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.
In the same way that as a diligent student he had industriously invested himself with those gold-foil stars, he systematically proceeded to enlarge himself. From Plains, it was at first the remote glory of the sea, as a cadet at Annapolis and a brief beginning as a navy officer. When that career was ambushed by the death of his father, which devolved on him the responsibility for his family’s spacious farm holdings in Sumter Country, he resigned himself with some reluctance to the different possibility of achieving as a prosperous country squire. But as soon as that had comfortably neared realization, he was taken by the possibilities of a seat in the Georgia state senate, one of which was the governorship itself, which in turn offered its own vistas of yet larger posibilities. He entered what Wooten calls an “endless cycle of holding one office while making preparations for running for another when the term of the first expired.”
From the state senate, Carter made an initial, somewhat hectic unsuccessful foray for the governorship in 1966, casting himself, with his vague resemblance to Jack Kennedy, as a mildly liberal young spirit. His civil perspectives on race he had largely acquired from his mother, Mizz Lillian, herself a briskly intelligent soul who regularly disconcerted the townfolk of Plains by, among other things, inviting the son of a local black bishop, a boy educated in the north, for chats in her front parlor—at which Jimmy’s father, a stolidly doctrinaire segregationist who nevertheless suffered his wife’s liberal whimsies more or less patiently, would simply clap his hat on his head and stalk out the back door until the boy had gone.
But Mizz Lillian’s own dispositions on race were necessarily measured. Small Southern communities in those days abided eccentricity only up to a point, and besides, as Wooten points out, she “was caught in the same ironjawed trap…the product of all that she had seen and heard and felt and experienced.” Wooten quotes her remark when a black preacher of somewhat disheveled temper occasioned a commotion during the presidential campaign when he undertook to install himself in Carter’s home church: “Somebody should have shot that nigger before he came on the lawn.”
For that matter, Carter himself exhibited a certain circumspection of conscience of his own throughout those years of the high moral drama of the movement in the South. As one of the local young worthies of Sumter County, a county long noted for the special viciousness and durability of its racial strife, he happened to be close to the hot fronts of crisis of those days—in particular, to a large collective farm nearby called Koinonia, founded as an interracial Christian community by, as it turned out, an uncle of Hamilton Jordan, which was recurrently firebombed and shotgunned through the late Fifties and early Sixties. But Carter maintained toward Koinonia a decorous and considered detachment. When Ham Jordan once asked him, “You know my uncle? My uncle Clarence?” Carter merely replied dryly, “I know who he is—I don’t think I’ve ever met him.”
In his gaining of the presidency, there can be little doubt that Carter was a direct heir of Martin Luther King, Jr. Without King, there would have been no Carter—it could only have been out of the kind of redeemed and regenerated South which King principally brought to pass that any serious presidential aspirant could have emerged. It became, in fact, one of the incidental fancies attending Carter’s assumption of the presidency that the South itself now had special gifts and graces to lend to the life of the rest of the nation—not only in the manner of its racial reconciliation after all the blood and tumult, but also its supposed civility and style of easy warmth between people, old simple lyricisms from a culture which had belonged still to the earth and weather and seasons long after most of the rest of the nation had been transmogrified into factories and megapolises. But in truth, what Carter himself seemed more to suggest was, with the South’s own absorption into America’s corporate technological order, simply a new mutation of Faulkner’s folk species of Southerners—a hybrid between the respectably erudite Gavin Stevens and the implacable avidity of the Snopeses.
Just as much as he was to turn out a triumphant heir of King’s momentous handiwork, Carter also enterprisingly made himself a legatee of King’s great antagonist, George Wallace. Somewhere after Carter’s defeat in the 1966 governor’s race, he managed—ever the pertinacious student—to sense and to assimilate Wallace’s peculiar genius for the vital source of political life: direct communion, past newspapers and financial coalitions and the accustomed mediators of power, with the people. As Wallace himself put it, “Power comes from the people. You have that, it’ll bring all the other things—all those other things only count and work and make up for when there isn’t anything really happenin’ with the people, when there’s an absence of that. If the people are with you, can’t nothing stop you.”
Wooten observes that, as the 1970 governor’s race approached in Georgia, Wallace’s legions “were out there waiting…and Carter meant to have them. They were the largest single bloc in the state, except for black voters…. He may not have realized it at the time, but he was attaching himself to a political thesis that had become the key to George Wallace’s success.” Actually, of course, he realized that fiercely. For his next campaign, Carter studiously altered himself according to the Wallace political formula—a gutteral populism of the common Jacquerie that was far more appropriate, really, to Wallace’s own personal glandular and garlicy nature. As affected by Carter—a man considerably more prim, heatless, and fastidious of sensibilities—this pose seemed garish. When he advertised himself as “just a redneck farmer from south Georgia,” it inevitably had a quality of calculated vamping. He even assumed Wallace’s political aesthetic of dumpy drabness. At a supper of steak and scotch one evening in a river house below the neighboring town of Americus, one guest happened to remark that Carter’s campaign billboard ads—rather homely productions with a blow-up of Carter’s face, scrubby looking and bulbeyed, gazing out somewhat bleakly and forlornly—struck him as “awfully dowdy.” Carter’s eyes widened a bit, and he retorted in a low toneless murmur, “I don’t think they looked dowdy at all. They were exactly what we wanted. Folks are turned off by all those slick professional-looking ads.”
But it was a designed seediness not only of style but of sentiments. Carter had comprehended, Wooten explains, “something he had not quite grasped in 1966. Georgians, on almost every single issue, were either slightly or substantially more conservative than he.” It was much the same recomputation, for that matter, that Wallace had arrived at after losing his first sprint for the governorship to a more vigorous segregationist: “John Patterson out-nigguhed me. And boys, I’m never gonna be outnigguhed again.” In his own second effort now in 1969, Carter concluded he could win, as Wooten quotes him, “without a single black vote,” and the preoccupations of his campaign accordingly consisted of such Wallace dogmas as restoring local institutions to local supervision, promises “to establish and maintain the highest standards of quality in the public schools and colleges of Georgia, in spite of any obstacle brought about by integration, court rulings….” He was, at the best, merely a more polite and modulated, denatured, sublimated Wallace: a Kool-Aid simulation of Wallace. He began putting in appearances at private segregationist academies over the state, and finally even struck an entente with a squat, plump, bald political tout named Roy Harris, one of the more squalid and raucous racists of the time. These were rather bizarre affinities in a man who, approached only a few years earlier by his local townsmen down in Plains to join them in the White Citizens Council, became the only white citizen of substance in the community to say no—in fact, when they even offered to pay his dues, he refused with knottyjawed, white-mottled stubbornness.
In years to come, a number of observers would begin to imagine that they detected in Carter a certain awesome aptitude for the counterfeit. And indeed, in that 1970 race for the governorship, to smuggle himself on into the grander prospects of that office, Carter submitted to identifying himself with a dingy and shabby mentality which privately, instinctively, repelled him. He even managed to produce the effusion at one point during that campaign, in which Lester Maddox was entered for the lieutenant-governorship, that “Lester Maddox is the embodiment of the Democratic party.” Carter’s principal competitor in his own race was a former governor named Carl Sanders, a dapper and affluent, sedately moderate lawyer who had made his way among Atlanta’s “New-South” grandees. Carter mounted against him Wallace’s brand of rowdy populist jeering, calling Sanders “Cufflinks Carl” and belaboring him for his consortings with “the Atlanta bigwigs.” Somewhat more unpleasantly, in what amounted to a kind of racist McCarthyism, Carter’s campaign also indulged, if it did not instigate, the anonymous distribution of copies of a photograph showing Sanders being splashed with champagne by celebrating black members of Atlanta’s pro basketball team.
After Carter had won, though, several friends noted that he “seemed jittery, edgy…,” as if his conscious debasement and self-debauchery had left him with a lingering nausea. “Jimmy confided,” says Wooten, “that he was distraught by the campaign he had run,” and he reportedly vowed to Rosalynn “he would never go through such a campaign again.” He labored now to reassure black leaders in the state that “it was a regrettable approach to politics,” but that “you’re going to like me as governor.”
It had been, then, simply a campaign of contrived illusions and attitudinizing. And with his inaugural speech he dismissed without a blink all that had gone before, that mime he had briefly enacted. He insisted in his speech—“rather curious words,” as Wooten describes them—that “the test of a man is not how well he campaigns.” Rather than all that pre-election rhetoric—which, after all, as in other campaigns, was no more real than, say, a TV commercial for margarine—rather than all that, Carter explained, “This is the time for truth and frankness.” He seemed to be announcing, in effect: Now they would see who he truly was and what he truly meant—this was really it now. And he then delivered perhaps the most fateful fourteen words of all his political career: “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.” With that, even before his governor’s term had really begun, he passed through the star-gate into the national galaxy, was translated onto the front page of The New York Times and onto the cover of Time. Somewhat ironically, through George Wallace’s physics of political power, he had now assumed the legacy of Martin Luther King: he had become the personification of the New-Born South.
About his ensuing governorship, in fact, there prevailed a certain amiable insubstantiality. While the proportion of blacks in state agencies increased markedly, his administration was mostly occupied with the somewhat passionless, odorless, technocrat’s ardors of economy and efficiency. Even at that, while he would aver later during his presidential campaign that he had dispensed with 278 of the state’s 300 bureaucratic divisions, “the fact of the matter,” says Wooten, “was that only a small percentage of those 278 agencies he eliminated were actually funded by the state government or were functioning,” and while he also contended he had dramatically contained the budget and bulkiness of the state’s bureaucracy, “the actual statistics showed that because of inflation and the addition of several thousand jobs, the cost and size of Georgia government kept growing during his term.” But if his tenure as governor proved something less than impressive, a vision of a yet vaster prospect had nevertheless already begun quietly arranging itself in his head.
He once again moved in ways that reflected Wallace’s political sensibility—the same way Wallace had been inspired to proclaim during his own campaigns, “I want to let yawl in on a little secret. These here big national politicians like Humphrey and Nixon, they don’t hang their britches on the wall and then take a flyin’ jump into ’em every mornin’, they put ’em on one britches’ leg at a time, just like you and me do.” So now it was Carter’s genius, undaunted by all orthodox probabilities and the apparent outrageousness of his own speculations, to begin quietly and raptly drawing a measure of himself—for someone of his fearsome restlessness and ambitions, it had probably become a simple instant unthinking reflex by now—against the other presidential prospects who happened to pass through Atlanta for an evening or two at the governor’s mansion: Humphrey, McGovern, Jackson, Ted Kennedy. They little suspected—relaxing in those evenings, weary and slightly unlaced, some of them a trifle sozzled—the scrutiny they were under in that pale sleet-blue gaze with its spacious, hospitable, hoecake grin.
In fact, Carter proceeded now as a kind of cosmetically reconstituted and dry-cleaned successor to the Wallace phenomenon in American politics. Beyond racial distemper, the true popular feelings of discontent revealed in Wallace’s astonishing showings beyond the South had not been lost on Carter. In the deepest sense, Wallace engendered Carter—by loosing into the air the possibilities of a new national populist appeal outside all the customary custodians and appurtenances of consequence. It was a potential, of course, which had already been tentatively addressed once, only with liberal inflections, by McGovern. That misadventure Carter ascribed not at all to the potential itself, but to the person of McGovern. The condition was still there. And it was Wallace who had made its full realization possible for him.
It was by posing himself, even before his success in the Iowa caucuses, as an intriguing alternative to Wallace in the primaries in the South, particularly Florida, and thereby as having promise for dispatching the still unsettling specter of Wallace in those early pre-primary days, that he gained his first authentic, if still tenuous and conditional, validity: Wallace lent him that critical initial importance, however yet fractional, that attracted the early and, as it would turn out, strategic interest of Andrew Young, and eventually worked to dissuade other candidates, like Udall, from entering the field. And he gathered the strength to make Wallace an irrelevance.
Wooten describes Carter’s quaintness as a presidential contender. “He drawled. ‘Ahmuh fahmuh and ahmuh Suthnuh,’ he would say, and somehow it just didn’t sound quite right within the context of an American presidential campaign.” But in fact, Wallace had also broken for Carter, however dubiously, that barrier to national seriousness, the distracting inappropriateness of a Southern style. It no longer seemed quite so bizarre. If anything, in fact, Carter was enhanced by any evocations of similitude with Wallace—appearing now out of that same clime with those same lints and saps in his voice, but so strikingly different, it seemed, in spirit, in manner.
What he conducted was a campaign of good intentions. It may have been really about all, given his scanty and perfunctory experience, he had to commend himself. But as Wooten points out, after so protracted a national season of trauma and disillusionment, the entire country seemed “desperately determined to believe affirmatively in his undefined possibilities.” His campaign proceeded, actually, like nothing so much as a kind of altar call, populist in mood, for a national New Birth—an appeal for a national redemption and atonement, “a regeneration of its fouled spirit,” as Wooten puts it. Through it all, Wooten adds, “he had not spoken of faults but rather of possibilities.” It was as if, by his simply proposing it so, all those discomforts—Vietnam, Watergate with its complex of accessory scandals—could be expiated and dispelled, no more: “It had simply happened,” explains Wooten, “and it happened yesterday and it had nothing to do with today or tomorrow”—a benign and gentle amnesia, the propagation of the television format of reality: a disintegration of the collective national experience into successive, disconnected oblivious episodes, without any larger comprehending continuum of memory or meaning.
With his squeezed and almost excruciating grin of graciousness, Carter’s main exertion in the campaign seemed to be to convey the effect—in the phrase of the aging Texas ranch foreman in Jane Kramer’s The Last Cowboy for what he most admires in Western movie heroes—of “expressin’ right.” He made much of his conversion as a born-again Southern Baptist Christian during the dispirited interlude before his second governor’s campaign. He presented himself now for the presidency on little more finally than a Calvinist ethic of rigorous worthiness. He would entreat gatherings in the small sober voice of his years of teaching a Baptist Sunday-school class, his hands held in a lightly spread cage of delicately touching fingertips at his trim waist, “I want to be tested in the most severe type of way. If any of your questions embarrass me, then I don’t deserve to be President. I’ll try to conduct myself as a candidate in a way that’ll make you proud. I’ll never tell a lie, I’ll never betray your trust, and I’ll never avoid a controversial question. Test my character, my ability, my weaknesses—and if I don’t measure up,” he gamely professed, “I don’t deserve to be elected.”
Wooten suggests that Carter “would discover in the course of his years that, just like the South, America had an enormous tolerance for and perhaps even a grand appetite for hypocrisy. Jimmy Carter would never forget that. He would, in fact, come to understand its implications better than any politician of his day.” It is always one of the tribulations of earnestness, though, that it naturally invites cynicisms and suspicions of hypocrisy. The truth was, in his presidential campaign, Carter utterly subscribed to all of his platitudes and homilies. And it is not so much an appetite for hypocrisy as for the sententious and rectitudinous—for “expressin’ right”—that is a vital impulse in the American folk character. That may, in fact, be an even more disquieting enthusiasm. While it has often accounted for much that is memorable in our past—the abolitionists, Woodrow Wilson, Robert Kennedy—much of the rest of the world has also come to entertain a wariness of the mischief and mayhem worked by that strain of eager, didactic simplicity in the American nature. But it was this American disposition, more exactly, that Carter came to understand more fully than any other politician of his time.
At the end of all his public appearances, he would quietly intone, “Can we be decent, and honest, and truthful, and fair, and compassionate—“ his eyes briefly glaring glassily wide in emphasis on the gently uttered rustle of each word, “—can we be pure, and honest, and idealistic, and compassionate?” It was like an incantation with him, as if by simply sounding those words in the air, “kind, and truthful, and decent,” the reality itself might, by some magic of mimesis, be conjured forth; or more, by his sheer insistent recital of those words, he might in some way assume and own and become the qualities themselves, take on purity and compassion.
Wooten suggests at several points in Dasher that Carter seems finally blank of any consistent or even identifiable ideology. But rather than ideology, Carter answered to a kind of moral sentimentalism. It may have been something like the political romance of “commitment” promoted by Robert Kennedy that Carter set out to reproduce, but with Carter, it turned out to be more a kind of Disneyland soul he emoted, like those Coke commercials:
I’d like to build the world a home
and furnish it with love,
grow apple trees, and honey bees,
and snow-white turtle doves.
It tended toward the simpering and muzzy. Undertaking once to rhapsodize to Wooten about what returning back home to Plains meant to him, Carter mustered the lyricism, “There’s some sort of strength there for me. I know what it is, I think, but it’s hard to articulate. It’s just there—maybe it’s in the air or the water.”
Significantly though, Carter continued with this musing, “I’ve really made it an effort to define what it is that happens to me when I go home, because I think it’s important to understand that process if I’m going to completely understand myself.” Even in his melosentimentalism, he was the technician, reducing the mystery of the call of home to a “process” that “it’s important to understand.” Carter, in his self-compelled magnification from Plains to the presidency of the United States, has proceeded, more than anything else, as the utter engineer, the programmer—of himself most of all. Not for nothing does he cite Admiral Hyman Rickover, that raspy autocrat of precisioned “performance” who commanded him during his nuclear submarine apprenticeship, as the most consequential presence in his life other than his father. And like Rickover, observes Wooten, Carter “found in himself the ability to remain chronically dissatisfied with himself,” acting from his own self-flexing tensions, assiduously directing himself according to a program for self-engineering.
“He had never really enjoyed making speeches,” Wooten states, “even though he recognized their value.” But he applied himself to that particular inadequacy with the same doggedness for self-improvement with which he addressed every other item he found insufficient in his life—with speed-reading courses, cultural “blitzes,” as Wooten terms them, of museum tours and recorded opera. As to oratory, “he despised his own inability to master the art,” recounts Wooten, and “enlisted the aid of an announcer from a little radio station near the tiny village where he lived.” The results, though, have never been especially striking: his voice still has that faint, shrill, reedy strain and an odd off-syncopation—it’s as if, however further he has ranged now in eminence and self-certainty, his voice were still left somewhere back about at the point of his high-school graduation.
Actually, Carter’s most imposing impediment through his political progress is that he never has been particularly social in his inclinations. He has never really been a public man. Perhaps for that reason, then, he would incessantly proclaim to the anonymous throngs at his rallies, “I feel very close to all of you”—laboring in that way to invoke, at least, a peculiar sort of collective, impersonal intimacy. If the end result of all this strenuous self-revamping has rather been a man of vaguely and befuddlingly disparate parts, Carter protests with the same resolute diligence, “People say they don’t know me…. I’ve tried, and I’ve tried hard. I’ve spent two years now trying to let people get to know me. I don’t know what else to do.”
So there always seemed some furtive tone of premeditation to his folksy flairs and flourishes, his breezy “This-Land-Is-Your-Land” effusions during his campaign. His celebrated affinities for Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Reinhold Niebuhr somehow had the smell of studiously acquired enthusiasms, a closely computed soulfulness. For such a temperament, it would seem nothing could be unconsidered, trusted to the reckless vagaries of spontaneity. Before a special piano concert at the White House recently, Carter hailed Vladimir Horowitz for his “fearless expression of emotions”—only someone of Carter’s compressed and constricted disciplines could construe anything “fearless” about a virtuoso expressing emotions, this peculiar accolade even lifting Horowitz’s eyebrows in a brief startled wagging.
Indeed, as Wooten narrates it, even Carter’s courtship had been a matter of measured calculation. It was while he was home on leave from Annapolis that he had taken a somewhat more attentive look at Rosalynn, a friend of his sister Ruth. “She was just an insignificant little girl,” as he later told it, but what seemed to endear her finally to him was, says Wooten, “like Jimmy…she had goals and purposes.” That proved aphrodisiac enough, and the way he proposed to her was that mixture, which he would also apply years later to his effort for the presidency, of greeting-card sentiment and draftsmanlike calibration: “He looked over at her,” writes Wooten, “and told her she was beautiful and told her he loved her and told her he wanted to marry her and asked if that seemed a good idea to her.” Such a combination of the sentimental with an accountant’s deliberation suggests why some have found Carter merely a Nixon with cocoa and sympathy.
During the campaign, Carter did not neglect a discreet but methodical cultivation of the windfall of his vague nostalgic resemblance to the Kennedys. Especially after an address to an assembly of students, he would, before taking their questions, execute the ceremonial flourish of removing his coat after the style of Robert Kennedy, slinging it over the back of a chair and then with an almost formal care fold up the sleeves of his shirt two precise laps. Standing then with feet spraddled and hands clamped on hips to engage their questions, their challenges—he would respond to blunter questions with a sporting, softly murmured, “Aw right. Good deal…” and repeat at the finish, “We need—“ a short breath of a pause, “—a government that can be—“ another faint hang, “—just as good, and kind, and decent as the American people are,” and to the applause for this sentiment, he would briefly roll his eyes upward, ethereally.
He even programmed himself to simulate to an extent Jack Kennedy’s cavalier élan, letting his freckled hand linger on the back of secretaries’ hair as he murmured, “Mighty pirty girls in this office,” snatching the hand of some nebulously pretty matron introduced to him and blurting, “I been lookin’ forward to meetin’ you, I sure have, and now I know why I been,” swinging this nestling cuddle of hands between them back and forth in the manner of schoolyard sweethearts. But even as he moved through the exuberance and festivity, he yet remained under his own ebullience still scrupulously self-contained and machined, keeping his arms for the most part crossed in a neat, tight tuck, pausing to stand with feet close together, his gestures spare and quick and closely snipped.
Wooten quotes him during the campaign: “I can will myself to sleep until ten-thirty and get my ass beat, or I can will myself to get up at six o’clock and become the President of the United States.” Willing it—that was all it really took, as it had served all his self-levitations since Plains, to transubstantiate himself now into “one of the most important and powerful human beings on the face of the earth,” as Wooten casts him. And he would assert again and again through the campaign, as if the recitation were a part of that effort of willing it, “I don’t intend to lose.” It was almost as if he simply meant to insist himself into winning.
In a sense, he did.
But with that, his lifetime’s scenario of becoming ever something else arrived at a magnificent blind end. What has happened over the subsequent fifteen months—the disarray of the energy crisis, the fitful grappling with the coal strike, the Bert Lance bumble and the Marston debacle, the collapsing dollar and somersaulting inflation, the deepening bewilderment of allied governments, amplifying speculations about his competency, most recently the ungainly blundering of his neutron bomb undecision—has all come to suggest, among other things, that those cherished American canons of industry, pleasantness, unflappable confidence and optimism, grit, might not in some instances, such as the presidency, quite be enough. That lurking sense about Carter during the campaign of some faint slightness is rapidly becoming a sense of overwhelming slightness. At the least, it is beginning to seem more and more likely that the brief political romance of the stranger, the unsullied and adventuresome outsider, is over with forever: in that sense, Carter may have already defeated, if he should have been nurturing any fancies, Jerry Brown. In the meantime, while it was Carter’s persistent intrepid assurance during the campaign that “I’ll be good, you wait and see, I’ll be damned good,” what his administration is coming to bode may be the vengeance on America at last of the Dale Carnegie mystique.
What has seemed a readiness to be glibly and indiscriminately inspiriting and reassuring—as if, so entranced is he himself by those mythic dimensions of the presidency, he cannot resist bestowing as president the great gift of his personal sympathies and encouragement—has not exactly dissipated the increasing unease about his actual grasp of presidential power and of the difficulties of dealing with bureaucracies, lobbies, and legislators. “Oh, he’ll say anything to anybody that he thinks might make them happy to hear,” one Washington veteran remarks. “He’ll tell ’em anything, he’ll do that, all right—the black caucus, feminists, George Meany. When it comes to actually doing something then, that’s a wholly different matter. How he sounds has absolutely nothing to do with how he might act.” It is a kind of promiscuous tantalizing that he practices, which can only produce a gathering exasperation and fury.
This style is not simply a matter of Southern deferentiality and graciousness—merely a natural cultural reflex to assume the hue of feeling of his particular company at the moment. It was also symptomatic of his campaign, Wooten says. “He had something for everyone.” It prompted suspicions of either a chameleon-like inconstancy or a facile duplicity—as when, in the company of Dean Rusk, he would inveigh against those newspapers which had printed Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, and then with journalists and editors would acclaim the fortitude it had required to present that “breakthrough in the public’s understanding of the war.” “I don’t believe he can help it,” a man who is an intimate of Carter told Wooten. “I think he really believes that without compromising himself, he can walk from one room where he’s met with the Conference of Catholic Bishops and convinced them that he’s against abortion and walk right into another room and persuade a caucus from the National Organization of Women that he’s with them on abortion.”
If Carter has “dismissed a distinctive ideology as excessive baggage,” as Wooten concludes, the fact is, reality itself comes mixed and ambiguous, larger than any particular political or polemical formulation. It once might have been argued that Carter was wisely reluctant to commit himself, as Wooten complains, to any “either-or position”—one cannot be simply “for or against abortion,” as Carter once insisted, “for or against gun control, or for or against the war, or for or against amnesty.” The truth always lies somewhere beyond all popular political perceptions, all schematic systems, whether liberal or conservative. Wooten asserts Carter constructed an administration “that emphasized style over substance”—he was “quick to notice that, in politics, it is often just as important to be perceived as something as actually to be that something and, as a matter of fact, that one need not be anything ideologically at all.” But finally, there must be some inner matter and musculature to those images and metaphors. It cannot all be signals.
But Carter has been left with little else now, as it happens, than ghosts of the futile gestures and poses of the campaign that elected him. As Elizabeth Drew has recently pointed out, his means to power—that constituency which responded to his campaign’s prospects of a populist national New Birth—has not transferred to Carter the power to govern; instead, it has disappeared, receded into an impalpable suspended abeyance for four years, and it seems never to have seriously occurred to Carter to convert the strength of his campaign into a popular movement to support him or his programs. Announcing that the energy crisis required the “moral equivalent of war,” he then mobilized no legions to wage it.
The candidate who proclaimed himself during the campaign, “I owe the special interests nothing!” has found, once in office, that little else is there, for four years now, but special interests. He seems, in effect, to have resigned himself to this special interest state—a fracturing and atomizing of national political power into multiple concentrated parts which exert a down-pulling gravity on any larger initiatives or considerations of the prudent and beneficial. While Carter may have gained the presidency through a populist-tempered political offensive, it became his vulnerability once he had won—the immemorial vulnerability of the outsider—that “he became too impressed by the importance of those institutions he had vowed to defy.”
The result of all this is that, by 1980, Carter is likely to have become a casualty himself of the promises of his 1976 campaign. One conspicuous disparity between his boomings as a candidate and his actual dispensations once in office was that he wound up populating his official cabinet largely with figures from the preserves in Washington and New York he had so energetically belabored. His personal cabinet meanwhile consisted of those young political technicians distinguished mostly for their devoutness toward Carter’s political fortunes. The most singular exception was Andrew Young. When one recalls the expectations and portents of Carter’s campaign, without any doubt Young has been his truest appointment. The furor he has occasioned in Washington and elsewhere owes mostly to the fact that he has been speaking not as a diplomat but as a kind of international prophet, an extension of his apostleship during the years of the movement. But the rows and dislocations aroused by Young are also an eloquent hint of what would have taken place if Carter had actually undertaken to realize fully, or even appreciably, in his presidency the ostensible mood and meaning and implications of his candidacy.
Any populist perspective has always proven notoriously resistant to translation into working political institutions. It’s as if it only exists in prospect; carried on into the thrall of reality, it somehow vanishes. Instead, it has been important in the national experience mainly as a style of campaigning, as a means and promise of power, rather than as a way of actually governing. Still it has endured as a beguiling mirage in American politics—Carter now one more failed pretender, one more lost prince of an old dream.
On the morning of his inauguration, Wooten recounts, Carter had been invited to an early sunrise commemoration at the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King’s father was presiding at a prayer service. “Although he had told the old man he would be there,” says Wooten, “he had no intention of going and never had. He had learned over the years that his purposes were better served by the subjunctive than the declarative, so he had said ‘perhaps’ to the old man, knowing all along the answer was really ‘no.’ ” And through the prayers in that cold coral winter dawn, Martin Luther King, Sr.—after all his years now of so many brave proud hopes ending in ambush, in blankness—“could not overcome,” says Wooten, “the deep depression that had settled on him.”
May 18, 1978