As his formidable campaign marches inexorably toward the nomination, Mitt Romney should learn a vital lesson from the guy who beat him in his first race for public office: Senator Ted Kennedy.
In 1980, Teddy lost his own bid for the presidency because he couldn’t answer a simple question about why he wanted the job. Like Kennedy, Romney could undermine his confident drive to unseat a stumbling incumbent unless he prepares clear, concise and forceful responses on what he means to do with the office he seeks.
Near the end of the disastrous Jimmy Carter administration, most analysts expected an easy win for the charismatic Kennedy if he chose to take on the sitting (duck) president of his own party. But on November 4, 1979, CBS News ran a prime time profile of the prospective candidate in which veteran newsman Roger Mudd asked the senator: “Why do you want to be president?”
The camera showed an intense close-up of Teddy’s long, awkward pause before he managed an incoherent reply. “Well, I’m, uh…” he clumsily began, and then lurched straight ahead. “Were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is… there’s more natural resources than any nation in the world. There's the greatest educated population in the world. It just seems to me that this nation can cope and deal with the problems in a way it has done in the past . . . It brings a sense of restoration by its people. And I would basically feel that it's imperative for the country to either move forward, that it can't stand still or otherwise it moves backwards."
Following this stunningly inept performance, it was Teddy, and not the country, that moved backwards: the anticipated Kennedy juggernaut quickly collapsed as it became instantly apparent that the youngest brother of a fabled family in no way replicated the ready wit or easy eloquence of Jack or Bobby. Above all, his failure to provide a logical argument in behalf of his candidacy meant that Democratic voters felt no inclination to seek reasons of their own. In the primaries that followed, President Carter –an inept and flat-footed politico in his own right – dispatched his overrated rival with unexpected ease.
If Mitt Romney hopes to avoid Teddy’s fate and to close the deal with still-skeptical segments of the Republican base then he should look long and hard at the appalling Roger Mudd video from 33 years ago. No, he’ll never resemble Kennedy as an inarticulate lug: the Mittster on his worst day, with his most embarrassing answer, still delivers more lucidity than Teddy offered CBS in the now notorious broadcast.
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