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.

The South is the most homogeneous bloc of voters in the country. If you get it at all, you are likely to get all of it. That always gave the South a heavy impact, even when it was poor and under-registered and racked with racial strife. But now it is growing—and growing prosperous, and gaining confidence. The Confederacy and its four border states make up a third of our population; and those fifteen states account for over half the electoral vote needed to become president. Take that bloc, and you can shop around for the other hundred or so electoral votes it takes to win. Denied that bloc, you must scrounge everywhere but in the South, a task beyond the energy, or organization, or pocket-book, of most candidates. The proof of the South’s importance lies in the way Republicans assume that they must fight for it even against Carter. They cannot grant him his home turf and hope to win.

I mean to take nothing from Carter as a politician; he is the best any of us is likely to see. But, good as he is, he could not have pulled off his “miracle” without the structural factors working for him. These factors make the unexpected look, in retrospect, inevitable. If he was to represent the real South, and not just be a front man for Northern liberals (like Terry Sanford or Reubin Askew), he needed most or all of the following traits—and Carter possesses them all in supreme degree.

  1. He should be a military man. A military record helps almost any American politician running for national office—look how McGovern’s supporters emphasized his bombing days from World War II. But the South is the most bellicose region of the country (it would call itself the most patriotic). Nixon won Strom Thurmond’s support in 1968 less from hints at racial toughness than by commitment to ABMs. Southerners fought and died in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam. Those who grant Carter a little leeway in his first campaigns on the issue of black rights—the maneuvering room that was given William Fulbright—do not see why he had to express a hedged concern for Lieutenant Calley, a fear for national security when the Pentagon Papers were leaked, a doubt about McGovern’s toughness.

I do not fear bellicose acts would follow such political noises. Carter is not only a military man, with nothing to prove; he will, if elected, be the first Annapolis graduate to hold the presidency. (Grant and Eisenhower, from West Point, are the only earlier presidents from a national military academy). Eisenhower stood up to the Pentagon better than any other postwar president. He saw the military establishment from the inside, as a professional making it his career. That experience can be more disillusioning than inspiring; and Carter has shown a healthy skepticism about the top-heavy military staffs. He thus gets the best of two worlds—a Southern respect for the military without the awe that naval amateurs like the two Roosevelts displayed.

  1. A Southern voice should, ideally, be a rural voice. Even as it undergoes rapid urbanization, the South still thinks of itself as rural, and likes a sense of its farm roots. Many jokes were made, when Carter started his run, about a peanut farmer as president. But Southern politicians must affect a country style even when they do not come by it honestly. Carter knows this. He did not, with success, move from south Georgia to Atlanta, as his friend Charles Kirbo did. (Kirbo compensates by driving a pickup truck around the big city.) People argue whether Carter is a “real” populist; but populism is more a matter of symbols than of ideology in America. It is a style that either stimulates or allays the rural envies. Carter, because of his self-confidence, does not mobilize resentment as Nixon did. When he says, “We are as good as any others,” he really means he is better; and the better voters think of themselves, the less demanding they become.

  2. The Southerner must be a religious man. The South is the last refuge of sin in America, of devils and the fight against devils. Its politicians still quote the Bible. Carter’s late partner would not process peanuts on the Sabbath. The church was the center of social life when Carter was growing up. He is not a fanatic, but a sincere member of the mainstream of Southern belief. This not only gives him substantial identification with the South’s third of our national population; it makes him an appealing figure to the burgeoning evangelical movement all across the country. And thus another historical anomaly is resolved. The evangelical tradition in America, seen recently as opposed to progress and change, has been a reforming influence through most of our history.

Paul Kleppner in The Cross of Culture, his brilliant analysis of the populist elections in the 1890s, separates American religion into two political types, the ritualist and the pietist. The ritualist believes in hierarchy, social structure, compartmentalization, and an intellectual theology. Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews are all ritualists in Kleppner’s terms. In varying degrees these faiths have accepted secularization, departed from Biblical fundamentalism, and been thought of as “enlightened” and progressive. Pietists, by contrast, stress a personal experience of the Spirit, one not mediated by priests, ceremony, or theological argument. They descend from the Puritans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and they call for constant reform, revival, awakening, “new lights.” Like the Puritans and dissenters in England, they were allied with many forces of political reform and liberal change—with abolitionism, temperance, wider suffrage, easier money. The combination of populism and fundamentalism in William Jennings Bryan was not a personal quirk but the natural result of social configurations in his time. Pietists have always tended to think of themselves as the true Americans, formed entirely by this country’s experience—as opposed to “foreigners” like the German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, or Russian Jews.

In recent times the increase of secularism seemed to favor the cool and intellectual style of ritualists. Pietists were still there. Billy Graham always showed up in polls as the most admired man apart from the president—but otherwise the pietists made little noise. But ritualists seem to have grown so secular and pale today that they do not feed the spiritual hungers of our time. Pietism was making an astounding comeback in the Sixties even as ritualists proclaimed “the death of God.” And the comeback occurred on familiar turf, amid forces of change and reform. The Sixties style of protest emphasized personal experiences of conversion (“radicalization”), “witnessing,” and emotional assembly. Martin Luther King and his SCLC set the tone. Preachers and hymns turned antiwar marches into modern revivals. Communes were the new monasticism. This atmosphere helps to explain the appeal of the Jesus People, or Pentacostals, or Moon cultists, or Eastern contemplatives, to so many young people.

Evangelical religion of the more traditional sort has been growing in numbers and intensity. The National Opinion Research Center recently found that over a third of Americans claim to have had a mystical experience (the born-again feeling), with the proportion approaching 50 percent among middle-aged middle-class Protestants. Educated guesses now put evangelical Christians at between sixty and eighty million people in this country, with a large fringe of sympathizers or the well-disposed. This makes it far the largest religious group in the country. The person mobilizing that group has a broader political base than Kennedy had in his fifty million Catholic supporters. Carter often says that Martin Luther King made his campaign possible. He means that King broke down the racist isolation of the South. But King as a symbol made Carter’s rise easier for reasons that go beyond the civil rights movement. King was partly a cause, and partly the result, of the evangelicals’ reentry into reform politics. Carter could not have risen so far so fast without the energies of this large social shift behind his effort. Pietists tend to vote for persons of distinct moral character, unlike ritualists, who concentrate on intellectual “issues.”

Only yesterday, it seems, too overt religiosity would have been considered risky in a presidential candidate. Kennedy’s lukewarm Catholicism was acceptable because it was irrelevant. But Catholicism is ritualist and “foreign.” The native religion looks almost like a necessity this campaign year. President Ford, an Episcopalian by formal denomination, has an evangelical mentor, the well-known preacher Billy Zeoli; and, as a congressman, Ford was a devout frequenter of evangelical prayer meetings on the Hill. He has spoken to almost every large gathering of evangelicals this year, where he reminds audiences that his son is in divinity school. Reagan has an ex-all-American evangelical pastor, Donn Moomaw, who has conveyed the message that Reagan is “one of us.” Indeed, in a recent interview Reagan said: “In my own experience there came a time when there developed a new relationship with God, and it grew out of need. So, yes, I have had an experience that could be described as ‘born again.”’ (Off to the right even of Ford and Reagan, evangelicals like Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis have lost influence, though John Conlan of Arizona is taking up some of their “crusade.”)

The energies of evangelical revival help to explain not only Carter’s appeal to others but his understanding of himself—the unembarrassed use of his own character as the prime issue, the need for personal contact, the demand for personal trust; the instant familiarity and first names and diminutives (it is Billy Graham, not William); the discipline and puritanical attitude toward wasted time; the framing of political matters in moral terms. When Carter traveled as a preacher of the gospel, his style of witnessing, of living with the people, was essentially the mode of his campaign. When he ran for governor, he brought friends and neighbors from his own county (Sumter) to vouch for him around the state. In the primaries, he brought Georgians to other states for the same purpose.

Pietism has often gone hand in hand with political shrewdness in America—and it certainly does in Carter. I thought of that, too, as I watched Papp’s production of Henry V, a production whose flow and jumble of scene-changes create a deliberate chaos through which the King can move in a circle of ordering calm. This King jokes a bit, as he did when Prince. But he also prays; and he executes men at each step of his way—the conspirators at home, the prisoners abroad, and even old Bardolph (who was hanged in grisly effigy off the backdrop of Papp’s stage). Those who complain of Carter’s cold eyes would be just as upset if he were a wild-eyed hot-gospeler. As it is, he likes order and creates it, sometimes ruthlessly. As Assemblyman Willie Brown put it, complaining of the way Jerry Brown left his California delegation dangling and uninstructed, “You cash no loser’s tickets at Jimmy Carter’s window.”

Even while Carter graciously praised Governor Brown, he mocked him. Referring to Brown’s ascetic style Carter said, “As we were saying upstairs in his suite—I mean, his room….” He could not finish—the Californians laughed and applauded. Brown had not stayed in the hotel with their delegation but in a fleàbag with Cesar Chavez. Carter talks a lot about love, and presumably means it; but he is a businessman who talks about profit just as earnestly. King Henry woos fetchingly when he meets the Princess Katherine; but he keeps counting the realms he wants in the very midst of his courting: “I am content, so the maiden cities you talk of may wait on her; so the maid that stood in the way for my wish shall show me the way to my will.”

  1. *

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