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The Carter Question I: Love and Profit

I: Love and Profit

New York: I badly needed to rinse my mind of political rhetoric. Of Barbara Jordan: “Now we must look to the future.” Of Jimmy Carter: “It is a dis-grace to the hu-man race.” Of Fritz Mondale: well, just read his speech.

It was raining when the delegates left town on Friday (munching “big apples” distributed by the city as they checked out of their hotels); but the rain slacked off in time for Joseph Papp’s free production of Henry V in Central Park that night. I would drive out bad rhetoric with good. The tall buildings, faintly visible over the park’s trees, were cottony at the top—pleasant contrast to the lights (dimming by their very brilliance) at Madison Square Garden, that oval stretched tympanum of hopes and fears on which Carter tested midriff-reactions all week.

The play got off with its own kind of gavel-bang, a cannot shot; off which the Prologue played for comedy. I settled in on the wet bench, expecting to forget Democratic delegates for two hours or so. But a kingly dictum caught my mind and nagged at it, one of the quiet prose sayings that reveal a virtuous Machiavellian at work behind King Henry’s more bellicose arias. He is telling his officers how to treat the conquered: “When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”

It was a captive party that met in New York. A fairly willing captive, by the end; but captive still—in thrall to a gentler gamester. Udall and Brown delegates chafed at the thought of John Glenn for vice president. They showed this resistance in a studied coolness toward Glenn, even before he began his keynote address—and in the way they went crazy over the slow and exaggerated pronunciations, the long chewed words and Everett Dirksen pauses, of Barbara Jordan. Carter could afford to read this signal drummed off the collective diaphragm—especially since it confirmed what he already suspected of Glenn. He yields where it costs nothing. He is a master of calibrated lenities.

But he is tough where it counts. The last holdout against his campaign was played with and dismissed. Jerry Brown made this easy for Carter by acting the sullen fool—but even the more adroit Edward Kennedy was gamestered aside by Carter. His hot-and-cold mastery of control came out best in a post-nomination meeting with the California delegation. On the one hand, Carter desired a show of unity with the last semiholdouts (he had pulled together the riven New Jersey delegation to get its unanimous vote). But he also meant to show who was in charge. He stole Brown’s troops out from under him, mainly by gentleness.

Brown was dour and minimal in his introduction; but Carter, who had been trading coal-hearth fires of bright smile with John Tunney on the dais, used lenity to win. He opened with a graciousness that shamed Brown’s affronted prima donna act: “I want to thank the people of California for keeping Governor Brown so long out of the presidential race. I hate to think what would have happened to my campaign if he had come in before New Hampshire instead of before Maryland.” But Carter’s lenity is an accommodation of his power drive, not a denial of it. He went on to use his slogan of the week: “I did not intend to lose the nomination, and I do not intend to lose the election.” In other words, though he hates to think of an earlier entry by Brown into the primaries, that would have entailed new strategies for winning, not any thought of losing.

The convention was so uneventful that its critics—mainly journalists—were tempted to call it “rigged”: Carter’s people would not allow the airing of dissent. But the truth is there was precious little dissent to be had for airing in New York. Feminists tried to raise the quota issue for future conventions. But that echo of 1972 was not a welcome one for most delegates. Besides, the women did not have their allies from the past—black leaders could do little, since their troops had gone for Carter in the primaries; quotas for the young lost their urgency with the disappearance of the Vietnam issue on campuses. The women’s first demand (fifty-fifty representation) was not serious; it was raised to give them bargaining leverage for talk of female appointments in a Carter administration. Bella Abzug upstaged Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the convention, and praised Carter’s compromise measure in the hope that he will be helpful in her fall Senate campaign. Barbara Mikulski spoke for many women when she said: “Women are like Israel. We are not weak—just vulnerable. We do not aim at nuclear war, but at dazzling raids. We accomplished our raid here.”

The other issues—a larger “mini-convention” in 1978, uniform primaries, amnesty rather than pardon—were matters of degree, not clashes of principle. The abortion challenge of Missouri was not supported by any sizable number of delegates, as the McCormack vote on Wednesday proved. Carter’s floor machinery, assembled for tougher purposes, had to contain such debates—if for no other reason, to stave off boredom. But the real reason trouble was avoided was plain lack of fire on the troublemakers’ side. The party preferred its pleasant captive state to feckless revolt. The captor’s lenity was all it asked for. The grumbling of some Chicanos and other ethnic groups was aimed at getting Carter’s attention, not challenging his dominance.

The thoroughness of Carter’s victory left his critics with little to say that was not silly. Some of those who accused him of “overkill” management in New York were also predicting he would prove lackadaisical, like Dewey, in the fall campaign. He was charged simultaneously with trying too hard and trying too little. His tight circle of devotees was compared to Nixon’s band of Prussians. But Nixon used Haldeman and Ehrlichman to seal himself off from the electorate; and he was watching even these watchers—he trusted no one. Carter demands total loyalty because he delegates so much of his task. He does this, not to raise barriers between himself and the people, but to free him for maximum contact with them.

The one thing he will not delegate is campaigning, shaking hands. His whole approach to politics—the “full court press” of personal contact, the use of his family, the staying in others’ homes—derives from a supreme confidence that the more people see and know of him, the more they will admire. He talks easily of his own “character” as the test of this campaign. He is convinced that he is not only a better politician than the next man but a better person. That can infuriate, especially if he is right—and he may be.

Other campaigners want to retire from the public at night; to be alone with themselves or their friends—or with booze, or with a woman. Carter stayed in supporters’ homes, disciplined enough to sleep, read, and write in such circumstances. He is a submariner always on duty. It is eerie, that control. He wrote his own campaign biography, in snatches, on commercial flights before he had a campaign plane. Its clear prose reflects the orderly mind at work:

In later years my father bought a steam-driven mill for grinding the [sugar] cane stalks and for heating an inclined pan. The juice was piped continuously to the top of the pan and would run slowly back and forth between baffles from one side to the other, being boiled by heat from the steam plant. The inclination of the pan would determine how fast the juice ran down and, therefore, how long it was boiled, and the juice was changed into syrup before it reached the bottom of the twenty-foot-long slanted pan.

I know a Milton scholar who claims he will vote for Carter because he is the only politician he knows who uses the subjunctive properly.

One of the ways Carter subtly put Governor Brown in his place before the California delegation was to remark: “I have never gone to a governor’s office—or a congressman’s or a mayor’s—to ask for the support of their constituents. I have gone to the constituents.” There is little Carter does by accident. It was surely no accident that he began his list, in this place, with a governor’s office. He will defer, but only from strength. One of the most revealing comments in the primary season came when Senator Kennedy first aired misgivings about Carter’s fuzziness on issues. Carter snapped: “I don’t have to kiss his ass to be president.” He asks for votes, but does not beg. On the day after his nomination, he said, “I needed a factory-shift line this morning to get the campaign out of the hotel suites and back to where the people are waiting to be recognized.”

Recognized by him—he thinks of handshaking as granting the people an audience. He talks of playing with the dozens of black children who islanded his boyhood home in Archery, outside Plains. His sister, in her book,* reveals something of the reality behind that early exposure: she says she did not realize, till she had grown up, that she won games because blacks understood they had to lose. Carter, all smiles and hugs and instant friendship with voters, never looks silly as he does the things that demean most politicians. He carries with him a calm knowledge of his worth—just as he did in intimate contact with black girls and boys. It is a family trait: his mother, asked how she gets along with Plains blacks, said she gets along beautifully: “They know how much I have done for them.” (It was fascinating, in New York, to watch liberals apologizing for their embrace of Carter by saying they really liked his mother.)

The dullest thing about the convention was all those news people telling each other how dull it was. This was not, they insisted with a boring iteration, the Democratic party they knew and had covered before. Peace was treated as an abnormality—but in fact it ended a standing anomaly of our politics. Democrats make up the majority party in registration, in congressional seats held, in state legislatures. Yet, despite this commanding position, they have managed to lose the White House four times out of the last six presidential elections. The explanation for this is the loss of the Democrats’ base in the “solid South.” There was only one way to win back that base—not with a mere neutralizer of Wallace, a “good guy” who might take Florida and then lose the nomination, but with a real Southerner who began with the South and then added other regions to it.

Carter seems a mystery. His rise is unprecedented in our modern politics. Yet he is both mysterious and necessary. If the Democrats’ problem was to be solved, it had to be solved by such a man. Two years ago, I said in these pages that the only way the Democrats could win in 1976 was by finding a younger Sam Ervin as their candidate—that is, a Southerner who might appeal to Northern liberals. At the time I did not suspect Carter would fill that role, but that was the role that needed filling.

  1. *

    The Gift of Inner Healing (Word Books, 1976).

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