." Indeed, there were persuasive reports that his political problems—as judged by pols and polls—were more severe than Kennedy or his aides admitted publicly; at least some of his close advisers, NEWSWEEK learned, had counseled against another presidential attempt.

His administrative assistant, Dr. Lawrence Horowitz, was consistently pessimistic about his chances; Edward Martin, who runs his Boston office, worried about the strain of yet another campaign. Another old friend—a ranking veteran of the New Frontier—says he advised Kennedy that 1984 was simply not his year. "I spoke to him about the state of the economy and the shape the party was in, and the fact that he was still squarely in the liberal end of the party spectrum," he said. "I seriously questioned whether these factors were compatible with a presidential bid at this time." Kennedy, he says, did not argue.

Yet the family had to be foremost in Kennedy's mind, which may have been all but made up even before the latest round of polls and political readings from Iowa, Illinois, New Hampshire and Massachusetts could be analyzed by his staff. Nephew Robert F. Kennedy Jr, 28, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, says Teddy seemed largely decided on not running "before Thanksgiving." Teddy, he said, "does a lot of self-analysis and introspection that even his close aides don't know about ... He was acutely sensitive, perhaps oversensitive to the needs of the children." But it would be difficult for any father to ignore the needs and desires of youngsters like Kennedy's, who have coped with so much strain, pain and public exposure already. One family friend, indeed, recalling Kennedy's eulogy for his brother Robert in 1968, says Teddy's children "live with awful memories that form a dark vision of still another requiem mass in yet another cathedral"—but this time for their father.

Younger than many of their cousins in the clan, Teddy's children may have less sense of their slain uncles and the family's traditional dedication to politics and service. Yet all three took part in the 1980 campaign, and if—as Kennedy said in an interview with NEWSWEEK last week—they "learned a lot about the country," they learned about its haters as well. Appearing in New York for her father, for example, Kara was accosted by a brutally insensitive Kennedyphobe who reminded her that her father had "killed a young girl about your age." Patrick's vivid fears of yet another Kennedy assassination prompted his father to call him from the road every night. All in all, they are three kids as notable for their normalcy as for their stamina:

Challenge: The divorce was expected by all parties to mean additional stress on the Kennedy kids. Joan "has never really been in their lives before," says one source close to the family. "They are grown kids and they are having to absorb things that other kids had settled years earlier; for the first time they are faced with the challenge of a real relationship with their mother." Joan, for her part, is "aggressively moving back into the parent role," according to one close friend; she dines once a week with Kara and spends evenings with Patrick.

Formally separated from her husband in 1978, Joan moved from Washington back to Boston to overcome her longstanding alcohol problem and build a life of her own. Her appearance with Teddy during the 1980 campaign was less a reconciliation than a temporary political partnership, and after working gallantly in his behalf she returned to Boston and her private life. Very much her own woman these days, she also jogs, mixes in the worlds of publishing, theater and ballet and shares private hours with Dr. Gerald Aronoff, director of a special pain unit at Massachusetts Rehabilitation Hospital.

Joan was with the family in Hyannis Port for Thanksgiving, but not really part of the decision-making process, Kennedy sources say. It was the children of the clan who figured most prominently in that. They listened to Senate aide Horowitz argue "the case for running"—including a forecast on the nation's economy and an optimistic reading of the polls. "I'm not so concerned about the poll data, I'm concerned about what it [a new presidential drive] would do to us," said one of Robert Kennedy's children. "I think it was the conversations with his kids, and especially when he drew out the depths of Patrick's feelings, that was decisive," said another of the senator's aides. By the time Horowitz left, he said, "I knew he wasn't going to run."

Returning to Washington last week, Kennedy summoned his senior staff for a final review. "I want to hear again why you folks think I should go," said Ted. They told him: the campaign team was all but in place, the money was already coming in, the nomination was his for the taking. "I'd agree, if it were strictly a political judgment," he said. As press secretary Robert Shrum said later, "You had to be dense not to get it." That evening Teddy talked to other family members—Ethel Kennedy, Eunice and Sargent Shriver—and in the morning, he called Horowitz, Shrum and aide Carey Parker to his home. "Let's get it over with," he said. "I suppose we better work on a statement." Shrum pulled out a draft he had done the day before. "Well, that's already done," Kennedy said, and they all laughed.

That evening Kennedy began making courtesy calls to those who should know before his formal announcement. He called Tip O'Neill, who was flabbergasted, and Fritz Mondale, who was not. (Mondale, in fact, had told friends earlier in the day that something's up with Ted Kennedy.") "God, Fritz, after spending the day at your side in Boston I knew it was a hopeless quest," Kennedy joshed. "Well, I tried not to overdo it," Mondalejoshed back. Kennedy also called John Glenn, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne and Harold Hughes, the former Iowa senator whom he had just recruited to run the campaign in the Iowa caucuses of 1984. "After I listened to his struggles and emotion, I was happy he had the strength to choose his family over the office," said Hughes, who had clearly been left in the lurch. "This must have been a tough one for him—and he's had his share of tough ones."

The tough one now may be settling back to concentrate on his Senate career—but last week Kennedy seemed to be doing just that. The day after announcing his withdrawal from the race, he walked into a Senate steering committee and got a standing ovation from his Democratic colleagues. He also arranged a new assignment to the Armed Services Committee, which exercises enormous influence over costly and complex matters of national defense. It is a bailiwick most liberals avoid, but Kennedy—who reiterated his commitment to the nuclear-freeze movement during his press conference last week—says he wants the intellectual challenge of mastering hostile terrain. At the same time, he may well be able to exercise influence over the 1984 presidential race and the convention. "Whatever he says will carry tremendous weight," says California polling expert Mervin Field. "He may be more powerful as a kingmaker than as a candidate."

There was no way to know when—or if—Kennedy himself would ever run again. One baffled Massachusetts Democrat concluded last week that he simply lacks the "fire in the gut" to make another bid for the White House, but few ofhis close associates would agree: just as Kennedy retains a powerful hold on the voting public, so the White House retains a powerful hold on him. "He may get antsy from time to time as the presidential drama unfolds," a friend said. "But he'll know that he can always run for president again, while he can never get another chance to steer his kids through rough times. I think his solace is that he'll be able to look at himselfin the mirror over the next couple of years and say, 'Well done'."