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Carter on His Own

Nixon did succeed finally in 1968, not because he had become more popular, but for reasons equally temporary. The Democrats had, for a while, lost all of the South in the presidential vote. Denied that largest homogeneous voting bloc, they could only hope for a plurality victory, and then only if a Wallace-type third party kept most Southerners outside the Republican as well as the Democratic fold. Carter seemed the perfect answer to this problem. He would win the South back for the Democrats on terms acceptable after the civil rights revolution. He was welcomed, at first, as a decontaminant—even if not viable himself, he might neutralize Wallace. Then, in his campaign’s second stage, he proved that the nation’s mood was still largely conservative: while liberals scrambled over each other in primary after primary, Carter had only the mind-numbing Senator Jackson to contend with among conservative Democrats. Carter got the best of both worlds—a vote for him was anti-Wallace but still basically conservative. The third and last stage of this rocketing ascent was acceptance in his own right, based on what he had picked up in the first two stages. He had enough chips to play now; and the political pros had to accept him on those terms, and not because they liked him.

But he likes to be liked; and he does not like to play the game. In Roosevelt’s day, there was no question about aiding and abetting Southern racism. One looked the other way at, when not directly inspiring, attempts to block anti-Klan or anti-lynching planks at the Democratic conventions. If it wanted to play a winning game, the North had to humor the South. Carter comes after that kind of accommodation, and his freedom from it was a great part of his early strength. But the purity this has bred in him has its drawbacks. He does not like accommodation of any sort.

Politics is favors. Favors done, acknowledged, returned, anticipated—a knit of debts and dependable leanings. Those who ignore this largely beneficial law end up bitter or solipsistic as Eugene McCarthy, betraying friends in the name of “independence” from favors. Carter broke free from the cruder Georgia politics of the county court houses. In a time of change, he used the loosenings of earth to leap up at each convulsive toss. Rooted by accent and religion, he was extraordinarily loose, not bound by conventional political debts. (Loose, also, from due bills: he was not promoted toward the presidency, at the outset, by any Georgia faction at all.) He was freer even than politicians from other regions—doubly free in the Southern tradition of sweaty mutuality and terribly intimate exchange of favors. He could play South against North to get ahead in both places.

He reminds me of the returned college kids in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, trapped in a life they mock, superior by the very things that bind them. But Carter turned enclosure into mobility, alienation into cash-and-carry political “love.” I asked him, once, if he had ever met O’Connor. “No, but I met her family. As Governor, I declared a Flannery O’Connor Appreciation Day, and all her relatives came, her aunts and cousins.” I wish I had been there. I wish Flannery had. It was a story she had arranged but could not write.

When I told a Carter aide I thought O’Connor helped to understand Carter, he said, “But he escapes that stereotype.” I don’t know what stereotype he had in mind—or why he thought she wrote in stereotypes. But the kinds of characters I think of in connection with Carter are those who dream a private South in order to escape the public one, who deliberate on Southernness as a way of denying it:

Miss Willerton had never been intimately connected with sharecroppers but, she reflected, they would make as arty a subject as any, and they would give her that air of social concern which was so valuable to have in the circles she was hoping to travel! “I can always capitalize,” she muttered, “on the hookworm.”

Carter claims to speak against the politicians for the suffering hookworm types. “My strength is my personal relationship with the American people.”

Purity is all right in its place. But its place is not politics. Roosevelt had to wink at the Klan. No such demand has been imposed on Carter. Roosevelt had to run with a Southerner like Jack Garner. Carter could choose a nice clean Mondale. But he does not find it easy to deal with the average run of pols. Daley and Meany he could bow to, stiffly—they are powers one can deal with and not be demeaned. That is like détente with Brezhnev. But Carter found many subtle ways of telling other politicians—across the land, and throughout his campaign—that he does not need them. The deference exacted from him by the powerful would be avenged upon obscure hacks.

Carter, with a very good memory for names, almost ostentatiously read from a list the names of dignitaries on each dais he trod in his final campaign days. Then he would tell each audience that he began running for president with his family and a few friends, that he came to this or that state and was not even noticed, that he won voters person by person without the help of an organization or the big shots. “Why does he keep saying that?” one aide muttered. “He’s telling all those politicians on the stand that they cannot help him; and they can.” Rosalynn was even blunter. She kept saying, right up to election day, “You should elect my husband Jimmy because he doesn’t owe anything to anyone.” Not only was that foolish. It wasn’t even true. Carter would be elected with a turnout arranged by big labor and by unpalatable mayors like Frank Rizzo—and that’s better than depending on the Klan. But Carter does not like to depend on anyone.

Carter’s Southern ease of address covers a prickly dignity. He reminds me of the lady in Flannery O’Connor’s story who would not take off her hat or gloves in the back seat of the car: in case she died in an accident, she wanted people to know it was a lady’s corpse they found. The push-off from entangling kin-and-cousin smotherings creates a very special type of isolation. (O’Connor rebelled against just that kind of rebelling.) It will be wrong to talk of a President Carter in terms of peanuts or grits. He has a baked-Alaska cold intelligence inside his pastry warmth of spun hair and quick huggings.

As Carter began to sink in the polls, his staff got jittery. The organization pols showed their dislike for Carter, their fear of the way he operates. They were reciprocating his contempt. Had he not said he ran for the presidency because he had met the principal candidates and not been impressed by them? A very bright political reporter listened, on the campaign plane, while other journalists worried at a problem: Carter had just said he was convinced any black could become a member of his church in Plains. That was patently untrue and the press knew it was—even before an erratic black outsider tried to join the church. Why would Carter indulge in such useless falsehood? Finally the reporter who had been listening spoke up: “You don’t understand. You see, Jimmy just don’t think you’re very smart—or I am, or any of us are.” It is an impression he manages to convey to a great many people he must deal with.

One reason Carter slid in the polls was his refusal to believe anyone as dumb as Ford could come close to him. His aides worked hard to make him practice for the first debate. He refused. It was below him to think he might not outdo a numbskull like Ford. His momentary faltering in that important first contest was the price he paid for that arrogance. After that he did some secret practicing, but tried to play it down.

In the hectic final days of his campaign, it became clear that much of his support might come from Mondale. Robert Dole, with his talk of partisan wars, had made people remember the two attempts on Ford’s life; and the thought of a President Dole was unsettling. Pat Caddell’s polls showed Carter picked up two to three points when his name was linked with Mondale’s. The course was obvious: Carter should remind people of Mondale’s presence on the ticket at every stop in those crucial last days. Slowly he began to try out that strategy—but it kept coming up as an after-thought: “Oh, I almost forgot,” he said the first three times he urged his audience to vote the ticket. “Why?” reporters said to each other: “We didn’t forget.”

In 1968, when Agnew caused misgivings, Nixon squirreled him away from the last telecast with Bud Wilkinson; but Humphrey put Muskie on prominent display. The reporters could not understand why Carter did not get together with Mondale before the final rally in Flint. That would give a lift to Mondale’s subsequent appearances, and increase his visibility. I was astonished when, two days before the election, Carter spoke to a crowd in San Francisco and did not mention Mondale once. This was an important speech, telecast in its entirety over a three-state area. Carter was appearing with Governor Brown, who had not exactly been working himself to death in the cause. In the plane immediately afterward, I asked Carter why he had omitted Mondale’s name. “Oh, I forgot, until it was too late.” Carter does not forget important things—but he can say he does. He don’t think we’re very smart. And he doesn’t want to owe this election to anyone, even Mondale, his own man. When I volunteered that it would make sense to use Mondale as Humphrey had used Muskie, the frost came into his face and voice, crisp as the sprinkle of gray in his hair: “You have a right to your opinion.”

I had asked Jody Powell for this interview, and he brought me forward as soon as the plane took off for Sacramento. I suspect Carter may have welcomed a journalist at that point to save him from the need to talk with Brown, who was on the plane for this leg of the trip. The race had become very close, and I asked Carter if he could lose now and preserve his equanimity. “Of course.” Yet it was said he had not lost well in 1966, after his first try to be governor. And he had written: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” Did that mean he would not be a good loser? “That quote is Fran Tarkenton’s.” Yes, but Carter had used it in his book. “I did not lose my equanimity in 1966. My only reaction was to declare the next morning that I was running for the spot again.” It is often said, by his sister among others, that his conversion experience was part of the reassessment forced on him in that first defeat. “That is not accurate. That is just an impression that has been created in the press.” Carters do not lose their equanimity. No matter how bad the wreck, the hat and gloves will still be in place. While I ran through my other questions, Carter himself brought up the subject of equanimity two more times, the last one after I had risen to leave his cabin.

All right, if he was not afraid of losing, was he afraid of winning? “No.” Yet he reads the New Testament as a devout Christian, and that book seems to me full of warnings against worldly power and place, against pride of office and the desire to rule others. “I don’t feel that at all, I don’t know why. I know miners, teachers, blacks, Jews. I have consulted with the best minds on every subject. I am as well prepared as anyone has been, including Roosevelt back in the Thirties. I draw my strength from my personal relationship with the American people.” He knows he is the best, and he wants us to have it. When we leave the plane in Sacramento, Carter addresses a crowd outside his hotel, and says for the first time: “I am not afraid to be president, because my strength, my counsel, my criticism, comes from you.” I go over to one of his speech writers and tell him about the conversation that had preceded this appearance. “I wish I knew how to get a new line into his talks,” he grumbles. Carter had new speeches prepared for event after event; he used none of them. His strength comes from other sources—from his feeling that he represents the people. His strength comes from himself.

It is there, the strength. No one who knows Carter will say, “I don’t think he’s very smart.” He is tough. He did what he had to do, even when he did not like it. The political pros and labor leaders came out, scared by the late decline in the polls, and did what they had to do, even though they do not feel comfortable with Carter. No one who knows Carter would like to cross him. But it might not be good, either, to have him beholden to you. He did not want to need Mondale, or labor, or the bosses. He may have to avenge that need some way. As governor, he was a loner among governors. In Atlanta, he was a stranger to the legislature when not a foe. This man of “personal relationship” with an abstract “American people” lives behind impenetrable walls of reserve. The man who will not need others is not predictably affected by them. We are all in for surprises, pleasant or unpleasant (or both). Nothing scares Carter; and that scares me. I do not know whether he will be a good president; but I am afraid he has in him the makings of a great president. Duck.

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