Columnist George F. Will characterized the Presidential candidates as “tiresome little men clawing for Lincoln’s chair,” television commentator Howard K. Smith dismissed the election as “almost entirely fluff,” and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. growled: “What an abysmal, demeaning, offensive, empty campaign . . . What a hell of a way to celebrate the Bicentennial!”
Paradoxically, the ragged U.S. Presidential race may have helped to make election night exciting, and to boost the voter turnout. When it all began, Jimmy Carter held what looked like an insurmountable lead in the public opinion polls, but as the campaign developed into a contest of calamities, a choice, as one wag put it, “between the Walter Mitty of adultery and the man who freed Poland,” the gap narrowed. For a time, the pundits and polls kept reporting, Americans were so disenchanted that a record low turnout was threatened. But it didn’t work out that way; by the time the polls were saying the race was too close to call, as the Democratic chairman for Maine noted, “the sporting blood of America came out.” So did the voters; at the end of the balloting, a respectable 54% of those eligible exercised their franchise.
They voted, but they were not impressed. In Washington, a middle-aged man pushed into a precinct station asking, “Where can I vote for one of those dummies?” In Bethesda, Maryland, three women emerging from the vote were asked, when they admitted to backing Carter, why they had done so. They looked blank; then one said “Damned if I know,” and the others nodded.
Ford supporters were no more enthusiastic; an Arlington, Virginia, housewife explained, “I started out for Jimmy Carter, but finally voted for Gerald Ford. I figure he could only be in office for four years, while Carter could be in for eight, and between those turkeys the thing was to minimize the damage.”
On paper, this election should have been a classic. It pitted an experienced politician, Gerald Rudolph Ford, against an attractive newcomer, James Earl Carter. The Republican platform called for a cutback in government and emphasized the need to curb inflation, raise profits and give the President a more responsible Congress to work with than the Democrat-dominated 94th. The Democrats were committed to tax reform, a full employment bill and national health insurance. In foreign policy, the differences were less marked, but still real, with the Democrats calling for less de-
fense spending and the Republicans for more, the Republicans insisting on a tougher American presence abroad and the Democrats urging more consultation, less arrogance and an absence of Henry Kissingers.
The voters should have had a clear choice between men, parties and policies, but a number of things went wrong on the way to the ballot box.
First, there was the Carter problem. The Georgian, 33 points ahead in the polls after his nomination, apparently hoped to roll to victory, as he had in the primaries, on vague promises, lashings of love and a sunburst of smiles. But he was a new, refreshing face in the primaries; long before No-
vember he was just another used politician. He burst into America’s consciousness as a man beholden to no one, then spent much of the fall junketing around the nation to curry favor with the power brokers, from Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley to Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo (whose support he was proud not to have had during the primaries), from George Wallace of Alabama to George Meany of the AFL-CIO. He and his workers massaged endorsements out of movie stars, sports celebrities and party hacks until his promise of a new brand of politics drew nothing but cynical jibes.
He talked a clean campaign and ran a dirty one. He linked Gerald Ford to Karl
Marx, as two men who believed that wars solved unemployment, and he managed to lay the entire blame for the Great Depression on the shoulders of Herbert Hoover, the man he suggested was Ford’s Republican prototype. He surrounded himself with a clutch of personal advisers, prompting comparison with Richard Nixon’s palace guard, and when their advice went sour he became cranky, irritable, short-tempered. He trailed a cloud of promises behind him, but, as with most clouds, it was hard to get a hold on them. He was either for a sizable cut in defense spending, or perhaps not; he was committed to national health insurance, but not really; he was going to make jobs his first priority, unless balancing the budget came first. On such a simple matter as racial discrimination no one really knew, at campaign’s end, where Carter stood. Just before the election, his church in Plains, Ga., closed its doors rather than admit blacks, and Carter, who had called civil rights legislation “the greatest thing that ever happened to the South,” confined his reaction to a comment that he, personally, opposed the notion of an all-white church.
By his evasions, shifts and misrepresentations, Carter blew one of history’s strongest leads, and when he finally won he did it on the home-boy vote in the South and the clothespin vote in the North. There are more Democrats than Republicans in the United States, and in the end they pinched their noses and marked their ballots.
Then there was the Ford problem. After two years of office, Ford had just begun to live down the tales of his dumbness and clumsiness, symbolized in the Lyndon Johnson crack that he had played one too many games of football without a helmet. But then he left the White House and traveled the land with his suits neatly pressed, his stride confident, his hair in place, and his foot clenched firmly between his teeth. His most spectacular gaffe was his statement, in the second debate with Carter, that Eastern Europe was free of Soviet domination, but there were many less spectacular fluffs. He kept mispronouncing the names of Republican candidates, he said that “Carter wants us to speak softly and carry a fly-spotter, er, swosher, er, swatter,” and in St. Louis he rewrote American history, telling an audience there that he had been “privileged to be at Valley Forge, where the straggling army of George Washington fought that battle” (there was no such battle). He left an impression, summarized by a Midwesterner in Zanesville, Ohio, that “there’s only two things dumber than Jerry Ford, a chicken and a rock.”
At least Ford wasn’t mean; his running mate, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, was put on the ticket as an alley-fighter, and lived up to his reputation. He laid all the war dead of this century at the feet of the Democrats with the statement that the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam were all “Democrat wars,” a claim that inspired the
image of Japanese pdots closing on Pearl Harbor with FDR buttons pinned to their lapels. In Jacousi, Missouri, Dole suggested that Carter was to blame for Georgia’s high crime rate, noting darkly, “Since he left office, the crime rate’s gone steadily down.”
And he wasn’t even smart. Ford had attacked Carter for saying that he would not send troops into Yugoslavia in case of Soviet intervention after Tito’s death ; a President, Ford said, should never signal policy in advance. So Dole piled into Carter on the same issue; then a reporter asked whether he would send troops to Yugoslavia. “Well, no,” Dole replied, “but I wouldn’t tell anybody about it.” The fear that Dole could succeed Ford to office certainly hurt the Republicans, just as the possibility that Senator Walter Móndale, a moderate, thoughtful candidate, might one day have to succeed Carter helped the Democrats.
In the end, the Ford campaign turned into a television extravaganza, with the President shuttling from city to city to make pre-programmed appearances before rent-a-crowds, replete with “photo opportunities” but no “question opportunities” for the press. His hesitations—for example, in his soft, confused handling of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz’s racist slurs—his blunders, and his apparent insensitivity—to urban blight, to unemployment, to the widespread demand for gun control laws—revealed him as a man with little judgment and less knowledge. Even his honesty, the one “given” of his career, came under attack in renewed questions about his role in Watergate and his handling of election expenses in 1972, neither of which were satisfactorily resolved.
Ford’s campaign was summarized neatly in an incident that occurred just as he was about to start his final 10-day-crosscountry blitz. He left the White House to walk to his helicopter on the South Lawn, to the cheers of an assembled crowd. Three of them held up a sequence of signs to cheer him on his way, but there was, as usual, a screw-up, and he stepped off to the memory of a message that read:
Give ’Em Jerry Hell
Then, there was the media problem, in the single-minded concentration on the trivia issues—who lusted after whom, which candidate’s kids smoked pot and which had never had an affair, who said what about the non-issue of abortion, and who looked nervous on television. The dominance of TV, with its insistence that all issues be reduced to 27 seconds of photogenic material for the evening news, destroyed any chance the election might have had to come to grips with substantive issues. In Cleveland, Ford was deliberately 20 minutes late for an appearance at an ethnic rally because the setting sun was shining into the TV cameras set up for him. When the sun moved, he landed; then he
went among the crowd, distributing his informal campaign pitch: “Hi, how are you? Nice to see you. Good to see you all.” When feeling frisky, the President varied this routine by throwing in “Howdy.” Then he made his formal campaign pitch, a short, sharp speech setting forth the successes of his administration—more jobs, fewer wars—and ending with the standard plea, “Give me your mandate.” This line was repeated so often that the traveling press began to growl toward the end of the campaign, “Give him the goddamn mandate, so we can go home.”
Carter’s big moment came when he would ask his rent-a-crowds “How many of you believe we still have a great country?” and when they cheered, he would say, “Right on.”
The media never ceased complaining about the campaign stunts staged for their benefit—the funny hats, the cookouts, the ethnic dances, the tree plantings—but they never ceased to cover them. Sex was deplored, early and often, and always at full volume. The quality, quantity and character of Carter’s smiles were analyzed to a fare-thee-well, while urban blight received a passing nod. General George Brown’s crack that the Israeli army was more of a liability than an asset created a tremendous fuss, while the jingoist statements of both candidates on Panama— statements worthy of the late James Munroe or the uníate Ronald Reagan—were buried in speculation about who won which debate and by how many points. TV’S simple-mindedness turned a merely bad election into an appalling one.
Finally, there was the structural problem of the Presidential system, with its emphasis on the character and personalities of two men who, the electorate rightly suspects, will neither be guided by platforms nor bound by promises. Richard Nixon campaigned as a law-and-order man, an implacable anti-Communist and a bitter
foe of wage and price controls. In office, he imposed controls, opened relations with Communist China and came close to destroying the rule of law. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson promised to keep U.S. forces out of Vietnam, at a time when he was already plotting intervention. John F. Kennedy stood foursquare for civil rights, but he wouldn’t fight for them. The American system puts enormous power in the hands of one man, the President, but provides no mechanism to check him if he cannot, or will not, fulfill his mandate. As a result, Americans are increasingly turned off by their own politics and politicians. When the Nevada legislature provided a space for “None of the above” in a primary ballot a month ago, “None” won handily over two named candidates. In effect, “none” won the Presidential vote, too, since Carter comes to office with the support of about 30% of the eligible voters.
The feeling that politics are beyond the control and responsibility of ordinary voters was the single strongest emotion to come out of the campaign, and it was reflected in the election graffiti: “Vote for Nobody. Nobody Keeps His Promises,” and “The Lesser of Two Evils is Evil,” and “Honk When the Election Is Over.”
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