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Search For a Man Named Carter | The Nation

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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.

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