Over a nervy career gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson declared the "meanest men I ever met" to be Hells Angels' boss Sonny Barger, Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Carter. Perhaps it was the mescaline talking, but among the many feats of Jon Ward's deft Camelot's End is its retrieval of Carter, the 39th US president, from sainthood. With his gentle-Jesus mien, Carter looms today as a servant-leader – an impression burnished by his post-presidency good works: peacekeeping here, wiping out disease there. Camelot was the name given to the John F Kennedy administration and Ward's account of the tussle with Camelot scion Ted Kennedy, one that forced Carter to submit to the indignity of fighting for his party's nomination for a second term, recovers the animal spirits that fuelled his rise from arrant obscurity.
Carter’s mild affect concealed hard-bitten ambition, flinty resolve and bulletproof self-assurance. And he was ballsy. Thompson meant no disrespect bracketing him with an outlaw and a motormouth boxer; he considered Carter a badass. Ward recounts the incident that sealed Thompson’s fandom – his crashing one morning in 1974 of the Georgia governor’s mansion where he found its occupant with Kennedy. Carter had already pegged his guest as the chief obstacle to winning the presidency in 1976. Slated to address state lawyers together later that day, Carter stiffed him out of a lift to the venue on his official aircraft. And after Kennedy delivered a stock speech, he reamed out their now-squirming, restive audience for presiding over a legal system steeped in inequities. Carter summoned “the voice of an angry agrarian populist”, according to Thompson. He was also piqued that Kennedy got top billing, and had shown little compunction about using crypto-racist euphemisms to win the governorship in the first place.
For Kennedy, being a senator represented the line of least resistance – submission to a domineering father who, after brother John vacated his seat for the presidency, reputedly told his youngest, “I paid for it . . . It’s your turn”.
Following John’s, and then Bobby’s, assassination, the same sense of entitlement attached to Ted for president. Then one night in July 1969, his car careened off a Martha’s Vineyard bridge at Chappaquiddick, pitching into water. After extricating himself, he told investigators he’d tried in vain to pry out his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. What is known is he slept on it before alerting authorities and drew a suspended sentence.
For all its demythologising, Camelot's End narrates a rich drama...
Chappaquiddick cemented an impression of Ted as a spoiled wastrel. For some, it recast the Kennedys: like the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby, they "retreated back into their money . . . let other people clean up the mess they had made".
Still, by 1979, Chappaquiddick was deemed to have receded sufficiently. Meanwhile, Carter, an embattled president liable to lose his re-election bid, opened a path to the White House. Kennedy could mobilise progressives alienated by the fiscally-conservative president. Moreover, still wreathed in a measure of Camelot’s mystique, he promised to restore a vital, virile America, underscored by his arrest-photo hair and rakish appearance versus crinkly sweater-clad Carter maundering about America’s “crisis of confidence”.
Camelot's End cuts through the mythology. Kennedy's candidacy faceplanted out of the gate, hemmed in, amid the seizure of US hostages in Iran, by pressure to rally around the president. It was fanned by Carter who swaddled himself in the flag and declared opposition treasonous. Thus cramped, Kennedy's speeches were anaemic. Carter ground out an unassailable delegate lead through the primaries. Yet the clash devolved into a sweaty clinch; Kennedy refused to concede and Carter couldn't land a knockout blow. His inability to put Kennedy away, plus wilting popularity, opened the door to a potential vote at the Democratic National Convention in which delegates would not be beholden to primary results. But Carter supporters staved this off and he was affirmed as nominee.
For all its demythologising, Camelot's End narrates a rich drama. Peddling a lost cause, Kennedy found his fight, and the closing staves of his concession speech, reflecting on his personal and family history, are all the more affecting for their misquoting (unremarked upon by Ward) of Tennyson: "I am a part of all that I have met. Too much is taken, much abides."
The original reads, “Though much is taken . . .” Not nearly as powerful under the circumstances. And from the sublime to the ridiculous: after his own speech, a grinning Carter vainly stalked a booze-glazed Kennedy for a bury-the-hatchet photo-op.
Carter was spanked by Ronald Reagan that November. On the heels of ignominious defeat, he redefined the possibilities of life after the presidency. Thus, Camelot's End is about second acts. Kennedy's run incarnated Camelot as flesh-paunchy and flawed. His philandering and self-destructive behaviour continued until the early 1990s (with another name his career mightn't have survived). But he also came to embrace his limitations. Plodding where his brothers were sharp, he bore down to become a nonpareil lawmaker.
“He wasn’t a genius or an unparalleled political talent,” writes Ward, “but he took pride in working harder than others, in continuing to move forward no matter how hard life got or how brutal a tragedy he had to confront, and in persevering.”