The Kennedy Campaign in Montgomery County, 1980
Before Ted Kennedy had announced his intention to run for president in 1980, Gus Gentile sparked the Kennedy campaign in Montgomery County with a Sunday-morning meeting in the basement of his home in Wheaton.
Enthusiasm was running high for Sen. Kennedy in Maryland, and Gus’ basement was packed to standing-room-only. Gus was a well-known Democratic Party precinct chairman in Montgomery County, and many of the local party precinct leaders and insiders were present that morning. It was billed as one in a series of “Conversations About Kennedy,” aimed at persuading the senator to run and preparing for the Democratic primary campaign.
There were two or three leaders from the fledgling national campaign present to stoke the enthusiasm in Maryland. We all were there to hear from those insiders, but Gus allowed as “Since it’s my basement,” he would say a few words. By the end of the meeting, I think every politico in the room was fired up for the Kennedy campaign.
Ted Kennedy did run for president that year, but his campaign blew up on the launching pad with the famous Roger Mudd interview on CBS. Enthusiasm for Kennedy fizzled after that. All the supporters who were with Kennedy at the beginning faded away. I was a new precinct chairman, and I was astounded at how quickly the political winds could shift, and how fickle political hacks and voters could be. At the last campaign meeting that spring, Gus sat on the living-room floor at Joan Lott’s house. Of all the people who had been present at the basement kickoff, only four remained: Gus, Joan, Phil Olivetti, and me.
President Jimmy Carter won renomination, and Ted Kennedy’s hopes of succeeding his older brother, John F. Kennedy, in the White House ended. Ted Kennedy delivered one of the great American political addresses of all time at the Democratic National Convention that August, concluding with the prophetic words: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
The work did go on. From that day forward, Ted Kennedy was a tireless and effective leader in the U.S. Senate, and a voice (a loud voice) for the poor and the middle class. The youngest brother grew old and assumed the role of patriarch of his extended Irish family. Ted Kennedy carried the torch and passed it forward.
A few weeks after the 1980 convention, I received in the mail a recording of Sen. Kennedy’s speech, along with a printed text. As I type, I am looking at that album cover showing Sen. Kennedy at the podium and a sea of Kennedy signs waving from the convention floor. It’s a relic of another era. I wonder how much that record would fetch on E-Bay tonight? Of course, it’s not for sale at any price.
– Bernie Hayden