Crossing paths outside Faneuil Hall

Kennedy '80An item in the Political Notes column of the Cape Cod Times last month mentioned that Congressman Bill Delahunt's longtime chief of staff, Steve Schwadron, was moving on to work in a DC-based public affairs company.

Prior to working for Delahunt, Schwadron served in the same capacity for Gerry Studds, Delahunt's predecessor in the 10th District.

In fact, in Schwadron's first day on the job "he watched U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy announce his candidacy for the presidency," noted Times political reporter Kevin Dennehy.

I remember that day as one of hundreds of people outside Faneuil Hall in Boston for Kennedy's formal announcement, which he made inside the venerable forum.With Jimmy Carter's presidency in disarray and the country mired in post-Vietnam malaise, it had been rumored for months that Kennedy would run.

The dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library two weeks earlier, which bore a remarkable resemblance to a political rally, made Kennedy's entry into the race all but certain. Then two things happened in the interim - one of seismic importance, the other seemingly minor but devastating for Kennedy's candidacy.

On Nov. 4, 1979, 90 Americans were taken captive at the US embassy in Tehran by Islamic militants.  Nearly half would soon be released, but 52 would remain hostages for the next 14 months, the remainder of Carter's term.

Ted Kennedy in 1980The second event took place on the night of the day the hostage crisis began. Kennedy was interviewed by Roger Mudd for "CBS News Special Reports" and flubbed the question he should have been able to answer sleepwalking - why do you want to be president?

Rather than respond in the confident cadences of his older brothers, Kennedy rambled into painful incoherence. Fortunately for him, the interview coincided with the first network broadcast of the movie "Jaws," which shifted a huge chunk of TV viewers away from an interview with a politician.

But for those people watching CBS, the ones who followed politics, it was obvious that Kennedy's rationale for running was based on little more than entitlement. And like the thoroughbred which stumbles while still in the gate, Kennedy never recovered.

Little could hardly anyone have known, but the events in Tehran had rendered his candidacy irrelevant. The days and weeks that Americans remained captive soon stretched into months, and just before 1979 came to its merciful end, the Soviets invaded a forgotten corner of the globe called Afghanistan.

The world had quickly turned ominous and Kennedy's brand of liberalism, more the legacy of his brother Robert than of JFK,  was no longer ascendant. The country was swerving right, a shift hastened by a widespread tax revolt in California the year before and the contentious debate over control of the Panama Canal in the spring of '79.

Kennedy was among the first victims of the shift, having waited four years too long for the campaign everyone knew he'd eventually run. Another victim was Carter, who responded, also too late, with the threat of force to protect the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf (the largely forgotten Carter Doctrine).

When Carter decided to do more than threaten force, eight American soldiers were killed when their helicopters collided in the Iranian desert during a failed rescue mission in April 1980 (during a briefing before the US invasion of Grenada four years later, Ronald Reagan asked how many helicopters would be used. Double it, he responded. Had Carter done that, you'd be giving this briefing to him, Reagan said, according to biographer Richard Reeves).

Three days after the Mudd interview and the start of the hostage crisis, Kennedy announced his candidacy. What do I remember about that day, from the perspective of a spectator outside Faneuil Hall?Only one thing, really, aside from a glimpse of Kennedy coming outside to cheers from the crowd.

On my way there, I watched from about 50 yards away as a beautiful and innately elegant woman stepped out of a cab. Even more than two decades later, I'm pretty sure she took my breath away. It was Jackie Onassis, as she was known then, and how about that, she arrived in a taxi, alone, and not in a limo. I always liked that about her - who knows how many days she brightened for countless New York cabbies.

Someone was waiting to open a door for her into Faneuil Hall and then she was gone, this ephemeral vision passing in all of a few seconds, like an unusually vivid shooting star. It was the only time I saw the woman I remember as Jackie Kennedy in the flesh and one of my few concrete memories of the day. 

And the button above remains my only souvenir.

The photo of Ted Kennedy  at the 1980 Democratic Convention comes courtesy of the Democratic National Committee. 

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