What if they threw an election and nobody came? We may be about to find out

Walter Stewart October 18 1976

What if they threw an election and nobody came? We may be about to find out

Walter Stewart October 18 1976

What if they threw an election and nobody came? We may be about to find out

Walter Stewart

“Wanna know how we could get a million more votes in this state?” the man asked, slamming his hand down on the desk and glowering at the elderly lady behind it. She didn’t look up; she didn’t want to know. “Get that grinning ape’s picture off the billboards, that’s how,” the man said, and slammed his hand down again. The woman sighed. She was expecting something like that. The portly, elderly man straightened up, shot his cuffs, tipped his hat politely, nodded affably in my direction, and stomped out the door. .

“How’s the election going?” I asked the stricken lady. “Everything’s just fine,” she responded automatically. “Everybody’s enthusiastic.”

This little scene took place in the Democratic committee rooms in Zanesville, Ohio, a saggy little city at the confluence of the Muskingum and Licking rivers, in the heart of the American heartland. This is country both Republicans and Democrats are claiming in the Presidential election— the Republicans because they have always done well here, the Democrats because of their new wonder-product, James Earl Carter, “the grinning ape.” But things are not going well in Zanesville. Zane Grey, the writer of Westerns, whose great granddaddy, Ebenezer Zane, founded the place, would say that both sides were plumb tuckered out. Zane might even say—for he was a man of powerful phrases—that the folks hereabouts don’t care a lick who wins, that the two candidates look as alike as ticks on a bull’s butt, and a body cain’t hardly understand what in tarnation all the fuss is about.

Zane Grey, may his spurs never grow dull, would be right. Just up the street at Republican headquarters Rex F. Kieffer, the Republican candidate for the 94th district of the state legislature, which includes Zanesville, allowed that “in 1972, you had a lot of people involved in the election, people outside the party structure. This time you just have the party people.”

Zanesville turned off is not important— if it hadn’t been for Zane Grey and his riders of the purple prose, the place would be indistinguishable from 1,000 other American towns and cities. But what Zanesville shares with 1,000 other American towns and cities is supreme indifference toward the most important political event in this nation’s existence—a Presidential election. There is a good chance that fewer than half the American electorate will turn out on November 2, a fair chance that, if the voters could really express themselves, both Presidential candi-

Carlton, Rhoda’s doorman. At least he’s unknown.

Nine months ago, when Jimmy Carter was unknown, he burst onto the political scene like a mortar shell. He was new and different, and he smiled a lot, and talked a lot, and he held out a soothing poultice for the American psyche. He was a little vague, but that would pass; the important thing was that he gave his audience a sense of purpose, he restored their faith in themselves and their system. Gerald Ford, that well-meaning but inept man, was doomed to go beneath the Georgian’s chariot wheels along with the Democratic hopefuls who perished in the primaries. Ford was seen as a man who hits his head on things, a schnook. That was nine months ago. Ford is still seen as a schnook, but Carter has not gained thereby. He is as dimpled as ever, as vague as ever, as full of grins and God and goodwill, but he is all image and no action. He clouds up a lot, as they say in Zanesville, but he don’t rain much. The choice before the people now appears to be between a schnook and a jerk.

And that is a pity. This election could be, should be, one of the most interesting in recent American history. There is a perceptible difference between the party platforms this time, a real debate about the direction of American policy. The Democrats expressed themselves vigorously in

favor of lower unemployment, and they propounded measures—the HawkinsHumphrey full-employment bill—to make their commitment real. The Republicans think this is a bad bill, inflationary, ignorant, a mark of everything that is wrong with Democratic policies; it would make the government the employer of last resort in bad times, and the Republicans won’t stand for that. They say inflation is the key issue, and government spending and government interference the battling ground.

So there should be a clear-cut tussle over the role of government, over the trade-off between inflation and jobs, over the whole range of economic problems. But Jimmy won’t play—he treats Hawkins-Humphrey as if it were a slug on one of Daddy’s peanut plants back in Georgia—he knows such things exist, but he doesn’t have to like them. He said, in the first debate, that balancing the budget came first, and he wouldn’t start any new programs until that was done. Where does that leave HawkinsHumphrey? Nobody knows. Nor do we know whether Carter, who has embraced the principle of national health insurance, would back a government-funded scheme or turn the whole thing over to private insurance companies. (The Republicans think poor people ought not to get sick.) Jimmy’s clouds may have a silver lining, but it’s hard to get them to the mint.

Republicans want a tougher foreign policy, backed by more billions in the defense budget; Carter has attacked the swollen defense budget, but gives place to no man in his zeal to have America stand number one in armaments. And so it goes—real issues have vanished, and the election has turned into a trivia quiz. In its early weeks, the issue was abortion, a problem on which the two candidates basically agree, and one the public does not expect to be solved politically. Then the nation was thrilled to learn that Jimmy lusts after people other than his wife, and that Jerry has switched his TV allegiance from Cannon to Police Woman—an obvious sop to all women’s libbers.

Jimmy Carter started this election far in front, and has driven off much of his support by succeeding imitations of FDR, JFK and Harry Truman. Ford, starting from behind, has gained, not on his own virtues but because of the flatness of the Carter campaign. And with the election on us, the issues ignored and the nation in the grip of ennui, the whole affair appears, as they say in Zanesville, not worth a bucket of warm spit.