Jon Ward
Jon Ward

The Humiliating Handshake and the Near-Fistfight that Broke the Democratic Party

1980 convention


POLITICO MAGAZINE — JANUARY 212019

Carter finished his speech at 10:19 p.m., and the band struck up Happy Days Are Here Again” as his wife Rosalynn, and then Vice President Walter Mondale and his wife, Joan, joined the president onstage. But comedic disaster struck almost immediately. The balloons heldon the ceiling became stuck when the mechanism to release them wouldn’t work. Only a trickle of balloons fell to the floor.

Whoever’s in charge of balloons at this convention had better find themselves a new job,” cracked ABC’s Ted Koppel. Even Carter came in for abuse from some in the crowd. Forget the hostages, he can’t get the balloons down,” said one person on the floor, according to Dan Rather.

And all of this was nothing to compare to the disastrous handshake that would come to symbolize the split within the Democratic Party, and the question of whether the wrong nominee had been chosen.

As Kennedy made his way to the convention in a motorcade from the Waldorf Astoria, the cheering inside the hall died down. It was quite a contrast to the response for Kennedy’s speech two nights earlier. The delegates had cheered and danced and sung for 30 minutes then. But for Carter, it took less than 10 minutes for things to quiet down.

Carter’s aides scrambled to keep the party going, to avoid the embarrassment of several minutes of quiet prior to Kennedy’s arrival. Strauss began calling political figures up onto the stage to keep the crowd cheering and the TV audience watching. It was ridiculous. He was calling people no one had heard of or cared about. This convention right now needs” Kennedy Koppel said on ABC News. This demonstration here has kind of fizzled out.”

Finally, at 10:36 p.m. — nearly twenty minutes after Carter’s speech had ended — Kennedy reached the doorway to the hall and waited for Strauss to call him up. The buzz of his arrival emanated out into the hall. Loud chants of We want Ted” rose up.

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Strauss announced Kennedy’s name, and the hall drowned out all else with its roar. Kennedy walked into the hall like an engine coming up the ramp,” ABC anchor Sam Donaldson said. He made his way through the crush of bodies around the stage, and up the three or four stairs onto the podium. Carter awaited him at the top. It was almost like he was a state official standing at the bottom of the stairs outside Air Force One, waiting for the president to come down and shake his hand. Kennedy’s mouth was taut, his eyes were dead, and his brow was slightly furrowed.

After Kennedy shook hands with others on the stage — Rosalynn, Amy and Vice President Walter Mondale — Carter made his move. He took a few steps toward center stage in front of the microphone. It was a clear attempt to bring Kennedy with him and to pose for the cameras, the two of them, hands together and aloft: a long-awaited, badly needed moment of victory for Carter. 

Kennedy could not, would not do it. He realized what Carter was doing, and stayed where he was, a few paces away from the podium. He waved to the crowd, nodding his head in a rhythmic way in acknowledgment of them. Carter reached the microphone, apparently thinking or hoping that Kennedy was right behind him. He realized that Kennedy had not come with him, and looked over his left shoulder. He turned back, took a step back and to his left, and extended a hand to Kennedy for a handshake, but he did so with his hand almost at shoulder level. It was a clear invitation to take his hand and raise it high.

The announcers expected Kennedy to give the president what he wanted. There it is, there’s the moment,” Reynolds said. Let’s see if we — there it is.” Kennedy stepped forward and shook Carter’s hand, but he did not raise it, and his expression remained an almost somber one. His mouth remained closed, he let go of Carter’s hand, and then he raised his hand again to the crowd. What we are still lacking,” Koppel said, is that classical political photograph of the two men arm in arm, holding their hands up together.”

Kennedy shook Carter’s hand again, then he moved past him like he was at a rally and the president was just another nobody on the rope line waiting to shake his hand. He shook hands with Joan Mondale and a few other people behind Carter. The president continued applauding, and then turned back to the microphone, standing at the podium alone. He mouthed the words to the song being sung in the hall. He was by himself.

A few minutes later, Carter spotted his wife and Kennedy shaking hands on the stage and sidled over to shake Kennedy’s hand for a fourth time. And then Kennedy walked down the steps, flashing a raised fist to the crowd before descending. The cameras caught him shaking hands with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton as he made his way away from the stage.

Moments later, Kennedy emerged back on the stage for a curtain call. He shook hands with Carter again, a fifth time, then slipped behind him on the stage while the president clapped with his hands held high. Carter faced forward but kept looking over his shoulder in both directions to see what Kennedy was doing. Kennedy smirked as he nodded toward the crowd. Finally, he made his way off the stage for good. He walked behind the first lady and first daughter, raised his left hand to the crowd, and then saw Carter walking over to stand next to him, still hoping for a moment of unity. The president of the United States was groveling on live TV, in front of the nation, for a photo with the man he had defeated for his own party’s nomination. Roughly 20 million people were watching on live TV. Well, this is slightly awkward,” NBC’s David Brinkley said.

But Kennedy just chuckled in amusement, patted the still-applauding president on the back, and turned to walk down the stairs. Carter was left pumping his right fist in the air to the crowd as Kennedy exited. It was, reporter Teddy White wrote, as if he had appeared at the wedding of his chauffeur.”

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