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Reading the Carter Riddle

The Search for Jimmy Carter

by Tom Collins
Word Books, 192 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Running for President 1976: The Carter Campaign

by Martin Schram
Stein and Day, 406 pp., $11.95

How Jimmy Won: The Victory Campaign from Plains to the White House

by Kandy Stroud
William Morrow, 442 pp., $10.95

Convention

by Richard Reeves
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 246 pp., $10.00

We Almost Made It

by Malcolm D. MacDougall
Crown, 244 pp., $8.95

The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians: A Revisionist History

by David Leon Chandler
Doubleday, 394 pp., $10.00

There is something about Jimmy Carter that makes journalists want to change the subject. No candidate has been so extensively covered, yet so ill described. We largely get repeated stories about his “conversion,” his red-necking in 1968, his ethnic purity in 1976. Plus, of course, his family. Already the canonization begins in a literate picture book like The Search for Jimmy Carter, which describes him early on as “the man from South Georgia who refused to lie down and settle for the vicepresidency as a ticket-balancer.” I wrote an article in the spring of 1972 saying he meant to balance the McGovern ticket, and he told me in Miami that was the only thing about my piece he didn’t like. It was the only thing I wasn’t sure of at the time—but it has been confirmed by Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell since then.

Few alternatives to canonization seem available as yet. Martin Schram’s book is full of good campaign stories, but most of them are about other campaigns—principally Morris Udall’s doomed noble effort. Granted, success in politics, as in most other games, depends on your opponent’s mistakes; and Schram is full of good stories of the way Jackson and Wallace blew it. We understand the campaign better after reading him; but Carter still escapes analysis.

Kandy Stroud changes the subject by giving it Women’s Wear Daily treatment. She cuts bitchily through the smarm surrounding Miss Lillian’s ego and Rosalynn’s fears—necessary work, perhaps, but not very pleasant. Norman Mailer, in his worst piece of political journalism, found Rosalynn transparently good and non-devious. Ms. Stroud sees that she is as fiercely determined as her husband, yet not as pious or self-confident (who could be?). That makes her edgy on platforms, and prone to push Joan Mondale off. But bitchiness ends when Ms. Stroud comes to her principal informants—Dr. Peter Bourne in Washington and Gloria Carter Spann in Plains.

Ms. Stroud seems, at times, haunted by the thought that other women journalists were getting interviews, denied her, by sleeping with the Carter staff. Some of those women may feel she used feminine wiles in introducing her daughter Brooke (known to Carter from a two-hour plane flight where he chatted with her) into discussion of a canceled interview: “I was just as disappointed for her as I was for myself. I told him so. He was moved. ‘You know I love Brookie’…I felt my voice crack. In all my life I had never shed a tear over an interview…. Carter sensed he had brought me to tears. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said softly. ‘You know I love you. Can you be here by two o’clock?”’

The book is disjointed, obviously written in batches during the campaign. Ms. Stroud repeats verbatim her introduction of various characters at various places, not certain which part will come first in the final manuscript. The book swells and dwindles to fit her travels. Sometimes she just copies out breathless notes with minimal adjustments:

Room about fifteen by eight, cluttered in rear by sound system…. Failed to say “Hi, everybody” as well as “Good deal,” and spent time feigning interest in Democratic affairs with Strauss for benefit of audio and cameras. Much inaudible, but Carter said of trip….

Or she throws in the whole boring transcript of a Bible lesson Carter taught one Sunday when she was in Plains.

Speed rather than accuracy seems her priority. A brief inadequate chapter on Jerry Brown gets the Maryland primary (his principal campaign achievement) altogether wrong. Governor Mandel was mad at him for, among other things, a broken promise not to him but to another governor. The key figure in Maryland’s Brown effort was not “T.J. Alesandro” but Thomas D’Alesandro III (an important point because Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. is also a major figure in Maryland politics). Greg Schneiders, of the famous debts, gets a whole chapter to himself but appears, inexplicably, as “independently wealthy.”

Political analysis rises barely to Women’s Wear Daily level:

The Benjamin Franklin [hotel] teemed with the cream of the broadcasting and writing world…. Since the Democratic National Convention was for the most part procedural, most convention goers decided to have a good time attending cocktail parties or partying at Elaine’s or “21.”

Richard Reeves, far more savvy about politics than Ms. Stroud, spent his time not at “21” but at some obscure stripper’s pit. He thought this was the year to discover that there are a thousand stories in the Naked City, all of them written by O. Henry. The result is a rich and gossipy book one reads with a guilty pleasure. He replaces that old journalistic standby, the gabby cabdriver, with the pontificating hooker.

There are some bits of real information—that the Carter people considered counterbugging at the convention, that Mondale’s crack at Nixon came from an early draft of a Carter acceptance speech. So anxious were the party leaders to stop Carter that Robert Strauss asked Wallace to stay in the race against him after the Florida primary. But the few paragraphs of real information are hard to find in the snap, crackle, and pop of gossip and insult.

Reeves reminds us, at distressingly frequent intervals, that a Mr. Joe Kaselak exists only to attend political conventions every four years and be photographed, as a condition of being interviewed about being photographed. The same compulsion drives Dick Tuck. I fear Mr. Reeves has launched a form of journalism meant primarily to satisfy such needs.

Reeves himself must have sensed where things were going when he appeared on “The Tonight Show” and found he had written one of the few books Johnny Carson could read. Then, adding insult to injury, along comes Malcolm MacDougall, the “creative” director of President Ford’s advertising campaign, to tell us that the slogan “He’s Making Us Proud Again” came from Reeves’s last book, Old Faces of 1976, and from his chapter on Ford saying that Americans “wanted him to make us proud again.” Joe McGinniss, in The Selling of the President, made a rich fool of himself in 1968 by mocking advertisers while believing their silliest boasts—he thought they really did sell a president. (He showed no awareness that there was a Joe Napolitan over at Humphrey’s camp—or that a large world was out there, generally ignorant of these hucksters’ self-canceling efforts).

MacDougall gives us the McGinniss thesis unrelieved by wit. The book is one long exercise in unconscious self-caricature. We are told, for instance, how hard it was for MacDougall to decide (in a couple of hours) to go over to the Ford effort from his Oldsmobile account. He had doubts about Ford, but believed in Oldsmobile. Trust for his colleagues at last made him take the plunge. “Maybe I didn’t know the product too well.” Luckily, Ford’s man John Deardourff was calling, and “John deeply believed in making the political system work…. Doug Bailey was the same kind of guy. They would not be in this thing if they didn’t believe in this thing.” One leaves the book convinced that “this thing” should have failed by a margin more smashing.

There are more important campaign books to come—Jules Witcover’s, to tell us what happened; Teddy White’s, to tell us what didn’t. But this first batch, despite some solid reporting by Schram and some funny lines from Reeves, does not get us far toward understanding Carter. The accidental conjunction of two other books suggests a reason why—David Leon Chandler’s The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians and Godfrey Hodgson’s America In Our Time.* I have space only for Mr. Chandler in this issue, but I have read him along with the more important book, to be dealt with next time.

The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians is as lacking in rigor as its hyperbolic title suggests. Chandler stretches things beyond serious yielding when he lumps together men like that displaced Enlightenment abbé, Thomas Jefferson, with the Southern Calvinist John Calhoun, or the crazed celibate John Randolph. But Chandler has a good collection of stories about more recent Southern pols; and the book arrives, opportunely, to reveal how much that puzzles us about Jimmy Carter is explicable if we think of him as that outside-insider, a congressional Southern politician breaking into new presidential territory. (Chandler’s book ambled at too Southern a pace through the presses for him to do more than salute Jimmy Carter in a hasty epilogue mistitled “Populist.”)

Southern control of the Senate and House was exercised over much of our recent history by men, big in Washington, who never forgot to go home and be small on their muddy Main Streets. John Stennis spent his weekends in De Kalb, Mississippi, and Sam Ervin in Morganton, North Carolina. Even James Eastland had to get back to his plantation in Sunflower County. Lyndon Johnson went astray from Sam Rayburn’s ascetical teaching long before he became president. He first became rich.

The ideal, at least, of the Southern grandees was to be public servants with local roots, earthy but moralizing, close enough to their neighbors to realize that hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue. Most national reporters knew these men only in Washington, where they ruled almost in secrecy, as stranger-kings. When Carter’s staff talked contemptuously of the Georgetown cocktail circuit, they were voicing Southern wisdom from afar. The Southern potentates in Washington were homebodies away from home. It would have done in Wilbur Mills almost as rapidly for him to be seen in the Georgetown homes of liberals as to dally in the Silver Slipper. That would have made him almost as Yankee as Fulbright.

What we saw in the Carter campaign was a presidential effort run the way Southern congressmen have always exercised national power. That combination of the new and old seems to have escaped most journalists except—in one of his zonky moments of insight—Hunter Thompson. Thompson was bowled over by Carter’s Law Day speech at the University of Georgia on May 4, 1974. He had several good reasons to be, but he clumsily groped for them in print.

I thought of that speech as I watched Senator Edward Kennedy sit, a captive of honor, as an outlander at a Massachusetts “town meeting” turned into a love fest last month. Kennedy was also at that Law Day speech in 1974; and Carter cut him down that day, deftly, politely, but unmistakably. Thompson felt the impact, without quite understanding the mechanics. First Carter remarked that he earlier spoke, for free, to a group that had paid ten dollars a ticket to hear Kennedy the night before. But he noted the lunch tickets here were $3.50, and thought that “would salvage part of my ego.” Enough for the rich outsider.

Then he admitted that Kennedy had spoken so well on politics that he, Carter, had to “stop at a room on the way, while he had his press conference, and I changed my speech notes.” That signaled 1) that he would speak extempore, under a disadvantage, and 2) that he would not be political. It was probably not quite a lie—at least not the kind his Daddy would have whupped him for.

Then came good Southern stories. Do we fear change? Sure. All men do. Like the time he had some nice sling-shot stones in his hands, and would not drop them for cookies prepared by his mother “with love in her heart.” Corn? Undoubtedly. But corn of the type that Southerners are used to, and all of us lapped up, for a while there, from Sam Ervin.

Hunter Thompson was impressed that Carter would mention Reinhold Niebuhr and Bob Dylan to a bunch of Southern lawyers. But he did not sufficiently weigh two things—that law students were there, and that Senator Kennedy was there. Carter was not showing off to Thompson (as some of the latter’s critics have unkindly suggested) but to the students and other Southerners, proving he could hold his own with this Northern swinger.

The real skill of the speech was shown in passages like the one asking for a saner way of sentencing criminals, “fifty percent of whom ought not to be in there.” That “liberal” position was advanced with a Southern rhetoric of evangelical hope that we could “discern in the soul of each convicted and sentenced person redeeming features that can be enhanced.” When Carter told stories of past injustices to blacks, he added: “I don’t want to go on and on. I’m part of it.” Even his arguments for better justice had the soft paternalistic Southern way of telling stories about black people he had helped—as had most of those in his audience, at least in their own eyes.

When people say Carter is reckless in talking about human rights around the world, they have to remember that he trod a narrow line in the South, talking about black rights when he knew he could do very little about them—and perhaps when he did less than he might have done. He is not a dreamy idealist in this field. He knows how a Southerner can preach and preach, yet go for years to a segregated church. He brings something new to our executive politics yet old in the world of Congress. I wrote in these pages, three years ago, that the Democrat’s best hope for a new presidential candidate would be some younger Sam Ervin. We may have just such a person on our hands—pious but pragmatic, maneuvering between homilies, always touching down, Antaeus-like, for strength at his backwoods base. And that points us toward Hodgson’s book, toward the end of modern liberalism.

(This is the first part of a two-part article.)

Letters

Running for President’ June 9, 1977

  1. *

    Doubleday, 1976.

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