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Why He’s Not the Best

Dasher: The Roots and the Rising of Jimmy Carter

by James Wooten
Summit Books, 377 pp., $11.95

For most of the country, the event of Jimmy Carter’s installation at last as president of the United States was not unlike waking up one morning to find oneself married to a stranger. There was a stir of dim unease in the windy sensation of it all. It had been barely a year since he had first come forth with his officious, half-moon grin—a trim, subdued, mannerly, one-time provincial governor, a mild and genial Georgian, to all appearances absolutely serious about this overweening intention of his, but wholly and whimsically marginal to the general political estate. The code designation applied to him by the Secret Service during those early months, “Dasher,” could as well have been inspired by the unlikely plunging of his efforts.

Uncannily, he brought off what was perhaps the single most staggering political feat in the country’s experience. With only the most incidental and tenuous associations with the Democratic Party—acting more as a kind of freelance door-to-door hustler of his own homemade wares and notions in a neighborhood enclosed by K-Marts and Sears, Roebucks—Jimmy Carter was, in effect, the first independent ever elected president of the United States. If nothing else, it would have been hard to conceive of a more spectacular affirmation of the vitality of the democratic dynamics of power in America. It would never again be quite so easy to assume that the invisible constraints of the nation’s management complex actually determined the largest and most critical directions of the country’s course.

That alone may turn out to be Carter’s most momentous gift to politics—simply that he succeeded in getting elected. All the retrospective conspiracy theories of subterranean machinations by such interests as the Trilateral Commission are propositions which, in Carter’s case, must necessarily approach the hallucinatory: Carter would have been among the least promising of candidates to choose for choreographing into the presidency. At the same time, his coup no doubt afforded a profoundly unnerving start to other governments over the world—that someone could abruptly emerge from the nether latitudes of southern Georgia and the modest obscurity of one term as governor of that outlands state to preside suddenly over the destiny of the mightiest nation on the planet.

It was a particularly phantasmagorical happening given the singular improbability of the figure who had brought it all off. Many back in Georgia remembered him as merely a decent and diligent but otherwise unarresting steward of the state’s affairs. Carter seemed peculiarly to have none of the qualities usually found in the truly heavy political presences, those egos big and furious and redoubtable enough to make it all the way up the brawling salmon run of national power. For all his commendable gameness and earnestness, yet there still lingered about him some sense of a slightness, a quality of balsa wood. It may have been merely the light wisping of his voice—some sound of thin grasses in that drawl with its muted fogs—or the fine and almost mincingly polite effect he maintained, an unrelenting niceness and diffidence that made it appear at times he was offering himself for president mostly on the premise of his eager, ingratiating friendliness.

In Dasher, the most recent and most ambitious monograph on Carter yet, James Wooten proposes that Carter “wanted [the presidency] probably more than anyone who had sought it before.” But there is probably no measuring the avidity and compulsion of presidential candidates. They pass as they seek the office into a kind of infinity of human presumption and ambition. Throughout his campaign, as Wooten notes, Carter was scrupulous to observe how his aspiration for the presidency “prompted in him as much humility as pride.” But these insistent self-effacing professions began to give off, after a while, certain disquiets of their own. As one should beware, in Nietzsche’s warning, of those in whom the instinct to punish is strong, perhaps so should one be alert to those in whom a persistent recitation of their humility seems obsessive. There are probably no compressions of ego more forbidding than the impulsions of an unremitting modesty in men of large eagerness and certitude.

Despite all these misgivings, on election night as Jimmy Carter’s originally fanciful aspiration became a fact somehow it was curiously elating. His acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention three months before had been one of the doughtiest populist testimonials ever put forward by a presidential nominee—and he had made it to this moment, after all, as a free-booting irregular. He seemed winningly unpretentious, bracingly generous of instincts, intense. It seemed anything could happen now, that the nation was about to embark on an exhilarating adventure.

But since he strolled hatless and brisk with his neighborly jack-o’-lantern grin down Constitution Avenue to the White House, that chill uncertainty at finding our future attached to this amicable but slightly dubious stranger has, over the following fifteen months, hardly been dispelled. Some elusive quality of inconclusiveness about him has remained, an indefiniteness in his nature, that has made it peculiarly difficult for commentaries and profiles to arrive at a fix on him. The literature on Carter so far has been curiously indistinct. He has persisted as a “quicksilver bubble,” Wooten reports in his book, “a living, breathing, grinning paradox, maddening for those who tried to define him.”

Carter’s past and his progress have become by now a familiar enough fable. Yet Wooten has produced in Dasher, by means of a novelized narrative of Carter’s nimble ascension from those bare bitten origins, the fullest understanding so far of this odd man—this neat soft-spoken martinet of conscientiousness who so abruptly materialized at the center of our national communal life. Wooten, along with being a Southerner himself, passed from a Presbyterian seminary in Memphis on to a three-year pastorate at a Tennessee church before lapsing into journalism, as a correspondent for The New York Times who still has something of ministerial earnestness in his manner. In the same sense it takes a thief to catch a thief or a cop to catch a cop, the most alive biographies are almost always explorations by the biographer of some potential alter-self of his own.

Carter, at the least, has obviously known for a while that Wooten was closing in, having said at a dinner for White House newsmen that Wooten seemed to be turning into “the Erica Jong of The New York Times.” No one precisely understood what he meant by this little waggery. It had the quality of an epigram tortuously devised in the solitary smolderings of grievance, its import appreciated only by Carter himself. What Carter most eminently does not have is deftness and felicity of phrase. His utterances tend to come out, in the most lugubrious way at times, oddly awry in nuance and aptness. There seem in Carter’s frequent misrhymings of mood and impulse a peculiar awkwardness, suggested even in his carriage as he propelled himself on through his campaign. He slumped slightly forward with his head thrust out and slightly lifted, giving him rather the look, with his pink chapped skin, of an unshelled terrapin. He went swooping along corridors and down main-street sidewalks with a kind of marionette’s tight, dangly slap and flop in his movements, a strange flimsily hinged looseness in his wrists, his hands flapping at his sides as he eagerly forged on.

Similarly, he proved capable now and then, though always with his fixed flat grin, of tinny boorishness, as when he declared once in rising exuberance during a Miami talk show, “I have no fear of Kennedy, I don’t have any feeling that Kennedy would be any formidable candidate. He’s got lots of personal problems that, of course, we won’t discuss—“ but then, unable to resist it, had to blurt, “—like Chappaquiddick, and some other things like that.” In the graces he can muster there seem unaccountable gaps. It’s as if, in some elemental way, he were not really at ease in nature. But then, this hint of some gawky disproportion in him is often the case with such an utterly self-created, self-wrought figure as we find in Wooten’s account—one of those personages who have methodically and implacably fashioned themselves into so much from so little. Intimations enough of this were afforded by the man from Whittier. What Carter now suggests are the singular liabilities of conforming to the classic American folk mystique of the self-made man.

Plains, the community of his boyhood, was one of those little junctions strewn over the backland of the South, clutters of flat brick buildings long weathered to the drab uncolor of old leaves or the earth itself, which have the appearance of having been plopped down idly out of nowhere and left there intact and static in those barely inhabited spaces, in an emptiness of piney flatlands and yawning fields under a vast, oblivious, metallic summertime sky. As in the lost winter wastes of Scandinavia, the suicide rate in Plain’s Sumter Country has always been extravagantly disproportionate to the population. As one native recalls, “Down in those barrens of south Georgia, there was always this enormous labor among the more enlightened folks, usually these little bands of a few couples, to make our conversation and socializing as excrutiatingly sophisticated and intellectual as it could be. God, what we used to put ourselves through down there, just to keep the emptiness out.”

There has, actually, always been at play in such bleak provincial reaches a feverish application to cultural doings, Carter’s parents on their first date having driven to the nearby sun-stricken village of Americus to witness, of all things, a performance of The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps nowhere as in such scruffy locales has “culture” and erudition been taken with such desperate reverence. Jimmy’s own teacher furnished him, Wooten recounts, with “long reading lists, and for every five books he read and reported on, she awarded him a silver star…. For every ten books, Jimmy got a gold star.” By the time he was thirteen, among the volumes he had dispatched was War and Peace. As his mother later reported, “He was a goldstar boy.”

Locales like Sumter Country, with its blank dust and level horizon, tend to produce, in their spirits of larger energies and cleverness, an outsized restlessness. It is a restlessness, an impatience to escape, that can become a kind of instinct unto itself: the very sensation of escape—not necessarily from anything, but just to something else—can become a blind habit of heart. Perhaps Wooten’s most interesting point about Carter is that “all through his life he would discover that he derived the most satisfaction from situations in which he was becoming something else”—that he seemed always “in the process of becoming again.” Carter seemed at peace, at home, only in stages of transition to yet another stage of fuller possibilities for himself; it was as if he only felt truly alive in the suspense of greater expectations.

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