Scott Fitzgerald once mocked a man who “tried to get up a ship’s party on a ferry boat.” That was the story of the Democrats’ 1978 midterm conference in Memphis last December. Some signed on for a pleasure cruise and found themselves working a White House shift in the presidential boiler room—a shakedown cruise for 1980. The president, who was accused last summer of managerial incompetence, overmanaged a non-event—which made it an event of sorts. Dissidents in Memphis did not go away doubting Carter’s manipulative skills.
Of course, a midterm conference held by his own party is a no-win proposition for any president. If he doesn’t control it, he loses. If he has to control it, he loses. If he barely controls, or over-controls—and Carter did both—his very victory becomes an embarrassment. Given the rules, Carter did as well as he could, which was not very.
Once a candidate is chosen at a nominating convention, the whole gathering celebrates that candidate in a ritual of party healing. Defeated rivals are reintegrated into the campaign effort. But at a midterm conference (or mini-convention)—an anomaly introduced four years ago to cure even worse anomalies in the Democratic party—there is no overt competition with the official party head, and therefore no admitted healing process. Wounds fester, neglected; friends stab with smiles. Pols pretend they are not plying their trade. The White House army of two hundred or so had to claim it had turned out in force to “listen” rather than stage-manage. It was a very thin claim.
Consider the president. Security measures—perhaps overdone, with a memory that Memphis is one of those assassination sites starred on our political map—made the meager physical resources of the town revolve around Carter’s appearances on Friday and Saturday (press credentials only mentioned those days; suggesting, with good cause, that the official voting proceedings of Sunday did not matter in the manager’s eyes). But delegates did not share the cops’ priorities. When Carter was trundled from workshop to workshop, he had to sit there, partly ignored, partly insulted, partly lectured to. The rules of the game made him summon up a simper of attentiveness throughout, St. Sebastian pretending he likes nothing more dearly than arrows.
Carter’s long address on Friday night was earnest: he tried to be forceful—which is not his mode. His power tends to come in parentheses—where, say, Ted Kennedy’s marches with exclamation points. The heavy-handed promotional movie produced by Rafshoon did all the wrong things—pounding away with a song, speeding up the soundtrack so that Carter was seen in 33 1/3 while talking at a 45 rpm gabble. But the real problem in Memphis was not so much personal—Carter’s inability to deal convincingly with party backslapping sessions. It had more to do with the Democrats’ need to talk underdog ideology from an overdog position. There was endless discussion, from the podium and on the floor, of a struggle for the party’s soul. It was less a problem of soul than of turf—the need…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.