Campaign aide-turned-AIPAC chief Thomas Dine remembers the 1980 presidential run
When Ted Kennedy decided in 1979 to seek the Democratic nomination for president, he recruited Thomas Dine, then a staffer on the Senate Budget Committee, to be his defense and foreign policy adviser. Kennedy lost to Jimmy Carter, of course, and Dine joined AIPAC as its executive director, a job he held until 1993. He spoke to Tablet Magazine today.
The first thing I did on the job, which I remember vividly, was to compile his record on Israel. He’d been in the Senate 19 years at that point, and it was quite a prolific record of matters concerning Israel’s standing in the region. Well, he himself didn’t realize how thick his record was, and when I showed him the document—it was Xerox paper I’d typed on and stapled together—and said, “Senator, this is what you have done,” he just sat down on the couch in his office, and held it in his hands. I can’t tell you what he said, to be honest—that’s not Kennedy, he just mumbled a few things—but it was a lovely moment, because he himself hadn’t recognized all that he’d done.
The first major speech he gave to a Jewish group as “Sen. Kennedy, candidate for the Democratic nomination,” was to the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish Organizations], on January 28, 1980. We flew up on the Eastern Airlines shuttle, and we got into the cars, and I’m with him on the back seat. We crossed the Triborough Bridge, and we’re on the FDR, and the driver got very close to the curb and went over a tin can, or something, and it made a big noise. And he went off the back seat and almost hit his head on the ceiling—he thought it was a shot. And you just say to yourself, “Oh, my, it’s not easy to be a Kennedy.” But he was cool; we went to the speech, and I don’t remember what he said, but it was damn good.
He won the Massachusetts primary, and it was very cute—he called me into his office to thank me, because the Jews in Massachusetts had gone four-to-one for him. I said, “Excuse me, your name is Kennedy, you have this fabulous record, they’ve been voting for you all these years—you should have won it five- or six-to-one!”
Then Carter took his stand at the United Nations [with a vote, later disavowed, in favor of a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories]. We went to New York, and the senator went to Brooklyn and said, “Hey, I’m a friend of Israel, I can prove it.” And there’s a photo of him, at an event with all these bearded guys in black hats—he was cool. This is the Sunday before the Tuesday primary in New York, and that night we went to a synagogue on the Upper West Side. There must have been 500 people in the room. Kennedy was tired—he’d been in the car, and he was getting grumpy because his back hurt. So he got out there and gave a short speech, and then he got all kinds of questions about domestic issues, because that crowd was already convinced they were going to vote for him. The question I remember was, “Who are your heroes?” He took his time, and then he said, “The teachers in the public schools.” Particularly in rough neighborhoods, he said they were his heroes. And you can imagine how many teachers there were in that audience, or how many people related to teachers, and so he was talking about community, about local needs, education, civil rights, all in one answer.
Related: Primary Time: Of Kennedy, Carter, Jews and the Money Gap [NYM/Google Books]