Brian Snyder  /  Reuters file
Two days before the 1968 convention began in Chicago, one of the Democratic Party’s power brokers, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, called Kennedy and pleaded with him to accept a draft.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 7/27/2004 1:33:14 PM ET 2004-07-27T17:33:14

He could have been the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee 36 years ago, yet he refused the offer of the nomination.

He vigorously sought the party’s nomination 24 years ago, and was soundly defeated.

On Tuesday night, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts addresses the Democratic convention, the living embodiment of party history going back 72 years to his father’s role as a financier and ally of Franklin Roosevelt.

One indicator of Kennedy’s stature: He gets a full 30 minutes of prime time to speak to the delegates and to the national TV audience, while Howard Dean, who seemed last November nearly certain to win the party’s nomination, has been allotted only 10 minutes.

Kennedy goes before the convention as something his Massachusetts colleague, John Kerry, cannot be, the champion of an unapologetic liberal Democratic ideology.

Kennedy, like Kerry voted against a ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. Kennedy, unlike Kerry, supports the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which made same-sex marriages legal.

Kennedy, like Kerry, voted against the 1991 congressional authorization to President Bush to use military force to eject Saddam Hussein’s armies from Kuwait.

Against 2002 resolution
But Kennedy — unlike Kerry — also voted against the October 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq.

Video: Kennedy’s long record of liberal advocacy and his involvement in the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, has made him the villain of conservatives for four decades.

What is sometimes forgotten — or not known at all to younger voters — is that in 1968, after the murder of his older brother Robert, the Democratic nomination was offered to Kennedy. He would have run against Republican Richard Nixon, the man his brother defeated in 1960, if only he’d said “yes.”

Two days before the 1968 convention began in Chicago, one of the Democratic Party’s power brokers, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, called Kennedy and pleaded with him to accept a draft.

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Although Vice President Hubert Humphrey seemed on the brink of winning the nomination, and although Daley ostensibly was supporting him, the mayor feared that Humphrey would lose in November to Nixon.

The next day, Daley and California Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh met. They agreed that Kennedy was the only alternative to Humphrey and to anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, who was unacceptable to Daley.

McCarthy, getting wind of the draft-Kennedy movement, said he was willing to step aside and let Kennedy become the nominee.

In the end, Kennedy, who was only 36 years old at the time and had seen his two brothers assassinated in the space of five years, decided to pass up what in retrospect was his best chance to become the party’s nominee.

Kennedy made a spirited effort in 1980, but he was trying to wrestle the nomination away from the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, who beat him in one primary after another.

Defeated but defiant in 1980
Kennedy went to the 1980 Democratic convention in New York defeated, but defiant.

Kennedy’s speech to the convention, written by Democratic wordsmith Bob Shrum, who is now an adviser to Kerry, was one of the most eloquent in modern convention history.

“Long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith,” he declared. “May it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again.”

“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Can Shrum of 2004 bring some of the magic of 1980 to Kerry’s speech to the convention Thursday night? Whether he does or not, Kennedy himself is a major reason Kerry will claim the nomination.

On the campaign trial in New Hampshire last fall, when disgruntled Democrats demanded that Kerry explain why he had voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposed new burdens on local school boards, Kerry, as a final justification, fell back on saying that Kennedy had co-sponsored the measure. He even offered to have Kennedy himself come to New Hampshire to explain why he and Kerry voted for it.

Later, in the week leading up to the Iowa caucuses, it was Kennedy’s spell-binding speeches in Waterloo, Davenport and Des Moines that fired up Democrats and convinced at least some of them to back Kerry. That Iowa victory — partly Kennedy’s handiwork — dealt a blow to Dean’s candidacy from which it never recovered.

Never the nominee, as he very well could have been long ago, Kennedy is still legend in the Democratic Party and something more than legend: power.

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