“The Question”: Ted Kennedy & the Pitfalls of Running for President

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

One of the most obvious questions a candidate may be asked is why do you want to be president? Why you? Why now? This isn’t the 19th century, after all, when presidents had to be dragged to the White House under the guise of modesty. Why do you want to be president is a simple question with a complex answer–and candidates should be prepared to offer one.

Failing to do so could be fatal to any campaign. Just ask Ted Kennedy.

“Why do you want to be president?” Roger Mudd of CBS asked Kennedy in November of 1979. Kennedy had not yet announced, but was gearing up to–he would make a formal announcement the next week.

For a long four seconds, Kennedy hesitated, his eyes sliding to the ceiling. “Well,” he said, “uh. Were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run…” and thus commenced a rambling answer which may have derailed his entire candidacy.

The Washington Post wrote at the time that Kennedy “appears at points uncomfortable, faltering, almost dazed.” (Although their review of the interview focused more on Kennedy’s discomfort with Mudd’s line of questions concerning Chappaquiddick). The interview, thought the paper, could have the same effect on the 1980 campaign as the 1960 televised debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Whatever the Washington Post thought of the interview, Kennedy himself recognized it as a mistake. Decades later, Mudd wrote that he had heard that Kennedy never forgot the question, and that he blamed Mudd for it.

“…thirty years later, Kennedy was still upset that I had asked him why he wanted to be president, even though it was widely believed among politicians and journalists alike that the only thing missing from his candidacy was a formal announcement.”

Kennedy’s failure to answer this softball question has become a thing of political lore. The West Wing even aired an episode where the president’s staff celebrates a political rival’s inability to answer “the question.”

“Can you answer it?” C.J. Cregg, the press secretary, later asks the president.

“Why do I want to be president?” says President Bartlett

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of hours,” the president responds, and pauses. “I almost have it.”

Today, many perspective Democratic candidates have sought to answer this question in their campaign launch videos or in interviews (perhaps aiming to preempt an awkward interview exchange).

Elizabeth Warren talks of her experience fighting big business, and how she would bring that fight to the White House. Cory Booker on The View said: “I’m running to restore our sense of common purpose, to focus on the common pain that we have all over this country.” In his campaign video, he focused on his credentials as a man of the people–living among his constituents, in Newark, New Jersey.

Even Howard Schultz, asked by John Dickerson of CBS This Morning for his “big idea” trumpeted a line about bringing people together (Schultz aims to do this as a candidate from the center). Dickerson replied that most politicians would say that, too. Still–Schultz’s answer wasn’t as bad as Kennedy’s rambling response, which began about how America was great because of its vast natural resources.

The pitfalls of running for president are many and varied. But at the very least today’s candidates can learn from the past. When someone asks you why you want to be president–know the answer.

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