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Mark Shields: Before They Vote for You, People Must Like You

Kennedy's ambitions to be president went unfulfilled, but all kinds of people really did like him

On Jan. 21, 1971, the 55 Democratic U.S. senators caucused to elect by secret ballot their party leaders. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who had been elected to the Democrats’ No. 2 Senate job, majority whip, two years earlier, was challenged by Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. In an unexpected upset, Byrd defeated Kennedy by a 31-24 vote.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

The rejection of Kennedy by his colleagues — coming barely 18 months after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign aide to his late brother Robert, at Chappaquiddick in a car Kennedy had been driving — was a serious blow to his national stature. But Kennedy, concealing what must have been painful disappointment with humor, publicly thanked “the 29 Democratic senators who pledged to vote for me ... and especially the 24 who actually did.”

Kennedy has been almost universally, and rightly, praised as a legislative giant of historic influence and achievement. But what has been mostly slighted is that he was so widely liked by nearly everyone whom he encountered — including, most especially, his political adversaries. Former Sen. Bill Cohen, R-Maine, once explained, “I don’t care how great your ideas are or how well you can articulate them, people must like you before they will vote for you.” People — from elevator operators to Senate pages to conservative Republicans — liked Ted Kennedy.

After the assassination of his brother, Robert, on June 5, 1968, the 36-year-old Ted Kennedy almost surely could have won the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s warring Chicago convention. Every four years, he led all challengers in the national public opinion surveys. Every four years, he did not run — until 1980, when polls showed him ahead of the incumbent Democrat, President Jimmy Carter, by 2-to-1.

On Nov. 4, 1979, two events occurred that doomed Kennedy’s candidacy: In Tehran, a group of Iranians, furious at the fact that the shah had been admitted to the United States for medical treatment, overran the U.S. embassy and took 60 Americans hostage. And CBS broadcast Kennedy’s disastrous television interview with Roger Mudd.

The taking and holding (for the next 14 months) of the American hostages initially worked to the political advantage of the embattled Carter. Overnight, he was seen as commander in chief. The nation rallied in support. That was beyond Kennedy’s control. But the Mudd interview was a disaster largely of his own making.

When Mudd, not unexpectedly, asked Kennedy why he wanted to be president, Kennedy stumbled and stammered, unable to provide a coherent answer.

Kennedy lost that 1980 race to Carter and would never again seek the White House. But he managed to use self-deprecating humor to later address his own inarticulateness in that fatal interview. He publicly joked how Mudd “came up to my house on Cape Cod and sat on one of my chairs on my front lawn and asked me trick questions, like, ‘Why do you want to be president?’”

Of his unfulfilled chief executive ambitions, Kennedy frequently joked: “Frankly, I don’ t mind not being president. I just mind that someone else is.”

Kennedy understood that politics is basically a matter of addition, not subtraction. He knew well that humor, especially self-deprecating humor, can soothe and heal and disarm. Humor says to a colleague or a constituent, “I’m not self-important. I, too, know my faults; I recognize I’m not any better than you are.”

Kennedy worked long and hard at the difficult craft of writing and passing laws. But he understood better than almost anybody else that “people must like you before they will vote for you.” And all kinds of people, including me, really did like him.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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