Never before had a First Lady assumed such a presidential role as did Rosalynn Carter in the months leading up to the August 1980 Democratic National Convention that saw the nomination of her husband, incumbent President Jimmy Carter, for a second term.
The problem was that the President was “in the Rose Garden,” a euphemism for the fact that ongoing national crises were keeping him in Situation Room meetings and conferences that were too important to miss.
At that point, Iranian militants had stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and taken the US citizens there as hostages. On top of this, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
An the greater political challenge was the candidacy of U.S. Senator Edward “Teddy” Kennedy against her husband for the Democratic presidential nomination.
So, the First Lady did not merely go to register his name as a candidate in the New Hampshire primary but delivered complex policy speeches. She went to campaign in Iowa for its caucuses and faced farmers angry over President Carter’s grain embargo.
Twice a week, she spent on the campaign trail, developing a standard stump speech but always writing a new lead that reflected her daily phone contact with the White House to keep abreast of changing international developments that she could include in her public remarks.
Relieved at the win in Iowa, Rosalynn Carter assumed Teddy Kennedy would soon drop out. But he refused to.
As the ultimate surrogate of the President, it was the First Lady who now took him on directly on the campaign trail, countering his claims and charges against Carter.
She was elated when Carter won Illinois, despite the last-minute shift in allegiance by Chicago major Jane Byrne who came out for Kennedy.
The New York primary proved to be a hurdle.
As he campaigned through the Empire State, Teddy Kennedy called on his famous sister-in-law, the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and she headlined fundraisers in the New York City boroughs, targeting Greek and Puerto Rican constituencies.
It proved to have a positive effect, and Kennedy won New York.
Despite Jackie’s efforts to coax him into withdrawing after the victory against what she foresaw as an impossible challenge which she detected he did not really have the heart to pursue, Teddy Kennedy kept on hitting hard against Carter and onto the late spring primaries.
On the campaign trail, Mrs. Carter forged ahead – through allergic reactions, a hotel fire, a mouth sore from constant speeches and press conferences.
She was admittedly “tense and nervous” during a day trip that included campaign stops in Tennessee, Texas and Michigan, all the while knowing that the President was managing a secret rescue mission attempt of the hostages.
When she returned to the White House, the President told her she would not be able to campaign the next day. The mission failed with an air crash, killing eight. As if things could not get worse, there came a flood of Cuban refugees.
Rosalynn Carter was still concerned about the fact that Teddy Kennedy would not drop is challenge, a situation that deepened when he petitioned for a change in the National Democratic Convention rules, hoping to have it turned into an “open” one where delegates were released from the pledge commitments they made during the state primaries.
Taking a much-needed break at Sapelo Island in Georgia with her husband, Mrs. Carter began the week of Monday, July 15 watching the Republican National Convention and its nomination of Ronald Reagan as the presidential candidate.
On occasion, she recalled, she had to leave the room when attacks on her husband and his policies became too strident. Still, she felt an odd comfort that he would be the general election challenger to Jimmy, for she didn’t agree with any of his espoused policies and couldn’t see how he might be elected.
On the third day of the Republican Convention, came word of her brother-in-law Billy Carter having been discovered to be an unregistered lobbyist for the nation of Libya. While the Carters were intending to now focus more intently on the convention, they had to stop and, at the request of attorneys, begins searching their own records for any potential contact with Billy Carter on the matter of Libya.
Despite the closeness of the Carter family, it was considered unwise for the president’s brother to appear at the convention held from August 11 to 14, again in New York where Carter had won his first presidential nomination four years earlier.
On the first two days of the Democratic National Convention, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter holed away in preparation at Camp David.
The issue of Kennedy’s push for an open convention had still not yet been resolved. So the First Lady, along with her husband, spent the entire forty-eight hours, intended to de-compress and prepare, with the endless lists of names and phone numbers of individual delegates who had declared for Carter during the primaries. They called and spoke to each one, seeking assurance that they would remain loyal to their commitment. It gave Mrs. Carter a sense of relief.
Rosalynn Carter arrived at the convention for its third day, when Kennedy’s open convention challenge was finally denied. The First Lady began to feel that her days at the convention were “successful and relatively happy days.”
Teddy Kennedy delivered what was technically a concession speech, but in declaring that “the dream never dies,” he stirred up great visions of a future nation among the delegates in Madison Square Garden, as well as the television viewing audience, evoking memories of his two assassinated brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Despite the resentment that Rosalynn Carter naturally felt to the impediment Senator Kennedy had created to a smoother primary campaign leading up to the convention, she declared that his speech was “stirring and emotional.” Still, it was also observed at the time that he may have better represented the past Democratic Party. As Mrs. Carter reflected, “his call for massive government spending programs roused a spirit that appealed to the more liberal delegates.”
Even his sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy Onassis felt that he was never fated for the presidency, but to be a leader in the Senate.
Although she attended a fundraiser breakfast to relieve the Kennedy campaign of it deb, ton the morning of the first day of the convention, she did not wish to be used as an icon of a bygone era and turned down requests to appear in the convention hall as a way of bolstering Teddy Kennedy’s fight for an open convention. Instead, she went to work.
Although her highly visible political role that year had earned Mrs. Carter the dubious distinction of being depicted in a Saturday Night Live skit that cast her as taking over the Oval Office, she was neither sought nor was given any moment of glory at the convention.
Even though she had conducted the primary campaign as the substitute for the candidate himself, in addition to maintaining her own schedule as First Lady, there was no suggestion by the convention or campaign managers, media consultants, the White House staff or even the President himself, that Rosalynn Carter had earned the right to address the convention.
She would be the last incumbent First Lady never to address a national presidential convention.
Rosalynn Carter only finally made an appearance before the delegates at the podium on the last night of the convention, joining her husband and the Vice President Walter Mondale and Joan Mondale, following President Carter’s acceptance speech. There was a call for Teddy Kennedy to also come up on the platform to join them in a sign of party unity.
Instead, one by one, different Democratic leaders largely unrecognizable to the public ascended to join the increasingly crowded podium. “I soon realized we were biding our time,” Mrs. Carter recalled.
Meanwhile, instead of analysis on Carter’s speech, the national media coverage focused on Kennedy’s reluctance to appear with Carter. When he finally did appear, he received enormous applause.
At one point, Kennedy and the First Lady together waved to the crowds, seemingly in unison but the Senator did not open his hand. After he initially shook hands with President Carter, however, Kennedy “stood awkwardly to one side.”
“At that moment,” Rosalynn Carter recalled, “I felt truly sorry for him. He had waged a vigorous campaign and been defeated by an incumbent President at the lowest ebb of his popularity. It must have been a terrible blow to him, and it was obviously very difficult to take.”
In line with the old saying that “no good deed goes unpunished in Washington,” the First Lady acted on her charitable impulse and it, she said, “got us into more trouble.”
She walked over to the President and told him to engage Kennedy.
Carter then walked several steps through the thickly crowded stage to again shake his former rival’s hand. Just at that moment, House Speaker Tip O’Neill placed his hand under Kennedy’s arm, giving the impression that he was pulling the two men together.
Mrs. Carter carefully watched the brief and seemingly unimportant little gesture that she had prompted.
As it appeared to television news reporters, however, Carter was thought to be “chasing him around on the platform,” as if he were pathetically begging for Kennedy’s support.”
It had been long and hard and unpleasant,, and in the end we had been scarred,” Rosalynn Carter said as the 1980 Democratic National Convention came to an end, “though how much we were yet to know.”
There had been one ominous moment that Rosalynn Carter noticed while on stage.
Thousands of balloons held in nets above the convention floor failed to release in the intended moment of victory, coming almost too late in the process. When the balloons did drop, it was merely a trickle, the rest held at bay on the ceiling.
Less than three months later, Jimmy Carter was defeated in his bid for re-election. Two and a half months later, they moved out of the White House and returned to their small hometown of Plains, Georgia.