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, weary from excess of drama, we were left with Carter and Ford, known on the press planes as Weirdo and Bonzo.

The number of those who voiced no preference remained large even late in the campaign. George Gallup called it the most unusual election he had monitored. Other pollsters talked alternately of “volatility” and “apathy,” as if these were complementary rather than contradictory traits. A very good political reporter told me, two days before the election: “All the old verities were destroyed in this election.” His was an understandable attitude; but he was wrong.

The cast of characters, vivid or dim, distracted us from large social configurations dictating the outcome. Elections in America are essentially conservative in their mechanics, and make more for continuity than change. Each candidate tries to hold a basic constituency, while wooing the vast muddle of independent or undetermined voters, using roughly the same platitudes, cleared by similar pollsters: “Tell me what you want to be told, so I can tell it to you.” The candidates scroonch together in the middle, and mill there, left-right, right-left, dos-à-dos.

The shape of the 1976 campaign was determined by the fact that each of the candidates was trying not only to retain but to restore a damaged constituency while milling near “independents.” Carter was trying to restore the Roosevelt coalition without Roosevelt. Ford was trying to piece together again the Nixon landslide without Nixon. Carter’s forces were potentially larger; but it had been a long time since they had worked together. Ford’s alignment could look to more recent successes; but it had suffered the sharp recent blow of Water-gate.

The two strategies had been successive in the past; now they were simultaneous, and overlapped. Ford had to capture the Kevin Phillips “Heartland” while denied some of the Phillips “Sunbelt.” Carter was turning the old Democratic coalition on its head—a Southerner in the top spot, not the second—after the civil rights revolution that Roosevelt’s alignment had done so much to delay (entrenching spokesmen for the Democratic Solid South in congressional chairmanships). The logic of this overlap made for the extraordinary raids into rival territory, Ford trying to nibble at the South, while Carter ended his last march in the land of Gerald and Henry Ford—Flint, Michigan.


Nixon Without Nixon

Ford, inept in many small and personal ways, put his campaign on a solid foundation with the very thing most analysts took as a mistake—the Nixon pardon. However bad in law or morals that might have been, it was the ideal political move. Ford understood instinctively his own kind of people—those who had, late and reluctantly, to give up on Nixon himself, but who still believed in a baffled “Nixon mandate.” A vast part of the vast majority that voted for Nixon in 1972 accepts an analysis that runs this way:

  1. Bad as Nixon may have been personally, the press and the Democrats and the Establishment brought him down, among other things, to defeat his program, overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate.
  2. This explains why Nixon’s enemies were not as harsh on similar failings in his Democratic predecessors. Earlier presidents may not have been quite as bad as Nixon (though even that is not established, since hard investigation of the sort used on Nixon has not revealed all the uses of the CIA, FBI, IRS, etc. by Roosevelt or Kennedy or Johnson). The other presidents get a reproving sigh or two, while Nixon was treated to a merciless vendetta.
  3. This proves that the real object of the vilifying campaign was not Nixon himself, but Nixon’s followers, who were punished by having their programs discredited along with his personality.
  4. So the real political importance of Watergate was that it reversed the election of 1972. The people chose Nixon, but various elitists made sure that McGovern actually won.

People who accept that kind of reasoning account for the heat that still clings to the amnesty issue. Strong as the antiwar movement was, electoral support for the war continued right through 1972. McGovern was soundly defeated in part because he was identified with the antiwar movement, which was (and still is) widely perceived as an attack on patriotism. Despite Carter’s tricky (and quite sound) verbal play on the meaning of “pardon,” and despite his even trickier (and quite misleading) roundabout tribute to Lieutenant Calley, he remained suspect to many a redneck AmVet type that a Southern candidate should be able to count on. He would have been terribly hurt by his charge that the Vietnam war was “racist,” except for the fact that few voters knew or remembered that reckless brief indulgence in the truth. (Dole had to take some of the heat Carter had coming to him when he attacked earlier wars, affronting the kind of patriotism that believes in America’s martial inerrancy.)

Many liberals fooled themselves about the damage Watergate had done to Ford because they believed the myth that Nixon did not win in 1972, McGovern just lost. It was hard to find anyone who had voted against John Kennedy after November 1963. In the same way, a lot of people now like to remember their vote as cast against McGovern rather than for Nixon. But Nixon would have beaten any Democrat in 1972, so long as Wallace stayed out. McGovern put some icing on Nixon’s cake; but the shape of the 1972 election is just the 1968 election with Wallace’s states and popular vote (13 percent) added to Nixon’s plurality. Many of those not “actually” voting for Nixon were voting for Agnew (whom Nixon could not dump) or Wallace (who was not available).

That vote did not just evaporate with Agnew’s downfall, or Nixon’s. Ford inherited it, and took good care of it. He showed, during Nixon’s trip to China just before the New Hampshire primary, that he felt he could not affront the Nixonites; and he read the public mood better than all the liberals who thought, even recently, that pardoning Nixon had finished off Ford.

Because of our system’s conservative electoral mechanics, it is almost impossible to defeat an incumbent president. The more candidates resemble each other, the less reason for a change. The unseating of a party as well as a person is usually the result of a performance that looks so bad anything would be preferable. Roosevelt talked Hooverian economics in 1932, and very few could have guessed what they would get by voting for him. But the election is mainly a judgment on the incumbent, a stamp of approval or rejection—and rejecting Hoover was the first priority in 1932. People back into their voting booths, looking to the past, the only thing they really have to go on. (“Ford may be a dull item, but he is a known one; he’ll give us no nasty surprises.”)

Some Democrats thought Watergate would be reason enough for massive rejection. That would do in Ford, as the Depression did in Hoover. For the reasons I have already indicated, this was a mistaken reading of the voters. Many of them felt that they had been rejected, along with Nixon; that their will had been partially thwarted. Nixon may have betrayed them to the enemy. But the enemy was still there, and was trying to get at them through Nixon. Ford walked the careful line between rejecting Nixon and retaining much of the Nixonism that was voted for in 1972. His incumbency had to be based on the Nixon landslide to survive Nixon’s downfall.

Roosevelt Without Roosevelt

But there was good reason for Democrats to think they could capture the White House this year. The precedent was not 1932 (the aftermath of a disaster) but 1960 (the vulnerability of a minority-party president). Eisenhower had won office by virtue of his own popularity and the first crumblings of the Solid South. But those two were not enough for him to keep a majority in the Congress or to lift Republican registration above minority status. And therefore they were not enough to put Nixon in as his successor. Nixon had a quasi-incumbent’s advantage in 1960, but the incumbency was based on artificial and transient forces. The Republican president was an anomaly in a nation basically Democratic.


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.

This Issue

November 25, 1976