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Winner Take Nothing

Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976

by Jules Witcover
Viking, 684 pp., $14.95

If you’re up for instant nostalgia (rhymes with neuralgia), do you remember “ethnic purity,” “lust in the heart,” what Betty Ford would do if her daughter had an affair, and Earl Butz’s incisive description of the three things the “coloreds” really want? That and every other detail about the 1976 presidential marathon is in Jules Witcover’s Marathon, which will make you feel as if you’ve just run twenty-six miles when you break the tape on the 656th page.

Like some of the candidates who began the quest on page one, Witcover’s book is honest, conscientious, accurate, so far as I can tell, and filled with information that the specialist will doubtless find useful. The rest of us may reexperience the same glazed eyes and headache we got the first time they described the ins-and-outs of the Iowa Democratic state caucus to us. Just as the various contestants for the presidency last year had such difficulty in discovering what the issues were, so Witcover, who is a superb reporter, hasn’t been able to find a point of view from which to write his book. He’s settled instead for organizing it chronologically, which makes it read like a very long, very well done newspaper article, and, while that may not be history, it’s a large improvement over Theodore White, who describes elections as other men have written the lives of the saints.

Yet if history is more than narration, Marathon fails to explain why Jimmy Carter is living in the White House save that he and two or three arriviste younger confederates played early-worm-gets-the-bird and outhustled his competitors to the presidency. It seems to be the author’s belief that anyone with the smarts and gumption to get his mojo moving and his momentum rolling in the early primaries and caucuses would have won. All other things being equal, that may be so; but there is evidence aplenty in this book that Jimmy Carter was doing other things to get the job he now holds besides reciting the Boy Scout Oath at testimonial dinners.

Witcover quotes from a telling memorandum submitted to Carter by Hamilton Jordon at the beginning of their efforts:

Like it or not there exists an Eastern liberal news establishment which has tremendous influence in this country all out of proportion to its actual audience. The views of this small group of opinion makers and the papers they represent are noted and imitated by other columnists and newspapers throughout the country and the world. Their recognition and acceptance of your candidacy as a viable force with some chance of success could establish you as a serious contender worthy of the financial support of major party contributors. They could have an equally adverse effect, dismissing your effort as being regional or an attempt to secure the second spot on the ticket.

Regardless of whether or not it’s liberal, there is assuredly a news establishment, and if its “tremendous influence” is “all out of proportion to its actual audience,” that is at least in some measure because it functions as the eyes, ears, and advanced scouts of the nation’s ruling circles. Carter had to do something to be more than a sectional eccentricity in establishmentarian eyes. Unfortunately Marathon doesn’t go into any great detail about what Carter may have done to make himself look trustworthy enough to be allowed to compete seriously for the prize. We do read that, as governor, Carter did some foreign travel so that he might seem plausible later on as a presidential candidate, but it would have been more helpful to explore how much his association with an outfit like the Trilateral Commission made him known as a safe man. While there was a great to-do in the press over his not being a Washington man, the various power elites apparently didn’t regard him as a stranger. As for the controversy about alleged fuzziness over the issues, an aspect of the campaign Witcover discusses with admirable if not excessive thoroughness, Carter made it clear to someone that he was a reliable man. For it was not so long into the nominating process that Time magazine published the cover which his rivals said was drawn to make the governor look like John Kennedy.

Carter continued past the Democratic National Convention to be an alien and slightly distasteful figure to the prominent members of his party in Congress, but winning their support doesn’t get one a nomination. Parties are legal shells needed to get on the ballot and make it easier to get government campaign money; as McGovern showed in 1972 and Nixon in 1968, a person running for the presidency now builds his own political party de novo. But a political party created to elect one person to one job once isn’t, of course, a party so much as it’s a coalition of the moment composed of those who are temporarily agitated about one thing or another, including both the pressure group bet-hedgers and those in vague agreement with the candidate who really signed up because they think he is a winner. That’s not only a narrow base but a very unreliable one. Even calling it a coalition is something of a misnomer; it’s more like putting together a winning combination. Witcover knows that because he quotes Carter to the effect that being a big D Democrat did little more than hurt him:

That caused me horrible trouble…. That was the biggest problem we had…[but] I finally made the difficult decision to be completely loyal to the Democratic nominees wherever I went; not to try to avoid them…. It really hurt us in two or three states…. In almost every instance, an incumbent governor, or incumbent US Senator or state party chairman, even though they may be quite popular, my association with them in an overt way was damaging.

The man running alone, the nude candidate, is in no position to take tough stands. For that you must have a political party, a vast number of permanently organized people, not joined together for the moment, but by a number of specifically shared political statements. They understand, agree with, and proselytize the tough stand. Without such a party, taking the sharp and hard position on a major question of the day isn’t possible for a candidate, no matter how moral or heroic, unless his opponents do the same.

The impossibility of Carter doing that during the campaign prefigured the behavior of Carter after he assumed office. Carter, still without a disciplined body of supporters, must keep looking to see how he can build new sets of winning combinations. And with each issue, be it energy, the Panama Canal, or tax law, it’s a different combination.

Another element in the campaign which foretold the constraints that President Carter would have to work under was the renewed power of the goo-goos and goo-gooism—to revive the words that turn-of-the-century politicians applied to the “good government” crowd (a crowd now epitomized by John Gardner’s Common Cause). Watergate had accelerated the controls placed over who, how much, and how money can be put behind a candidate. The object was to shape elections so that the candidates will be independent, but in politics he who is independent is also weak. Candidates who are permitted to be beholden to a few large contributors or special interest groups are also politicians with at least a chance of building the personal power base that enables one to be bold, clear, and sometimes forthright to the very brink of unpopularity.

Carter, poor man, nearly stripped of the power even to promise rewards to his followers, didn’t run, as Witcover’s account shows, so much as he tiptoed to the presidency. Since he was without the power of patronage or party, it’s not to be wondered that his appointee to the directorship of the CIA was forced to withdraw for fear he wouldn’t be confirmed. Carter almost had to pull back his choice for attorney general because Griffin Bell’s appointment was held up as an example of cronyism. You would think that a president would be expected to put his cronies, i.e., those he knows well has worked with before, and trusts, into the most important jobs.

With some difficulty Carter was able to insist that Bell be confirmed. The first month on the job is too early to submit to such a gonadectomy, but in all these goo-gooistical measures by which power is wrested from disreputable professional politicians it doesn’t evaporate. If the president is blocked in his appointment of an attorney general because the man has been his friend and co-worker, the power slides over from the professional politician to the “professionally qualified,” that is to some group like the American Bar Association. It submits to the president a list of four or five acceptables from which he is to pick one. That didn’t happen with Bell, but Carter has indicated that he will do something like that in the selection of federal judges.

The net effect of the reforms and changes of the last seven or eight years has been to enhance and confirm the power of particular interest groups and combinations, be they trade associations, unions, organized social workers, or whatever. The other loser besides president and presidential aspirant in the distribution of power is grass roots political activity. As even Witcover, who isn’t inclined to think about such questions of power, points out, the limitation on campaign expenditures meant that there was no money to put into local neighborhood political action. It had to be spent in advertising and similar mass media efforts because like the grocery business and a lot of other businesses, politics has gone from being labor intensive to capital intensive.

The goo-goos may only have been hastening what was happening in politics anyway as it has become more difficult and less profitable to build political parties and use large numbers of people in the political process. Political activity is something one does through one’s organized economic grouping, if one is fortunate enough to belong to such a grouping. Poorer people usually don’t, nor do many kinds of small business people, or a variety of types in our society who would prefer to be more free-lance, free-floating, and free-thinking. For all of them, politics is a spectator sport of sufficiently little practical importance that no more than half of the eligible citizens bother to participate in the one political activity left to them…which is to vote.

For voters and non-voters alike elections are what is presented on television. When the candidates are saying more or less the same things, as Ford and Carter did, the press and television conducts the election. They labor to give it suspense, they worry about whether or not the candidates’ speeches are too trivial or evasive or simplistic, they tell them when they’re overexposed and where to go to get maximum air time. Then on election day they take over completely. They beg people to go vote, they fill the air with erroneous statements by ignorant public officials that there is “a massive voter turn-out” (so, you better not wait), and then on election night they officiate at the celebration of the high mass of our kind of democratic process, and “now, let’s turn to Roger Mudd at the Midwestern desk for an update on those exciting races in Missouri and Nebraska.” The election is so much a television program that if you wanted to steal it you wouldn’t go around stuffing ballot boxes or rigging voting machines, you’d simply change the program in the computer used by the media pool.

Given all the valuable network minutes devoted to the election it’s not surprising the audience is repeatedly told the outcome is at least as important as who wins at the equally suspenseful but not so entertaining Oscar awards. The president is, after all, the world’s most powerful man, which makes us the world’s most powerful people, and that’s pleasing to hear; but the office Carter fell heir to has been maimed and wounded. In 1968 it looked like the imperial presidency, but Nixon, who tried to govern relying on little else than the presidency’s legal power, discovered it couldn’t be done. The American emperor turned out to look like the Mikado, omnipotent in form, but largely impotent in fact. At the time and afterward on the Frost interviews, Nixon claimed he was fighting to preserve the power of his office. Since saving his office was also a way of saving himself, no one paid much mind, but now he and his criminality are gone and we can see how boxed a situation Carter finds himself in.

He is having to settle for a reorganization of the executive branch that may shuffle around the boxes and lines on the chart, but won’t give its chief the executive power to run it. Like Ford, Carter has had to give up détente for a hard and cautious policy. Whereas Nixon dropped the ABM as part of a reciprocal agreement with the Russians leading in the general direction of slowing down the big bomb contest, Carter, as he explicitly said, canceled the B-1 because he has something better and cheaper, the cruise missile, the production of which is going to make negotiations with the Russians much harder. Since 100 or more cruise missiles can be built for the price of one B-1, the liberals in the Senate are suggesting more money can now be spent on tanks and such for Western Europe. If Carter doesn’t agree, he had best be calculating in how he says so, since he can’t hold the country to a continuation of something like the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy.

About energy Carter did the supposedly potent thing that presidents are supposed to do: he went over the head of Congress to tell America the present situation was “the moral equivalent of war.” The response may have taught him that the only two real and enduring parties in American politics are the presidential versus the congressional. It’s not an even contest at the moment, with Carter looking like hapless Hanoverian George being dismembered by the House of Commons. Again, without patronage or party, a president must deal with Congress by showing he is president of all the people, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, but all of the people are none of the people. While Congress, with its allies in the bureaucracy, and its close associations with every known interest group, represents something more potent than all the people: it represents the organized people.

In addition to a half-ruined presidency, another part of the Nixon legacy Carter got for himself by finishing first was the demeaning need to show how honest and truthful he is. How he went about doing it is there for you to read in a volume of dross and drivel entitled A Government As Good As Its People. The book contains the texts of selected utterances in the six years between January 1971 and 1977. They read no better than they sounded when he spoke them. Not that it should be held against him. Evidently good speech writers are not that easy to find, although contributing to literature is an accidental attribute, not a necessary part of a president’s work. A little less flattery of the populace would help. As the title of the book suggests, he is forever telling us how good, honest, hard-working, fair, and farseeing we, the American people, are. I’m sure it’s so, but it won’t do to turn our heads so far we get a crick in our necks.

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