It was a very simple question, the kind of thing that is the very least that voters should know about anyone who seeks to lead the United States. Any voter can ask that question, and every voter deserves an answer to it. But Ted Kennedy, when asked that question on this day in 1979, stumbled through an obviously off–the–cuff response to the one question for which he should have had a definitive answer.
"Why do you want to be president?"
If there is such a thing as a softball question in presidential politics, that is it. After all, it didn't suggest that Kennedy should not have run — although I think the results from the 1980 Democrat primaries indicate that quite clearly (Carter received 51.13% of the vote in the primaries while Kennedy carried 37.58%). It was an uphill battle from the start. Incumbent presidents are seldom challenged for their party's renomination, and they usually prevail whether the challenge is serious or not. To succeed, Kennedy needed to be able to articulate a vision the way many Americans remembered his brother doing 20 years earlier.
Kennedy swung wildly when CBS' Roger Mudd asked him that question in an interview that was broadcast on this night in 1979 — and he missed with a rambling recitation of loosely linked talking points.
It inspired one of my favorite Doonesbury comic strips — in which an exchange between Kennedy and reporters was depicted. I don't remember now if the Kennedy of the comic strip was asked why he wanted to be president, or if he was asked about a more specific topic, but the answer was another rambling recitation. By the fourth frame of the strip, one of the reporters impatiently blurted out, "A verb, senator! We need a verb!"
There was more to it than the rambling answer, though. Kennedy had that kind of deer–caught–in–the–headlights look when Mudd asked him that question. How could he possibly have failed to prepare an answer for it? After all, he hadn't been asked to defend a bad, possibly embarrassing vote he cast in the Senate or some poor or reckless decision he had made, either professionally or personally. He hadn't even been asked about Chappaquiddick. He was merely asked why he wanted to be president. What did he want to accomplish? What was his vision for the nation?
If that isn't a softball pitch, what is?
It was an invitation to summon forth the Kennedy charisma, the soaring eloquence of "Ask not what your country can do for you." In hindsight, I believe that was the kind of thing Americans yearned for in 1979 and 1980. The country sought inspiration in 1980. Mudd's question tried to coax it from Kennedy.
It didn't even summon forth a grammatically correct sentence.