The Day That Changed America
History is often just a jambalaya of events, people and forces that blend together in the narrative that we call history. Rarely is there a singular event or factor that by itself changes everything, but we know them well when they do occur. They are seared into our collectively memory such as September 11, 2001. November 4, 1979 is another such day.
In 1979, Washington was a Democratic city. Jimmy Carter was the President and, despite enduring the usual midterm setbacks, the Democrats had an 8 vote majority in the Senate and a 69 vote majority in the House. These were, however, tough economic times as the economy had endured the effect of two oil embargoes in a decade.
By November, the misery index (inflation + unemployment rates) coined by Jimmy Carter in his debate with President Ford was at 18.3% compared to 13.5% in 1976. Consider the following:
- The inflation rate alone was 12.6%;
- Prime Lending Rate was 15.75%; and
- Inflation was contributing to a 3.8% reduction in inflation adjusted weekly earnings.
President Carter’s approval rating had hit a low of 29 percent in October.
Waiting for T-Day
I remember this time period very well since I was counting down the days to November 7th when Senator Ted Kennedy would announce his challenge to President Carter. I would later volunteer for his campaign.
In October, Kennedy held a 22-point lead over President Carter in a Harris Poll. A September Field Poll had Kennedy crushing Ronald Reagan 63%-34%, with other Republican primary challengers faring even worse. But then the world changed.
The Day That Changed America
On November 4th, Iranian protesters stormed and took over the American Embassy in Tehran beginning what would be a 444-day hostage drama. The nation rallied around its President with Carter’s approval rating reaching 54% one month after. By the end of the year, it was Carter who had a a 20-point lead over Kennedy which would swell to a 32-point lead by late January.
Carter’s approval rating would fall into the 30’s by late March 1980, but by then he had won significant victories in Iowa, New Hampshire, Illinois and in the south with Kennedy having only won one state outside New England. From that point forward, Kennedy won most of the big non-southern states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, New Jersey, but it was too little, too late.
Kennedy would deliver his famous concessions speech at the Democratic convention, but the course of history had been irrevocably altered.
Election Day happened to fall on the first anniversary of the embassy takeover and a day that, at one time appeared ready to announced the return of Camelot, instead became a Republican rout with Reagan trouncing Carter and the Republican picking up 12 seats in the Senate to regain the majority and narrowing the margin in the House with a 34-seat gain.
On January 20, 1981 the hostages were released as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. A conservative movement that had been crushed in 1964 was now firmly in control of Washington.
Instead of the coronation of the great liberal lion, the left was now on the defensive and forced to redefine themselves in this new age as Paul Tsongas and Gary Hart would do in their influential books.
One can only imagine what and where America would be today had the embassy successfully repelled the student demonstrators. Would it be better? We will never know this but we can be certain it would have been different.