Chapter I; Whirlpool
“Jimmy was done, but we sure as hell aren’t!” - Nearly anyone in the Carter Administration
Some people in the Kennedy campaign remember him referring to the situation as a “Damn political black hole.” the entire reason he was in this campaign right now was to show that damn farmer what for! He’d always privately called the man weak, but he couldn’t have guessed he was this flimsy. With more than a month out from Iowa, it seemed like no one could beat the youngest brother of the former president. The first polls after the announcement were steep, with almost half of the voters saying they had no preferred candidate.
Of course, out of everyone, Kennedy led the field at a strong 30% but he now had an enemy that was far more politically formidable than Jimmy Carter, some of his staffers remember the look on his face when they realized that Walter Mondale would likely face him.
Walter Mondale had always been stronger than Carter, he was charismatic, folksy, and the protege of Hubert Humphrey. While the President was far more awkward and shrewd. Mondale was polling right behind Kennedy at a decent 24%
Luckily, even when reporters asked the Vice President directly about his intentions in 1980, he shrugged it off and said he would come to a decision soon. And that there were other issues that needed to be addressed.
Jerry Brown, the only other major candidate in this race, currently polling at 6% seemed to be emboldened at Carter’s announcement. Even reportedly joking to staff “I guess our numbers really scared him!” The former California governor swore to himself he wouldn’t let the opportunity lose itself. No Mondale, No Carter, it was his time to get a win. And so he went on a large tour of Iowa, with real hope of winning the state come the 21st of January.
Reality soon came back down to the governor, as despite campaigning in the state for well over a week and a half, his polling numbers actually slipped into the black hole of “Undecided” it seems that polling at the Kennedy campaign had been falling the same way. Carter may not have been the most popular man alive, but his absence seemed to catch the party off guard. Not since 1968 when Lyndon Johnson underperformed in New Hampshire, had a sitting President willingly taken the backseat when eligible to run again.
To President Carter, however, this political whirlpool was an amazing sign.
“Look here Fritz, it’s clear that they’re waiting for you to join this mess. How long are you going to keep them waiting?” - President Jimmy Carter on a call with Vice President Mondale
And the President was right, most of the party was waiting for Walter Mondale to announce. They knew he would, but if he waited too long then he risked losing ground to Kennedy.
But not every Democrat was willing to bow down to Mondale.
“I say it's time America was on the march!” - Senator John Glenn announces his campaign for the Presidency. December 14, 1980.
“Glenn, With Hero's Send-Off, Launches Bid for Presidency” - Washington Post
“What is that idiot doing?” - President Carter.
Many of the people who thought about, did, and still are yet to join the 1980 Democratic field did it for one reason, opposition to Jimmy Carter. However, John Glenn was not running as an enemy of the President, but he was going for the nomination as his true successor.
He would not bend the knee to Walter Mondale without at least attempting to give Jimmy a second term, even if only in resemblance.
“President Carter was unrightfully forced into this position by Senator Kennedy, and I intend to win this for both him and for the American people” - John Glenn.
The former astronaut and current Senator from Ohio was someone who seemed destined to run for President, and maybe even win it. The people of his home state were firmly behind him, and many people from within the establishment wing of the party hoped he could at least tank Kennedy’s numbers. Perhaps Ted Kennedy had forgotten it himself as he seemed to hold the winner's trophy above his head, but he had fumbled his campaign all the way from the start.
His interview with Roger Mudd decapitated the campaign before it even really started, and he had only gained back a little momentum before Carter’s decision.
No doubt about it, John Glenn could absolutely beat Ted Kennedy. That was at least the thought process of the Glenn team.
The Senator only had one, teeny problem…
“GLENN FLOPS, KENNEDY TEAM UNMOVED.” - New York Times, December 19th, 1979.
Glenn could absolutely beat Kennedy still, but his announcement speech was of no big deal to many people. Naturally, with the nature of the current race, he still jumped far ahead of Jerry Brown, finding himself in easy third place. That was the problem, however, he hardly seemed to crack into Kennedy’s lead, mostly having taken away from Mondale and Brown, hell, he hardly even broke into Mondale’s lead over him.
But, Glenn’s entrance opened up a whole new problem for the Democrats, the floodgates were now open. Soon, the Ohio senator found his brief momentum slow to a crawl as Mondale seemed to be gearing up for an announcement within the next few weeks.
One thing would be sure regardless of Mondale’s potential run.
John Glenn opened up the flood doors, and the water would come fast.
“December 25, 1979; BREZHNEV CAUGHT IN THE ACT, SOVIETS INVADE AFGHANISTAN”
Being a man of religion, Jimmy Carter cherished Christmas, especially now as President. It felt like the only time when he could escape from the woes of the nation and finally spend time with his family. Today wouldn’t be a peaceful day for Jimmy though.
Nixon, Ford, and Carter all had watched the Afghanistan situation closely over the last decade. Coups, Civil War, and all of that. But now it seemed the Soviets were ready to take it all to an entirely new level. After months of reports of dissatisfaction with the leadership of Hafizullah Amin in Afghanistan, the Soviets were trying to take things into their own hands.
It hadn’t gone as planned, Soviet troops sent covertly into Afghanistan, including the ones who were tasked with killing Amin, were caught. And although the Afghani dictator wasn’t popular, most people didn’t take well to the actions of Soviet leadership.
Amin himself seemed to be shocked at how close they came to killing him, with the would-be assassins reportedly only being two day’s around from launching the coup.
The Soviets who already had a large military presence in Afghanistan would soon start their invasion proper, and Amin swore to the people that they would fight to the last man. Amin knew that he couldn’t hope to fight against the might of a superpower unless they also had the help of a superpower.
“President Carter condemns Afghani Invasion; ‘The reason for America’s fight.’”
From the first day of the war, Carter had a decent grasp on the situation, from the politburo’s dissatisfaction with Hafizullah Amin, to the failed coup, but there was one thing he couldn’t get a hand on.
“How far will Brezhnev be willing to go?” - President Carter to Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.
Obviously, in the current moment, the disunited, unpopular Afghan government had no hope of surviving the Soviet invasion. Perhaps though, through American aid, they could properly defend against the attacks…
After the meeting, President Carter looked up to the sky, perhaps talking to God himself, and laughed about how happy he was to not be running for President.
“REAGAN SAYS CARTER WEAKNESS WILL ‘CAUSE THE FALL OF AFGHANISTAN.’”
“I know we aren’t running against President Carter anymore, but Mondale, Kennedy, and anyone the Democratic party will scrounge up won’t be even close to strong enough to stop this travesty.” - Former Governor Ronald Reagan on December 27, 1979.
“Wallace 80? Former staffers of the Governor’s 1976 campaign tell us the scoop”
“George Bush says Reagan, Kennedy, ‘both completely unequipped for the situation at hand’”
And yet another Democrat jumps into the view...
“I am a candidate for President of the United States in 1980. I take this step out of a deep concern about the ondition of our country -- and a deep commitment to a new vision of a better, stronger America. We now face a stark choice between national renewal or national decline. Our problems worsen while some retreat to an unfair past and others debate old remedies and contend over shop-worn policies. In this decade -- in the term of the next President --we must build a bridge to a new era and master its possibilities.
That task is the legacy of our national character.” - Senator Gary Hart announcing his intention to run in 1980
Nearly a month had passed since Jimmy Carter decided to not run for reelection, and Walter Mondale’s seeming indecisiveness on the primary.
In truth, Mondale wasn’t struggling to make any decisions, he had every intention of running for President. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced him to delay the plans.
With 22 days until Iowa, the state Democratic Party urged candidates to jump into the race soon, and Carter attempted to persuade them to push back the Caucus to early February, but Kennedy, Glenn, and Hart would soon all pressure them not to.
Fortunately, Walter Mondale’s long-delayed entrance into the fray would come soon enough.