Through much of American history, if a sitting president wanted to be nominated for another term, it was his. Incumbent presidents have seldom been challenged from within their own party, no matter how much of a mess they may have made of things.
But, for awhile there in the latter part of the 20th century, an incumbent president could not depend on that.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson faced an insurgent challenge from Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Primaries were not the place where most delegates were won in 1968, but McCarthy did far better than expected against Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, and Johnson announced shortly thereafter that he would not seek another four years in the White House.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford was challenged by former Gov. Ronald Reagan in a down–to–the–wire fight for the GOP nomination that wasn't resolved until the party's convention that summer.
And four years later, President Jimmy Carter faced a challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy that began — officially — in Boston's famed Faneuil Hall on this day in 1979.
It was a moment that most, if not all, political observers never expected to witness after the Chappaquiddick tragedy 10 years earlier. In the 13 months following Bobby Kennedy's assassination, nearly every pundit of the time expected Teddy to pick up his brothers' dropped torch and seek the presidency, but he was seldom mentioned in connection with the presidency after Chappaquiddick.
Even before Kennedy jumped into the race, I wondered why he was doing it. He hadn't really seemed to desire the presidency earlier in his political career. He seemed content to leave that to his brothers. But his brothers were gone, and I believe Ted felt obligated to seek the presidency on their behalf. He never seemed to take any joy from the campaign.
And, frankly, I sensed something of relief on his part when it became official that he would not be the party's nominee. He acted disappointed in his public posturings, but I suspect that, privately, he was relieved. He had given it a shot, and he had fallen short.
He had done his duty, and he never sought the presidency again — even though his speech to the delegates at the Democratic convention left the door open for another run sometime in the future.