Jimmy Carter saves
America is looking for a messiah, which is why the former governor of Georgia will probably win the Democratic nomination, and maybe even the Presidency
The spotlight lanced down from the back of McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas, Texas, focused on the man who stood grinning at centre stage, acknowledging the tribute of 2,400 enthusiastic throats. Behind him, a green-and-white sign proclaimed CARTER FOR PRESIDENT, but he doesn’t need signs, not any more. Who could miss him? The shock of greying brown hair, the hand raised beside one shoulder—a traffic cop flagging down the ungodly, the unpatriotic—the slight, blue-suited figure, the smile displaying more ivory than a rogue elephant: it had to be Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer, nuclear engineer, ex-governor and, according to the folks in McFarlin Auditorium, the next President of the United States.
Could be. I hadn’t taken Carter too seriously until that night, two nights before his smashing victory in the Texas primary. But I take him seriously now. Not because he’s a great orator—Ronald Reagan’s louder, Morris Udall’s wittier, our own Joe Clark is smoother—but because he’s a better salesman with a better product than his rivals. He makes them all, from Gerry Ford to George Wallace, from Henry Jackson to Ronald Reagan, look like hucksters pushing aluminum siding.
Much of his success lies in his style. He is one of the few politicians to grasp the significance of the microphone—he never shouts, waves his arms or bangs his fist. He talks softly, with a Georgia lilt, and we all lean forward to catch his words. “I’ll never lie to you,” he says. “I’ll never mislead you, or betray your trust.” It isn’t true, but he says it so softly, so surely, that we ache to believe. He understands television, too. Gerald Ford, a quiet fellow at his desk, tends to stomp and bellow before an audience. So do most politicians. Scoop Jackson, on a public platform, sounds like a cavalry charge. It goes well in an auditorium, but on camera these crowd pleasers look berserk. You don’t want a man in your living room waving and shrieking; Carter sounds like a chummy neighbor who dropped in for a serious chat.
But there is more to Carter than style. At the end of his standard, 20-minute speech, he lowers his voice still further, leans forward and, radiating sincerity, lays down
his double whammy: “It’s your country. It’s your country ... I want for it to work, for us to work. Together, for a change. With respect, for a change. With a minimum of secrecy, for a change... There is a decline of leadership, there is immorality, hopelessness, drift. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll bring to the President’s job my strength and my courage, and my faith in people like you who don’t want anything for themselves out of politics, who only want to see a government that’s as good, as decent, true, fair and competent and idealistic and filled with love as the American people themselves.”
I had heard this line in Florida and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and I could never understand why such a clutter of clichés brought the crowd up roaring. In Texas, it came to me: this is not just another braying politician bragging up his country. This is a faith healer promising to lay hands on the body politic and make it whole. Dear God, how the Americans want that. How they need it. When I began to travel regularly in the United States, 15 years ago, what appalled me about the Americans was their notion that they were the centre of the universe, their certainty that the American Way was the only way. I wish they had some of that assurance back. They have lost their self-confidence, their nerve, their faith. They have become convinced that their leaders are liars, their businessmen crooks, their public servants cruel automatons. They ooze self-hatred, and the signs of it are everywhere: in an NBC-TV poll that showed 60% of respondents agreeing that “the government does not care about people like me”; in George Gallup’s observation that “there has never been a time in the 40 years that we have been conducting our survey that we have found the population to be so pessimistic”; in journalist Bill Moyer’s crack that “Watergate and Vietnam were cosmic vengeance for an original American sin, the sin of optimism.” We were frisked going into the McFarlin Auditorium and required to run our tape recorders, to show they were not weapons (a local journalist with dud batteries gave the security guards a rough moment). On the way out, I was handed a brochure urging me to buy a man-trap for my home, protection against the nameless dread that lurks outside the American psyche. Newspapers blossom with stories headed RAMPANT SPIRIT OF MALAISE, and THE AGING OF AMERICA and NUCLEAR WAR BY 1999? and THE THEATRE OF THE IRRELEVANT (politics, of Course). In Des Moins, Iowa, of all places, I tore out a newspaper column called Over The Coffee, which began: “This country is through . .. have the band strike up Nearer My God To Thee." Middle America is in menopause.
Vietnam, Watergate, the spy scandals, the bribery scandals have been too much. Even the ghost of JFK is out stalking the land, raised by stories of sex and sin and the CIA. The Americans want respite. They need respite. Carter gives it to them. Other politicians promise. Carter delivers. Noth-
ing else can explain his astounding success. He has swept through the Democratic primaries, rolling over such able liberals as Mo Udall and Fred Harris, well-backed conservatives such as Jackson and Lloyd Bentsen. He has thrashed other bright newcomers such as Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania, and the day before the Texas primary vote that old-comer Hubert Humphrey tucked his head back in his shell and declined to run in any primaries. Two days later, Jackson retired from active campaigning. All of them—old, new, rich, notso-rich, smart, dumb, soft, tough, southern, northern—went under Carter’s chariot wheels and now, barring calamity, he stands on the brink of the Democratic nomination, on the road, probably, to the White House (given the predominance of
Democrats in the United States and his present lead over Ford in public opinion polls). Not bad for a shrewd, flexible, twisty Georgia boy whose chief accomplishment to date has been moderate success as governor of a backwater state.
Carter cries for economic justice while the family peanut business pays workers $2.30 an hour (the minimum wage). He has described himself as “always a liberal” and “never a liberal.” He wears his positions sincerely, always, but he wears them like a reversible raincoat, adaptable to the climate and guaranteed to hide the dirt. It’s a wonder how he does it.
A wonder, but not a miracle: it is susceptible to explanation. Carter is telling the Americans what they need to be told: to stop whining and stand up. He doesn’t bitch at them. He doesn’t blame anybody, as so many politicians do. He just tells them he loves them, and he loves his country, and his blue eyes shine, and they believe. He comes as a blessed relief. The day after his Dallas speech, I went across town to a Reagan rally that was louder but less impressive. Reagan, leaning over a picture of himself that was taken 20 years ago (minus today’s jowls and wrinkles and tired eyes), fired off salvos of bellicose bitches. He railed at the wicked legions in Washington, he scored off Ford, Henry Kissinger, welfare cheats and Congress. On domestic issues, he said many of the things Carter says, but he said them quite differently. Carter says, “There is too much government intervention in the economy.” Reagan says, “We’ve got to turn loose the oil companies.” Reagan fired off oneliners—“Get God back in the classrooms”; “Some politicians have kissed so many babies they have diaper rash”; “I don’t want to live in a world dominated by the Soviet Union.” It’s good stuff—for a crowd of believers—but predictable, and sometimes scary. Would Reagan really blow up the world to put down the commies? Probably not, but he sounds as if he would.
Carter, on the other hand, sounds as if he wants nothing more for America and the world than love, sweet love. His message is simple and potent: the United States is a great country and always has been. It contains great people, just as great as those who were present at the creation, 200 years ago. The nation has lost its way, that’s all. The Nixon years, Vietnam, Watergate, were aberrations. (What Reagan and Carter say about Vietnam is interesting: Reagan says the mistake was in not fighting the war through to victory; Carter says the tragedy came about because the American people were never consulted—he implies they would not have approved. Anyone who forgets Carter’s dogged support of the war, or the special day he held for My Lai killer William Calley, is impressed by the contrast.) All that is needed to restore America’s greatness, says Carter, is a revival of faith in “our great system.” He says that “the American people love their government so much it hurts.” And stockbrokers and oilmen who spent the day cursing Washington cheer him to the echo. Restore the Presidency to its appointed place, says Carter, and all will be well. Put in charge the fellow who did such a whale of a job in Georgia: Jimmy Carter. Thunderous applause. Carter wants to use the ballot as a healing poultice; most of his rivals see it as a bludgeon to hammer down their enemies.
Some of what Carter says about himself is true, and some is not, and some is left out. He was, he says, born in the dusty, drowsy town of Plains, in the southwest comer of Georgia, 51 years ago. He always describes it as “a poor place, no lights nor running water” and full of “hard-scrabble farmers.” He says,“Ah’m a fahmuh, mah daddy’s people been fahmin’ the same land for 210 years,” and that’s why he understands the little people. Well, Plains (population:683)is poor, but Carter is not. His listed net worth is $666,000, most of it in the family owned peanut business. If he’s a fahmuh, Henry Ford II is a mechanic. He’s a politician and businessman, and his folks were the quality of the town.
His father was a farmer and businessman, his mother, a remarkable lady still known around town as Miss Lillian (pronounced Lee-yun),was a nurse and a liberal. (Ten years ago, at age 68, Miss Lillian joined the Peace Corps and went to India to work for two years as a nurse.) They were both hard-shell Baptists, but Daddy was a segregationist, Miss Lillian was not, and Carter received training on both sides of the racial line.
After high school in Plains he spent two years at Georgia colleges, then enrolled in the naval academy at Annapolis, Maryland, on the way to a military career. He graduated in 1946 and married a hometown girl, Rosalynn Smith, who bore him four children and shares his devout faith in God and Jimmy Carter. In 1952 he was picked for the nuclear submarine program by Admiral Hyman Rickover (still a friend and adviser), but a year later his father died and Carter went home to run the family business. (He describes himself as a nuclear physicist, apparently on the strength of the Rickover experience and a course— though no degree—in engineering. He is not a ^ scientist any more than he is a fahmuh.)
Back home, he worked hard, made money and edged into politics on a Sumter County board of education. When a group of white citizens complained to the board because the site of a new black school would force blacks and whites to walk down the same street, Carter proposed a motion, passed unanimously, that the black school be moved. On the other hand, he battled in vain against a move to keep his own church, Plains Baptist, for whites
only. In 1962, he ran for the state senate and lost, but he was able to show that his opponent’s tally included voters in the jails and graveyards so the election was overturned and Carter went into the legislature. He didn’t like it, seeing himself more as an executive than a mere parliamentarian, and in 1966 he ran for governor. He was whipped by Lester Maddox, the axe-handle-wielding segregationist.
Carter is a fast study, and he learned from his first two campaigns. In 1970, when he ran for governor again, this time against Carl Sanders, a “New south” liberal, he put the lessons to work. He called his opponent “cuff-links Carl”—cufflinks
being the outward sign of ill-gotten gain— and ran TV ads showing a man wearing huge cuff links stepping out of a plane to receive a bucket of cash from a stranger. He called a press conference to lay out evidence that would, he said, force Sanders from the race. The evidence consisted of a photograph of Sanders on a platform with Hubert Humphrey, which showed that old cufflinks would sell out Georgia to “the ultraliberals.” (The other day in Dallas, after Humphrey had declined to run against Carter, the Georgian described him as “about the politician I have most admired.” Humphrey must have improved with the years, like good wine.) Running as a moderate hadn’t worked, so Carter declared himself “basically a red-neck” and set out to prove it. He promised to invite George Wallace over from Alabama to speak (he kept the promise) and he had nothing but kind words for Lester Maddox, now campaigning as his running mate for Lieutenant Governor. Someone—Carter said it wasn’t him—gave wide circulation to a pamphlet that showed Carl Sanders being given a champagne shampoo by two blacks from the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. It showed that Sanders hobnobbed with lesser races. Carter also made a much publicized visit to an all-white academy, privately founded to get around integration laws. (In Dallas the other day Carter was asked if, as President, he would stop the federal government interfering with the private schools. He caught the gist of the question quickly and said, Nosuh, he thought these schools were mostly set up to get round the law, and he favored integration.) In his red-neck guise Carter won handily in 1970, then turned his back on the segregationists and declared that the time for race discrimination was over. He made a voluble (and valuable) enemy out of Lester Maddox. He also opened up state jobs to blacks.
Carter makes much of his four years as governor. His literature trumpets, “When I was elected governor, we had 300 state agencies. We abolished all but 22 of them
and set up a simple system that cut administrative costs by 50%.” He promises to work a similar miracle in Washington. In fact, Carter didn’t abolish all those agencies, he merely regrouped them under 22 superagencies. The state payroll went up by 30% during his tenure—from 52,000 to 68,000 civil servants—and funding for the governor’s office rose 49%. Total government costs also shot up; none of Carter’s aides has ever explained where the “50%” cost cut figure came from. Carter also says he left the state with a budget surplus of $116 million, but in fact he inherited a surplus of $91 million and left one of $43 million, a depletion of $48 million (and it could be asked why any state with substandard schools, appalling jails and minimal social services should have a surplus at all). He was not a bad governor: he initiated modest reforms in the education and penal systems, developed health care programs and traveled the state to listen to complaints from ordinary citizens. But he was not the whiz he claims to be. When he credits himself, for example, with operating “136 day-care centres for the retarded and using welfare mothers to staff them,” he is stretching a long bow. He established 134, not 136, community centres for the retarded, but the notion of using welfare mothers remains a dream (Carter describes these nonexistent ladies as “some of our best workers.” He may be right). He did put a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the state capitol, but that was in 1974, long after he had decided to run for President: the gesture may have been genuine, but it was also useful.
If Carter’s Georgia term is to be read into the record for the Presidential race, it should include the King portrait and the speech he made on George Wallace Appreciation Day; his statement that the Vietnam war was immoral and his pleas on behalf of President Richard Nixon and Lieutenant William Calley, just a couple of boys trying to do their jobs; his fulsome praise for American youth should be set beside his promise—shortly after the Kent State University killings—to send national guards onto Georgia campuses with live ammunition, to put down disorder “even before violence erupts.”
The man’s extraordinary flexibility—if that’s the word—has stretched from his Georgia years into the Presidential campaign. During the Iowa primary, he managed to collect conservative votes by sounding as if he was against abortion and liberal votes by sounding in favor. In Milwaukee, he told a black audience that he was for school integration and brought down the house; a few hours later he told a white audience, “We tried mandatory busing in Atlanta, and it didn’t work,” and brought down that house. The stands are not entirely incompatible: it is possible to have integration without forced busing, although blacks find it hard to believe. The deception is in the emphasis, not in an outright lie. When calling Americans to greatness, he rhymes off the names of past heroes—Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt. Before black audiences, he usually includes Martin Luther King Jr.; before white audiences he usually does not. (It is this kind of fooling with the folks that recently caused speech writer Robert Shrum to quit Carter after only nine days on his staff. He accused the candidate of “manipulation and deception.”) There are those cynical enough to believe that Carter’s most famous gaffe, when he talked of “ethnic purity” in the neighborhoods, was no mistake, although he apologized for it. Blacks, who assume they have no alternative to the Democrats, accepted the apology, while white segregationists dug each other in the ribs and called Carter a good oP Georgia boy. Maybe he didn’t mean it to work out that way, but it did.
If his vague policy statements can be taken seriously, Carter is a conservative with a few liberal wrinkles. He wants to cut government spending, but he’s not sure where; he is in favor of national health insurance, but only on a modest scale; he favors capital punishment and opposes abortion, but he is in favor of the equal rights amendment and speaks eloquently on behalf of women’s rights. He would trim the defense budget—by 5%—throw the ablebodies off welfare rolls, reform the tax structure—he won’t say how—boost employment, curb bureaucracy and increase social security payments to the elderly while setting up a “zero base budget,” (which means making every department justify every expense). He pushes this wheelbarrow full of fog with incredible vigor. He often ends the day with fingers bleeding from shaking hands. (Once, carried away in a crowd, he shook hands with a department-store dummy, then cracked to an aide, “Give her a brochure.”)
But it isn’t hard work that puts Jimmy Carter over, it is the smile and the message of hope. Any politician can fib and dodge and shake hands, but how many can do it with cheer and charm? Carter’s religiosity—he was “reborn” in 1967—is an enormous asset. He never pushes it, but he never forgets it, and it touches a deep chord in the troubled American soul. Faith, any kind of faith, is more precious here than Arab oil, and Carter’s faith in himself, in God, in America, has transformed a spotty record and a clutch of vague hopes into a stunningly successful campaign. Perhaps the man will be swallowed up by his own imagery. A Carter worker in Dallas told me, “Look, I know the man is a little twisty, but he believes what he says when he says it, and I think if he gets the job he’ll do what he says.” It is a hope to cling to and a measure of the man’s ability to inspire the willing suspension of disbelief. I emerged from McFarlin Auditorium into a muggy Dallas night wishing that I didn’t know so much about the Georgia boy, hoping he really could bring the United States the respite it so badly needs and he so glibly promises.