Editor’s Note: The following first appeared on July 6, 1979, as one of Mr. Buckley’s syndicated “On the Right” columns.
I cling tenaciously to the position that the American people are prepared to forget Chappaquiddick, and it is my own theory that we should. It is ten years now since it happened. It is almost certain that but for Chappaquiddick, Senator Kennedy could have had the presidential nomination in 1972. And it is unassailably true that but for Chappaquiddick, he could have had it in 1976. My thesis is that the two nominations forgone were propitiation; and that in the view of the American people, Senator Kennedy has been sufficiently punished. It would be unseemly for the Republican candidate to make an issue of Chappaquiddick, and although it would inevitably figure in the huggermugger of a national campaign, I cannot believe it would prove decisive; certainly it ought not to do so.
The case for nominating Kennedy becomes more persuasive. Paradoxically, both to Republicans and to Democrats. The failure of Mr. Carter’s presidency is lapidary. One of the principal reasons why SALT will fail is his leadership. The treaty, in the judgment of men whose technological knowledge is impressive, is inherently defective. But that apart, the American people inevitably will ask themselves whether existing leadership can be trusted as executor of a treaty the other half of which involves the Soviet Union. A John Connally guarding our interests under SALT II is one thing. A Jimmy Carter guarding our interests under SALT II crucially damages the treaty. Treaties are not always self-enforcing, as we discovered as recently as after Laos in 1962. On other fronts, the inflation Jimmy Carter set out to tame when it was at 4 percent, at his inauguration, is raging. It sometimes appears as if all the world were conspiring to frustrate Mr. Carter’s dreams. In the wild chiaroscuro of Carter’s presidency the image that assaults us is of Jimmy Carter embracing Leonid Brezhnev, with the caption: “Jimmy Carter made human rights a matter of public policy.”
That Senator Kennedy is the manifest favorite candidate of the Democrats should be held against the Democrats only if we are prepared to make out a general case against democracy.
So the Democrats have got to look elsewhere. Now the argument that there are men better qualified than Senator Kennedy for the Democratic nomination is as frivolous in the particular case as such arguments are generically. Every now and then James Reston or Esquire magazine will recite the overwhelming qualifications of some American figure, with the argument: “Why don’t we elect this splendidly qualified man president?” The answer to which is: a) the splendidly qualified man won’t get nominated; and if, per impossibile, he were, b) he wouldn’t get elected. That Senator Kennedy is the manifest favorite candidate of the Democrats should be held against the Democrats only if we are prepared to make out a general case against democracy.
The reason Republicans should argue the case for Mr. Kennedy’s nomination is subtle, but not indecipherable. If Kennedy is not nominated in 1980, he will be nominated in 1984. It is imperative that he be defeated. Imperative because Senator Kennedy’s public life and attitudes are dominated by all the reactionary slogans of populism. His public responses to almost every question could have been taken verbatim from editorials in The New Republic of 1936. He is the True Believer in the socialist response. These we will always have with us, even as we will always have with us somebody who believes that Rothschild and the Banks are responsible for American foreign policy. But what makes 1980 so greatly important is that there is an as-yet-undissipated energy in America that argues the necessity of sacrifices in order to maintain U.S. sovereignty. By 1984, the creeping predominance of Soviet power will give rise to a peace-at-any-price party in the United States. We have already seen the beginning of that spirit in Europe, whose leaders have urged ratification of SALT II notwithstanding that it is manifestly to their disadvantage to conspire in the relative military impoverishment of the United States. But the shadow of the Russian bear is the principal presence in Europe. And that shadow will extend across the Atlantic in the years ahead. In 1948 we had Henry Wallace — at a moment in history when we could have crushed the Soviet Union with the slightest exertion. By 1984, the Democratic party will probably be in the hands of men and women who will be preaching the necessity of appeasement-at-any-price. That will be the beginning of the fabled Finlandization of America. The point is to defeat Senator Kennedy, who will greatly enhance the movement’s prospects, while we can.