Search For a Man Named Carter
In that Center meeting Carter began by saying, "1 think a competent government is crucial, no matter what we hope to achieve," arid went on to define the role he seeks: "Nobody can lead a nation except the President; nobody can evolve a clear policy, nobody can inspire the country to reach for certain goals, nobody can delineate a comprehensive approach . . . except the President; nobody can set a moral tone for the whole government, even the nation to some degree, except the President." Whatever else he might be, this man was no sanctimonious innocent wandering the hinterland as the prophet of a formless, neo-Populist protest against big government.
Carter has shown no disposition to agonize over the possible missteps that produced so many adverse headlines. "Almost everything I do, I do intentionally," he told reporters late in the campaign. "You. may not believe it, but it is true." It is, in fact, this kind of certitude that gives pause to some of those who have seen Governor Carter up close--the total absence of any sense of self-depreciation, to soften the impression of driving ambition that produces occasional flashes of arrogance. The suspicion follows that this aspect of his character gives the lie to his purported ingenuousness. The offset is that Carter readily acknowledges the justice of these reservations; the primary weakness identified in himself by this profoundly introspective man is pride; the sin for which he has spent more time on his knees than any other is lack of humility. It was, in fact, the candid discussion of this aspect of his self-image, and of its relationship to his religious faith, that led to perhaps the most damaging statement of all--that ripped out of the context of the interview he gave Playboy.
The distinguished religious historian, William Lee Miller, wrote that "the irony arises that as informed an exposition on Christianity as you could find from any American politician got turned around into something offensive (perhaps) exactly to the people who should have been most deeply impressed by it." Carter was not talking about his sex life, but responding to his interrogators' suggestion hat his religious views might make him a rigid, unbending President. His point was that there was nothing in his religious tradition to make him coercively puritanical, self-righteous or censorious. "On the contrary," Professor Miller wrote in The New Republic, "those beliefs teach the opposite lesson; humility, forgiveness, judge not that ye be not judged. Carter gave an extemporaneous version of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, the right one to choose." It made no difference; weeks after the full Playboy text was available, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times was still pointing to Carter's "blunder in discussing his sexual fantasies with Playboy magazine."
The demands of the media now wholly dominate the political process. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to make a compelling case that four years ago the canny and ruthless image merchants retained by Richard Nixon, recognizing that fact, used the great leverage of the White House to manipulate the channels of communication to the advantage of their candidate. There is no such consideration this time around. No one could seriously argue that Carter's Atlanta-based public relations experts contrived the stereotype that emerged from the day-to-day coverage of his campaign. And certainly there is no suggestion that the discrepancy between the Carter of the evening news and the Carter of the extended record results from the partisan bias of a presumed Eastern seaboard intellectual establishment. The even more alarming truth seems to be that the trivializing and distorting effect of campaign coverage in the television age is now built into the mass communications system, and is not the product of conscious design but of journalistic default. Carter, who has displayed remarkable prescience as' a political tactician, recognized the hazard at the outset, but had no option but to accept the rules of the game since there are no conceivable means by which an outsider seeking recognition could challenge them.
"You have to recognize a truism and that is that the accentuation of the character of a campaign by the news media always exaggerates conflict and combat and critical remarks," Carter has said. "I can make ten speeches today on inflation or unemployment or housing and if I made a thirty-second statement about my opponent it would' be in the headlines, would be the national television story tonight. There is no way to change it and it exaggerates greatly in the public's mind the degree of actual conflict between the candidates."
As the' general election approaches the media are systematically blaming the candidates for what is almost universally branded as the low quality of the' Presidential campaign. The implication here, guaranteed to produce widespread, public apathy as it is amplified and sanctified by the herd journalists, is that the two-party system no longer produces contenders worthy of public support. But even if one holds this to be true of Jimmy Carter--as I obviously do not--what does it say about all those eliminated along the way? It is pertinent to recall that Walter Mondale, Terry Sanford, Morris Udall, Henry Jackson, Sargent Shriver, Birch Bayh, Milton Shapp, Frank Church and the rest of the company that formally or informally tried out for the Democratic nomination found that there was no way they could meet the media's demands and still reach the national constituency with a serious, coherent case for their candidacies. If I am right that a considerable majority of those who vote, for or against Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, or elect not to vote, may do so for the wrong reasons, it seems to me the responsibility can hardly be located in Plains, Ga.