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Search For a Man Named Carter

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Democratic nominee for President, Jimmy Carter shown July 10, 1976 in New York.

About the Author

On the campaign trail with the former peanut farmer who is expected to be the next president of the United States.

Santa Barbara

In March 1975, an itinerant politician named Jimmy Carter turned up at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, largely on his own motion, to present his credentials as President of the United States. I was away at the time, but, more than a year later, safely shielded from the blinding smile that seems to have turned off so many of my colleagues, I listened to the taped transcription of the self-appointed candidate's exchange with the skeptical intellectuals assembled around the Center's conference table.

What I heard was a cogent analysis of the need for structural reform in the federal government, and a quite precise delineation of the changes of direction in policy, program and administration Carter believes are necessary to achieve his objectives. The terms he used were to provide his campaign slogan: "I think the government can be just as honest and decent and open and compassionate as can the individual human being; I think the government can be just as competent and efficient and economical and effective as any human being or business entity."

The hour-and-a-half session was open-ended, with the questioners setting the agenda. Carter dealt with the faltering energy program, welfare, tax reform, unemployment, corporate regulation, and the malfunctioning of the Department of Justice. In all these areas he came through as an extraordinarily knowledgeable systems engineer, conditioned by the disciplines imposed at Annapolis and in the course of his service in the Navy's nuclear submarine fleet. At the same time, he managed to demonstrate that he was something more than a humanoid computer by citing the manner in which, as regional planner, legislator and Governor, he had adapted systems theory to the political arts And at every appropriate juncture he reasserted his conviction that efficient management of the bureaucracy does not preclude, but necessarily must include, sensitivity to human needs.

Carter's appearance at the Center was by no means unique. He had by then traversed forty-five states, seeking audiences with presumably influential people in furtherance of his bold, unprecedented strategy of entering all the Democratic primaries. He systematically exposed himself to party leaders, editors and, commentators, and politically oriented intellectuals wherever he could arrange a hearing. He was, as he candidly admitted, on a selling trip--employing the only technique available to an outsider who proposed to face the large field of Democratic contenders who even that early were visible on the national stage.

Carter's initial objective was to be taken seriously by these Establishmentarians, and in the great majority of cases he succeeded. At that stage he could not hope for many outright converts, since those who practice politics rarely commit themselves so early to so long a shot. But Carter managed to place himself in the futures book of those who would listen by undercutting in advance the principal charge his opponents would use against him when the primary campaign went public--that he was a naive, parochial upward-striver seeking to exploit public discontent. with "Washington." No one who heard Jimmy Carter in one of those no-holds-barred sessions could doubt his intelligence, iron self-discipline, extraordinary energy, and grasp of the main issues in contemporary affairs. There could be, and were, reservations on other grounds, but in these respects, at least, it was clear that he was as well qualified to master the intricacies of the Presidential office as any man in public life.

When I first listened to the Center tapes, in late spring of this year, the media stereotype of Carter was taking shape. As he had calculated it would, his victory over George Wallace in Florida had moved him up in the reckoning of the TV assignment desks, for the first time guaranteeing him exposure comparable to that of the "national" candidates who had entered the race from a Congressional base. This was an essential adjunct to the solid, highly professional organizing effort he had mounted in key states, but it also subjected him to television's trivializing effect. The image projected was that of an early American exotic, a soft-voiced, smiling man whose primitive religion led him to talk in public about compassion, brotherhood, and even love (as opposed to sex). The camera crews descended upon Plains and brought forth little Amy, Miss Lillian and Brother Bill as supporting players in a political soap opera that would build to a cliff-hanging climax when the simple Southern boy had to face down the challenge of a late-blooming avant-garde exotic, the existential mystic, Jerry Brown.

A few of the major political commentators pointed out that the sudsy Jimmy Carter now being featured on the nightly news bore little resemblance to the incisive, hard-driving pragmatist they encountered when they talked to the candidate in person. But most were otherwise occupied, trying to explain away the fact that they had foisted upon the public a campaign scenario that was now proving ludicrously wide of the mark. It had begun with treatment of George Wallace as a leader whose following was so formidable that he was bound to emerge from the primaries as a key Democratic power broker when in fact, as Carter demonstrated in Florida, the Alabaman was a fading anachronism in the political climate that now exists in the South. By extension, the Wallace fallacy supported the theory cherished by what was left of the old-line machine Democrats, and perpetuated by Washington's herd journalists--that the candidates would kill one another oft in the primaries, opening the way for a brokered convention in which Edward Kennedy or Hubert Humphrey would be summoned from the wings.

There is little doubt that Carter's predominantly hostile treatment by the Washington pundits results, in part at least, from the fact that these professional prophets find it hard to treat dispassionately with a man who proved them so resoundingly wrong. This distemper has been compounded by the skepticism endemic in Washington, where it is assumed that an ingenuous man cannot possibly succeed in politics. By this test one who emphasizes his commitment not to tell a lie, make a misleading statement, or avoid a controversial issue is automatically judged to be disingenuous, the characterization of Governor Carter around which the Republicans organized President Ford's election campaign.

One of the great ironies of the electoral season is that Carter 'has suffered his greatest damage at the hands of the media by stubbornly meeting their most extreme demands. His campaign operation surely has been the most open in history, and he has continued to make himself personally available to anyone with press credentials, despite the fact that this kind of running news conference was bound to force him into discussion of the "no-win" issues every experienced campaign manager counsels his candidate to avoid. Carter is particularly vulnerable here, since he is philosophically, if not temperamentally, a moderate who shies away from the uncompromising, doctrinaire position that will at least gain the passionate support of one faction in an emotional controversy. On superheated issues like abortion, amnesty and busing his rational approach outrages those who feel deeply on either side.

It might seem that Carter would be credited with political courage for refusing to be stampeded by the impassioned minority that insists that every fetus has a right to life, or the opposing group that insists with equal moral conviction that every woman has the right to control her own body. Instead, he has been subjected to a kind of rhetorical death watch, mounted by reporters seeking to determine whether he has veered perceptibly in one direction or the other. This gives undue weight to what most Americans regard as a troublesome but peripheral issue, and it brings out religious and ethnic considerations that threaten to fragment the traditional Democratic constituencies Carter managed to reassemble at the party's national convention.

The overblown treatment of "no-win" issues also accentuates the incipient bigotry invoked by Carter's accent and regional heritage. James Reston in The New York Times cites the reaction of "Roman Catholics who oppose his moderate view on abortion and busing, Protestants who reject his fundamentalist religion, Jews who remember the anti-Semitic history of some, Southern Baptists, and who wonder whether a true Christian believer would ever agree as President to the political sovereignty of Israel over Jerusalem." Except for those with irrevocably closed minds, Carter has been able to reassure most of those who have given him an opportunity to explain how he relates his Baptist faith to the conduct of public affairs, and the range of those who have come away convinced is impressive--from the faculty of Notre Dame to the romantic radical hedonist, Norman Mailer.

Another source of the rising tide of doubt that has pulled down Carter's initial shoo-in lead over President Ford is his refusal to allow his interrogators to push him into setting forth the fine-grain detail of his programmatic proposals. On tax reform, for example, he has refused to go beyond an outline of the directions in which he would move, citing as prime objectives elimination of tax shelters on investment income, and termination of the tax breaks accorded a wide variety of special interests. Once that is done, he contends, it will be possible to adjust tax rates so as to shift the burden upward on the income scale, reducing the proportion now being paid by those in the middle and below.

I know of no economist of any persuasion who would defend the grossly unjust working of the present federal tax structure; even the politicians who are responsible for it justify it only on grounds of expediency; liberal and conservative voices in the media joined in a chorus to condemn the scandalous special interest grab bag logrolled through the current session of Congress; and most political scientists agree that basic tax reform is central to any effective wrestling with the bureaucratic horrors generated by welfare, agricultural price supports, energy, arms procurement, foreign trade and the rest. This would seem to be, as Carter has treated it, an inescapable issue in the 1976 Presidential campaign. Yet, prudent politicians accept the dictum that tax reform too is in the "no-win" category.

The vulnerability comes about because, as Carter insists, it is impossible to present a proposed revenue code in the course of a political campaign; the interactions of the present complex tax structure are such that no single element can be isolated and appraised in terms of what a change would mean to a taxpayer in a given bracket. Yet that is precisely the kind of question the media criticize Carter for refusing to answer--much to the delight of President Ford's handlers, who charge that the Democrat's refusal to go beyond general principles indicates either ignorance or dishonesty, or both.

At this closing stage of the campaign an attempt to separate what Carter has said from what has been said about what he was alleged to have said is akin to the search for the Dead Sea Scrolls. The torrent of words his candidacy has generated since.he began to be taken seriously last spring has been largely devoted to the mechanics of the campaign-the means by which the candidates' handlers sought to project the image; the strategy of shaping the appeal to the various interest groups, and their presumed response. Since the visual media report the campaign principally in three-minute time segments, controversy is emphasized to arouse audience interest, and compression eliminates the kind of qualifications necessary to place any serious statement in context. And increasingly the print media follow the lead of the TV managers in determining their own priorities and treatment. The emphasis of mass media coverage is now almost wholly on style and personality, and any effort to give the voters direct access to the 'substance of the campaign--as in the case of the Presidential debates--is written off as boring.

Beginning with the tape of Carter's discussion at the Center eighteen months ago, I started examining similar first-hand documentation of the, candidate's views and attitudes. I find there is a quite voluminous public record available-most of it in magazines, the background sections of newspapers, and low-rated television discussion programs that do not intrude upon the daily quick fix of news and commentary upon which most voters presumably rely. Depending on these sources alone (I have had no part in this campaign, and indeed have not been exposed in person to the charms of either candidate), it is my conclusion that both candidates have done all that reasonably could be expected of them to expose their views on the issues, demonstrate their capacity to handle the duties of the office, and provide a basis on which the voters could make a judgment as to their character and integrity. Ford's record as Congressman, Vice President and unelected President is available to demonstrate how he could be expected to perform if he were given a full term in the White House. Governor Carter's sharply contrasting approach was spelled out at the very beginning of the campaign, and has been elaborated in position papers, speeches and extended discussion with anyone who could advance a reasonable claim to his time.

In tracing out this record I find no instance in which Carter has departed from the principles he originally enunciated, or has significantly modified his position on the programs he has outlined. The trivial nature of the "evidence" of evasiveness that has occupied so much media attention can be seen in the controversy over whether a single reporter once heard him say he thought he could effect economies that would reduce defense expenditures by $15 billion rather than the $7 billion he usually projects--a matter of no arithmetic significance in a budget of such magnitude, and certainly no basis for suggesting that, a man of his military background is bent on recklessly reducing the nation's defenses. Yet it is this kind of hyperactive adversary journalism that provides the ammunition President Ford has used, in an echo of Spiro Agnew's alliterative assault upon George McGovern, to charge that his opponent "wanders, he wavers, he waffles, and he wiggles."

In the post-convention period Carter has found himself running against two media stereotypes--his own, and that of Gerald Ford. The President's media image is hardly flattering, but it is politically useful: a man who is conceded to be honest and well-intentioned can be forgiven if he also is portrayed as stupid and inept, and despite all the vast advantages of incumbency, this image has conferred upon Ford the underdog role, invoking sympathy when he is attacked, or even questioned. On the other hand, when Carter displays the innate toughmindedness and sophistication which contrasts so sharply with the media image of a moralizing provincial, he arouses the suspicion that he is a political Jekyll and Hyde.

It does not follow that those who have had a chance to see Carter in context, without the distorting lens of media coverage, would necessarily vote for him. He is not satisfactory to those on the Left who believe that the materialist American society is hopelessly corrupt and will respond only to radical restructuring. He is a moderate reformist who makes no promise of ideological innovation, but argues that we can follow the welfare route to attain a tolerable degree of social justice within the limits of representative democracy and marketplace economics. But he is, as I noted at the outset, a systems engineer by temperament and training, and there is no doubt that he would make a massive attempt to reorganize the flabby, inefficient federal bureaucracy. In that sense, then, he is not satisfactory to those on either the Left or Right who believe we must dismantle the central structures of government and transfer autonomy to institutions closer to the people.

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.

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