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Carter on His Own

The campaign ended in the normal way, with the candidates heaved grandly about the map in their jets—little bands greeting the big planes in odd places. At the Quad City airport in Illinois, balloons fizzed back along the 727’s flanks like champagne bubbles, and the wind threw Carter’s voice back at him, his magnified coo of love finding its real target in this process of verbal mirroring. Ford wore his jet like an outsize overcoat—his granddaddy’s old war uniform, full of tarnished medals; cumbrous as his undeserved incumbency. The contest raised curiously distracted excitement, like that which children muster at midnight on New Year’s Eve—they know they are supposed to be excited, though their bodies gently keep chiding them toward sleep.

Roughly half the voting part of our nation gets its heart broken in normal elections—surely the minorest of fractures. The collective heart is healed again, and yearning to be broken, four years later. Indeed, a vivid anticipation is the strongest emotion most people feel, early in an election year. This leads to all the lovers’ half-leaps into disappointment as the great build-up tilts over into boredom, all the election hoop-blah.

This election, like most, was mainly preamble. Too many primaries on one side, and too much Reagan on the other. Ford of the folding knees chevied and chased himself around the nation, while Carter played Alexander, summoning Democratic Aristotles down to Plains to teach him a thing or two. He was a good student, never a bit unruly; maybe, in fact, too ruly. To be one of the boys, he had to confess breaking the rules; but only in his heart. He played the decorous truant in velleities. The teachers cleaned their own erasers, then took the school bus back to Atlanta. Carter stayed to play Huck Finn in ponds that seemed to be kept only for repeated drainings more photogenic than hygienic.

Ford’s task in the primaries was to make dullness a virtue, playing conservative temperament against Reagan’s conservative ideology. John Sears at last gave the ideologues a whiff of opportunistic cleverness, and it backfired. He added to the two classes of Reaganites—the deadheads and the hotheads—a third component, what might be called, like a modern rock group, the Hot Deads. It combined the other two, only to dissolve them.

The closeness of the race belied its final dullness. Ford and Carter did not run, or even walk. They inched forward in a sideways-rocking manner meant to prevent stumbling. They were the survivors, the end-product of a thousand earlier surprises. Wallace, mighty in prospect, melted through the floorboards like the Wicked Witch of the East. Scoop Jackson got his presidential jet so fueled up with money that it could not lift itself off the runway. Birch Bayh and Sargent Shriver smiled incompetence. Hubert Humphrey cried softly from the wings. Senator Kennedy blessed us again with his absence. At last, weary from excess of drama, we were left with Carter and Ford, known on the press planes as Weirdo and Bonzo.

The number of those who voiced no preference remained large even late in the campaign. George Gallup called it the most unusual election he had monitored. Other pollsters talked alternately of “volatility” and “apathy,” as if these were complementary rather than contradictory traits. A very good political reporter told me, two days before the election: “All the old verities were destroyed in this election.” His was an understandable attitude; but he was wrong.

The cast of characters, vivid or dim, distracted us from large social configurations dictating the outcome. Elections in America are essentially conservative in their mechanics, and make more for continuity than change. Each candidate tries to hold a basic constituency, while wooing the vast muddle of independent or undetermined voters, using roughly the same platitudes, cleared by similar pollsters: “Tell me what you want to be told, so I can tell it to you.” The candidates scroonch together in the middle, and mill there, left-right, right-left, dos-à-dos.

The shape of the 1976 campaign was determined by the fact that each of the candidates was trying not only to retain but to restore a damaged constituency while milling near “independents.” Carter was trying to restore the Roosevelt coalition without Roosevelt. Ford was trying to piece together again the Nixon landslide without Nixon. Carter’s forces were potentially larger; but it had been a long time since they had worked together. Ford’s alignment could look to more recent successes; but it had suffered the sharp recent blow of Water-gate.

The two strategies had been successive in the past; now they were simultaneous, and overlapped. Ford had to capture the Kevin Phillips “Heartland” while denied some of the Phillips “Sunbelt.” Carter was turning the old Democratic coalition on its head—a Southerner in the top spot, not the second—after the civil rights revolution that Roosevelt’s alignment had done so much to delay (entrenching spokesmen for the Democratic Solid South in congressional chairmanships). The logic of this overlap made for the extraordinary raids into rival territory, Ford trying to nibble at the South, while Carter ended his last march in the land of Gerald and Henry Ford—Flint, Michigan.

Nixon Without Nixon

Ford, inept in many small and personal ways, put his campaign on a solid foundation with the very thing most analysts took as a mistake—the Nixon pardon. However bad in law or morals that might have been, it was the ideal political move. Ford understood instinctively his own kind of people—those who had, late and reluctantly, to give up on Nixon himself, but who still believed in a baffled “Nixon mandate.” A vast part of the vast majority that voted for Nixon in 1972 accepts an analysis that runs this way:

  1. Bad as Nixon may have been personally, the press and the Democrats and the Establishment brought him down, among other things, to defeat his program, overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate.

  2. This explains why Nixon’s enemies were not as harsh on similar failings in his Democratic predecessors. Earlier presidents may not have been quite as bad as Nixon (though even that is not established, since hard investigation of the sort used on Nixon has not revealed all the uses of the CIA, FBI, IRS, etc. by Roosevelt or Kennedy or Johnson). The other presidents get a reproving sigh or two, while Nixon was treated to a merciless vendetta.

  3. This proves that the real object of the vilifying campaign was not Nixon himself, but Nixon’s followers, who were punished by having their programs discredited along with his personality.

  4. So the real political importance of Watergate was that it reversed the election of 1972. The people chose Nixon, but various elitists made sure that McGovern actually won.

People who accept that kind of reasoning account for the heat that still clings to the amnesty issue. Strong as the antiwar movement was, electoral support for the war continued right through 1972. McGovern was soundly defeated in part because he was identified with the antiwar movement, which was (and still is) widely perceived as an attack on patriotism. Despite Carter’s tricky (and quite sound) verbal play on the meaning of “pardon,” and despite his even trickier (and quite misleading) roundabout tribute to Lieutenant Calley, he remained suspect to many a redneck AmVet type that a Southern candidate should be able to count on. He would have been terribly hurt by his charge that the Vietnam war was “racist,” except for the fact that few voters knew or remembered that reckless brief indulgence in the truth. (Dole had to take some of the heat Carter had coming to him when he attacked earlier wars, affronting the kind of patriotism that believes in America’s martial inerrancy.)

Many liberals fooled themselves about the damage Watergate had done to Ford because they believed the myth that Nixon did not win in 1972, McGovern just lost. It was hard to find anyone who had voted against John Kennedy after November 1963. In the same way, a lot of people now like to remember their vote as cast against McGovern rather than for Nixon. But Nixon would have beaten any Democrat in 1972, so long as Wallace stayed out. McGovern put some icing on Nixon’s cake; but the shape of the 1972 election is just the 1968 election with Wallace’s states and popular vote (13 percent) added to Nixon’s plurality. Many of those not “actually” voting for Nixon were voting for Agnew (whom Nixon could not dump) or Wallace (who was not available).

That vote did not just evaporate with Agnew’s downfall, or Nixon’s. Ford inherited it, and took good care of it. He showed, during Nixon’s trip to China just before the New Hampshire primary, that he felt he could not affront the Nixonites; and he read the public mood better than all the liberals who thought, even recently, that pardoning Nixon had finished off Ford.

Because of our system’s conservative electoral mechanics, it is almost impossible to defeat an incumbent president. The more candidates resemble each other, the less reason for a change. The unseating of a party as well as a person is usually the result of a performance that looks so bad anything would be preferable. Roosevelt talked Hooverian economics in 1932, and very few could have guessed what they would get by voting for him. But the election is mainly a judgment on the incumbent, a stamp of approval or rejection—and rejecting Hoover was the first priority in 1932. People back into their voting booths, looking to the past, the only thing they really have to go on. (“Ford may be a dull item, but he is a known one; he’ll give us no nasty surprises.”)

Some Democrats thought Watergate would be reason enough for massive rejection. That would do in Ford, as the Depression did in Hoover. For the reasons I have already indicated, this was a mistaken reading of the voters. Many of them felt that they had been rejected, along with Nixon; that their will had been partially thwarted. Nixon may have betrayed them to the enemy. But the enemy was still there, and was trying to get at them through Nixon. Ford walked the careful line between rejecting Nixon and retaining much of the Nixonism that was voted for in 1972. His incumbency had to be based on the Nixon landslide to survive Nixon’s downfall.

Roosevelt Without Roosevelt

But there was good reason for Democrats to think they could capture the White House this year. The precedent was not 1932 (the aftermath of a disaster) but 1960 (the vulnerability of a minority-party president). Eisenhower had won office by virtue of his own popularity and the first crumblings of the Solid South. But those two were not enough for him to keep a majority in the Congress or to lift Republican registration above minority status. And therefore they were not enough to put Nixon in as his successor. Nixon had a quasi-incumbent’s advantage in 1960, but the incumbency was based on artificial and transient forces. The Republican president was an anomaly in a nation basically Democratic.

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