Carter on His Own

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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