'Senator Ted Kennedy Would Like to Meet With You at the DuPont Plaza'
Around the State
As a 35-year-old first-term senator in Florida, that message had a chilling effect on me. It was conveyed by a telephone call from Marvin Rosen, a longtime friend and supporter of the Kennedy family.
Rosen was a Miami attorney I had come to know through Democratic Party events. I had never met the senator and to my knowledge, had no pending matters with his office, so the call was very surprising.
It was late July in 1979, and the annual session of the Florida Legislature had just wrapped up in Tallahassee. The 1980 campaigns were just getting under way, led by the re-election effort of first-term Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Carter’s polling was beginning a serious deterioration at that time, and Kennedy was being encouraged by the liberal wing of the party, especially the unions, to consider a challenge to the president. As for me, I had no election in 1980, having been elected to a four-year term in the Senate in 1978.
Sensing that I might be walking into something unexpected, I told Marvin I would meet with Sen. Kennedy, but told him upfront that I would be uncomfortable being a part of anything that might embarrass our sitting, incumbent Democratic president. Marvin said he understood and we exchanged the details on the meeting time and location.
Although this meeting took place long before the Internet, I did place a number of calls to Democratic Party officials to get a briefing on the senator and the president. I was told immediately the relationship was "edgy" at best, primarily because both gentlemen had universal health care bills they wanted to pass. But they wanted nothing of the other’s bill.
I then knew probably why the senator wanted to meet with me -- a senator from populous Miami-Dade County with an early primary next year, and vice chairman of the Florida Senate Committee dealing with health care. The fact that I did not have an election of my own and therefore had time to work on someone else’s campaign was just icing on the cake.
The senator was right on time for our meeting, which I was told was unusual. We were whisked into a penthouse room at the DuPont Plaza Hotel on the mouth of the Miami River. After our initial pleasantries -- he was very pleased to know that I grew up in Palm Beach County, as a fellow resident on the island -- we got into his planned agenda, the presidency.
He told me of his interest in health care, people with disabilities, education, and the environment. It was apparent that his staff had checked me out because I had legislation filed in each of those areas in the Florida Senate. We then talked about President Carter, and what the senator felt was a probable defeat for Democrats in November of the next year.
He told me that if he ran, he wanted a circle of trusted advisers in each major state, and thought I might want to consider that opportunity. I was so tense during our meeting, I had little time for humor, but somehow an absurd thought like becoming the ambassador to Sweden crossed my mind. I quickly got serious again, and we discussed federal support for restoration projects in the Everglades and other environmental issues.
I also told the senator of my support for our state’s Democratic Gov. Bob Graham. Kennedy said he felt Graham would be a major player in national Democratic politics, no matter who was president. Much of the rest of the discussion followed the same outline with different issues and people in focus.
We concluded our meeting with my indicating that I wanted to give some thought to our discussion and would get back with his office. He seemed very interested in our talk and urged me to stay involved in Florida politics. I told him that the only elected office still holding interest for me was the governor’s office. Sen. Kennedy asked me to keep him posted on my plans in that regard. As we left the hotel, one of the senator’s staff took a photograph.
As history unfolded, at the time of our meeting Kennedy was ahead of Carter in the polls. Sen. Kennedy did run against President Carter but lost by a large margin. President Carter, in turn, lost by every state but one to Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1980. The senator and President Reagan are both gone now, but President Carter is still alive and well and active in politics.
Robert W. McKnight served in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives during the 1970s and 1980s. He has written two books on Florida politics, available at Amazon.com; and now provides regular political commentary trademarked as “The Golden Age Quorum Call” in the Tallahassee Democrat and Facing Florida, a public affairs television program airing on ABC, CBS and FOX stations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.