Why He’s Not the Best

Dasher: The Roots and the Rising of Jimmy Carter

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

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter; drawing by David Levine

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…

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