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