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The Nation: Jimmy Carter: Not Just Peanuts

23 minute read

He does not say “If I’m elected President.” He says “When I’m elected.” He promises to bring love to government when he takes office next January. All people have to do is trust him: he has their best interests at heart. “I’ll never tell a lie,” he assures voters. “I’ll never knowingly make a misstatement of fact. I’ll never betray your trust. If I do any of these things, I don’t want you to support me.”

Such vast self-assertion would be breathtaking were the phrases not delivered by a softspoken, low-keyed, ever smiling Southerner, who also says that he has been “twice born”—the second time when he “committed” himself to Jesus. So far in this campaign, Jimmy Carter, 51, has been the surprise and irritant of the politics-as-usual world. Hardly anybody took the former Georgia Governor very seriously a year ago, when he started running for the presidency in his friendly, dogged way. Since then, he has covered a lot of territory and obviously made many converts. Although it is early in the game, he is now being treated as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination.

As Carter has begun to score some caucus and primary victories, his opponents’ amusement has turned to concern and then to hostility. To make up for lost time, they are turning more heat on him. So along with all the love from his ardent supporters, there is a wave of hate from some of his opponents. An aide to Morris Udall vows never to support Carter; he would rather vote for Ford. “Carter’s so damn slick,” he says. “What monopoly does he have on goodness? To me, he’s dangerous.” Says Alan Baron, George McGovern’s press secretary: “By saying that he would never tell a lie, Carter decided for himself that that’s going to be his standard. Well, fine, let’s hold him to it.”

Now that he is a real challenger, Carter is being asked to pass sterner tests than other candidates. He has been accused of fudging the issues. He has been charged with telling little white lies—and indeed he has occasionally exaggerated past accomplishments—along with some big ones. But he seems mostly to be faulted for advancing himself at the expense of others. George Wallace complains that Carter promised to support him for President in 1972 and then reneged. (Carter replies that his own letter of refusal to Wallace rests in the Georgia archives.) George McGovern is resentful because Carter joined the forces trying to stop his nomination at the 1972 convention. Florida Governor Reubin Askew is unhappy with Carter for not backing him for the chairmanship of the Southern Governors’ Conference in 1973.

Some other politicians have developed a visceral antagonism to him, though they cannot exactly spell it out. Says Kentucky Senator Wendell Ford, a former Governor: “I don’t know of any Governors or former Governors whom Carter has contacted for support. That might indicate how much support he has among his former colleagues.” Adds a onetime Northern Governor: “It was obvious he was a hustler. His style was just a little different: soft voice, soft sell. But there was a political road map all over his face. Jimmy would take advantage of any single opportunity to further himself. He is absolutely driven. But unlike a lot of politicians, he knows who he is and where he wants to go.”

The liberal-to-left wing of the Democratic Party is especially dubious, fearing that his independence may be a camouflage for a closet conservative. He is also not part of the old-boy liberal network. When he won in New Hampshire, liberals held some anguished meetings about what to do. Says Joseph Duffey, director of the American Association of University Professors: “The anti-Carter sentiment is the cultural provincialism of a group that finds it hard to relate to someone who is neither a knee-jerk liberal nor an ideologue.” Mark Shields, a Washington-based Democratic campaign consultant, believes the “problem is that no one in Washington feels that they own a piece of Jimmy Carter. But they’re just playing into his hands.”

At a time when voters’ distrust of Washington, runs deep, Carter considers his status a campaign advantage. “I have been accused of being an outsider,” he says. “I plead guilty. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans are also outsiders. We are not going to get changes by simply shifting around the same groups of insiders, the same tired old rhetoric, the same unkept promises and the same divisive appeals to one party, one faction, one section of the country, one race or religion or one interest group. The insiders have had their chances and they have not delivered. Their time has run out.”

One of the motives for the attacks on Carter is left unstated—at least publicly. He is a proud Southerner, and that region is still suspect among the Northern liberals in the Democratic Party. Carter even boasts of being a redneck—a son of the red-baked Georgia soil without, of course, the racist connotations. Beyond that, he is an earnest Baptist who says that religion is the most important thing in his life. His Southern-style evangelism, showing up in so many of his speeches, irritates the less devout. They are uneasy about a man who uses the word God so easily, so often. He often prays for guidance before making a major decision.

In response to a strident attack on Carter in Manhattan’s Village Voice, Georgia Congressman Andrew Young, a black, wrote an angry reply: “Carter is one of the finest products of the most misunderstood region of our nation. You are probably right in questioning Jimmy’s doctrinaire liberalism, but progressive politics in 1976 must be based on a tough mind and a tender heart and a loving sensitive spirit.”

Much of the party simply cannot take Carter at face value. Show-biz analogies are reached for to define him. His frequent references to love remind derisive critics of that 1930s musical Of Thee I Sing, in which Presidential Candidate Wintergreen croons that “love is sweeping the country.” To others, Carter summons the image of the plastic politician in the film Nashville who broadcasts but never appears onscreen. Yet to many others, he is a believable leader with eclectic policies. Carter welcomes the ordeal of the primaries because he knows he must prove himself. “I want to be tested in the most severe way,” he says. “I want the American people to understand my character, my weaknesses, the kind of person I am.”

What kind of person is he? Carter has a deep sense of his roots. The first Scotch-Irish Carter arrived in Virginia before the Revolutionary War, and over the years the family moved farther south, to the southwestern Georgia hamlet of Plains (current population: 600). Cash-poor but land-rich, the Carters eventually accumulated some 2,000 acres of farm and woodland, raising peanuts and cotton. By Plains standards, they were patroons, leading citizens in a society keenly aware of hierarchy.

James Earl Carter Jr., the oldest of four, had a typical rural boyhood. When he was not at school he was working in the fields. His home lacked electricity and running water. Initiative was esteemed. At nine, he bought five bales of cotton with money he had saved from selling peanuts and stashed them away. A few years later, he sold them for enough profit to buy five old houses in Plains and became a landlord. The venture made him a confirmed capitalist.

Father James Earl Sr. was a resourceful farmer and small businessman, who was strict with his children and devoted to community mores, including racial segregation. But Carter’s mother was something else: one of those doughty and durable women that the South produces among both races. It was “Miss Lillian” (pronounced locally Lee-yun) who taught her son to aim for something higher than what Plains could offer. A registered nurse, she supported the family during the Depression when farm prices plummeted. Instead of letting her children talk at mealtimes, she urged them to read at the table. She treated blacks with no less compassion than whites. She nursed them when they were ill, attended their funerals and tried to bring them into her church. “I’ve been called a nigger lover all my life,” she told TIME Correspondent Stanley Cloud recently in Plains. “I have even had eggs thrown at me.” At 68, Miss Lillian joined the Peace Corps and worked as a nurse for two years in India. Today, at 78, she lives in Plains and cares for Jimmy’s eight-year-old daughter Amy while the candidate and his wife are off campaigning.

It was largely because of her influence that Jimmy became the first Carter to finish high school. While he waited to fulfill his youthful dream of entering the Naval Academy, he spent two years at Georgia colleges. Finally, he was admitted to Annapolis, graduating in 1946. He married a hometown friend, Rosalynn Smith; they have four children: three sons, now in their 20s, and Amy.

Diffident at first about politics, Rosalynn soon learned how to be at home on the hustings. Her delivery is like her husband’s: softspoken, low-keyed but highly persuasive. Today her status is separate but equal. She and Jimmy campaign apart and take turns going home to Plains each week for two or three days of rest and recuperation and family renewal. “What I liked about the Navy,” says Rosalynn, “is what I like about politics. You see your old friends again and again—those with whom you have shared experiences.”

In 1952, Carter was picked for the nuclear submarine program by Admiral Hyman Rickover, who later assigned him to the prelaunch crew of the submarine Seawolf. “Rickover transformed my life,” says Carter. “He was unbelievably hard-working and competent, and he demanded total dedication from his subordinates.” Today, Carter’s aides consider him just as much of a taskmaster as Rickover; the two men often meet.

Lieutenant Carter’s naval career ended abruptly in 1953 when his father died. Jimmy was needed at home to run the family peanut and fertilizer business. He regretted leaving the Navy, but he was also nursing ambitions for public office. Back home, he immersed himself in farming; he attended classes on farming, devoured books, sought advice from U.S. agricultural agents. Impatient to expand, he invested in a peanut sheller and began to supply large processors; then he branched out into warehousing. (Last year the income from the farm and the warehouse totaled $44,523; his net worth is estimated at $666,000.)

Not satisfied with just peanuts, Carter worked on many community projects. As a deacon in the Southern Baptist church, he taught Sunday school and traveled to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts to organize new churches. In 1962 he decided to run for the state senate, and he was defeated—until it was proved that the cemeteries as well as the jails had produced votes for his opponent. The results were overturned and Carter entered the legislature.

He disliked the tussle and compromise of the senate and considered himself more of an executive, so he jumped into the gubernatorial race in 1966. Coming almost from nowhere, he finished a respectable third in the primary that was ultimately won by ax-handle-wielding Segregationist Lester Maddox. For Carter, that campaign was only a warmup. To prepare for the race four years ahead, he steeped himself in the history of Georgia, pored over state budgets and education bills, shook all the hands that he could find.

The 1970 gubernatorial campaign is the most questionable aspect of Carter’s career. It was rough and dirty on both sides. Carter’s opponent was former Governor Carl Sanders, a New South liberal who had the backing of the Atlanta Establishment, the city’s newspapers and the black community. Carter positioned himself as a populist to the right of Sanders. For the entire campaign, “CuffLinks Carl” was derided as a tool of the moneyed interests. It was a bitter contest to determine which was the less wealthy candidate—and by any standards, Carter was well off.

Beyond exploiting class resentments, the Carter campaign cozied up to the state’s segregationists. He never made remarks that could be interpreted as racist, but he visited one of the private academies that had sprung up in response to integration, and he paid a call on a notorious segregationist publisher who subsequently endorsed him. Carter said that he would permit George Wallace to speak at the state house, and he had kind words for Maddox, who was running for Lieutenant Governor. Many white liberals in Georgia were aghast; they have never forgiven him.

It can be argued that Carter was as liberal on race issues as he could be without losing his supporters and thus the election. He did make a point of emphasizing the more respectable traits of his rural constituents. “Georgians are conservatives,” he later explained, “and I told them that conservatism and racism are not the same thing. We talked about the positive aspects of conservatism: the opposition to big government; the flag, patriotism. We made that pitch hundreds of times. This gave me a rapport with the voters, and it did not remind them or make them think of past deficiencies.”

Elected by a landslide vote, Carter appeared to be a changed man in office—leading to accusations that he had misled the voters. In his inaugural address, he proclaimed: “The time for racial discrimination is over. No poor rural white or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or simple justice.” Maddox cried foul and started sniping at Carter. He has never stopped. He even pursued Carter to New Hampshire last month to denounce him as “the McGovern of ’76” and “the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of ’76.”

Unlike Sanders, Carter appointed blacks to posts at every level of state government. (Sanders today concedes: “Carter is far more liberal than I ever was.”) He set up a biracial “disorder unit” of various experts to mediate clashes between blacks and whites. Since Georgia did not have federal referees to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Carter deputized all the high school principals in the state as registrars so that they could sign up voters at school. He overhauled the state prison and mental hospitals, which contained a high proportion of blacks. He set up a system of drug treatment and day care centers.

Carter appealed to blacks perhaps even more strongly by making certain symbolic gestures. When black legislators had a party in their part of town, they sent a routine invitation to the Governor. Much to their surprise, he showed up, and word spread quickly that the Governor was eating chitlins with the brothers. In the state capitol in 1974, Carter placed a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. on a wall amid pictures of other Georgia notables, while an integrated audience sang We Shall Overcome. Many blacks who did not vote for Carter swung over to his support. Now his presidential drive is endorsed by men as disparate as Martin Luther King Sr. and Henry Aaron.

Almost as important as improved human relations to Carter was efficiency in government. One of the few things that make him stop smiling is disorder or sloppy work. He was appalled by Georgia’s jumble of some 300 overlapping state agencies. He recalls: “It had got so that every time I opened the closet door of my office, a new state agency would fall out.”

He pushed a reorganization plan, which eventually trimmed agencies so heavily that an occasional bureaucrat would try to barricade himself inside his office. By the time his four-year term had ended, he had reduced the agencies to a more manageable 22. That did not mean that all the agencies disappeared; many of them were simply grouped in a single department with no loss of staff. Carter also introduced “zero-based budgeting.” Every state department had to justify its entire budget request, and not just the increase over the year before. The new system is still being tested, and it has flaws. But political scientists—and even some of his enemies—concede that Carter made substantial improvements, cut the flow of paper and reduced the rate of growth in state costs.

The Governor’s relationship with the legislature was more stormy. A stubborn, even self-righteous man, he seemed temperamentally unsuited for the give-and-take of governing. He thought nothing of tongue-lashing legislators and lobbyists whom he considered obstructionist. This attitude almost cost him his cherished reorganization plan and prevented his consumer protection legislation from being enacted.

Once Carter’s aides were elated when a state senator said he would vote for a bill if his father, a minor state employee, was promoted. The Governor balked at the deal. “Hell, no,” said Carter. “I didn’t run for Governor to pass bills promoting that guy’s father.”

Overall, Carter’s governorship was a success because of his skilled balancing of traditional and emerging political forces in Georgia. “He cloaked liberalism in conservative jargon,” says a state official. Carter promoted his social programs as an extension of the Gospel: problem-solving combined with Christian charity. In headier moments, he compared his actions to Christ’s ministry to the suffering. It was an extravagant analogy, but politically it worked. Carter gave to the poor without overly offending the well-to-do, conquered without excessively dividing.

This year he is showing similar dexterity in his presidential campaign. So far, he has negotiated an intricate slalom course with remarkable ease, swooping first to the left, then to the right. The most difficult of all the candidates to categorize, Carter is liberal on some issues, moderate to conservative on others. At a time when many in his audiences want simple answers, he recognizes that issues are complicated—and sometimes gives complex or even confusing answers. But, more often, his positions are clear.

The centerpiece of the Carter campaign is his promise to carry out the same kind of reorganization of Federal Government that he accomplished in Georgia. Insisting that it is impossible to give any specifics until the matter has been thoroughly studied, he nonetheless predicts that he will reduce the number of federal bureaus from 1,900 to 200. “If you don’t want to see the Government completely reorganized,” he tells his audiences, “don’t vote for me.”

On the all-important issue of the economy, while liberal candidates support large-scale public works programs to relieve unemployment, Carter stresses the role of free enterprise in providing more jobs. He does not believe that the Government should guarantee every American a job, and he opposes the Humphrey-Hawkins bill that would commit the Government to bringing unemployment down to 3% within three or four years. To do that, Washington would have to spend so much that inflation would rage anew. But in some cases, Carter would have the Government make direct payments to industry to subsidize more jobs. If a company had to lay off workers, the Government could offer to pay part of their wages for a limited time. He argues that this would reduce the need for welfare and unemployment compensation and would be far less costly than public service employment. Carter would also use the Government to create Civilian Conservation Corps-type jobs for 18-to 21-year-olds who are out of work.

Unlike the liberals, Carter has not called for curbing the independence of the Federal Reserve Board, though he mildly complains about its tight money policies of the recent past. He favors more vigorous antitrust action but, in contrast to Birch Bayh, Mo Udall and Fred Harris, he does not call for totally breaking up the big oil companies. In his opinion, they should be forced to sell off their coal and uranium production operations, and to choose between being in either the “retail” (gas stations) or “wholesale” (exploration, drilling and refining) end of the business.

One reason many labor leaders are suspicious of Carter is his stand on right-to-work laws. He has told union leaders that if they can persuade Congress to pass a repeal of the laws, he would sign it as President. But he refuses to take the lead in the matter and even suggests that he favors the right-to-work concept. Aware of these ambiguities, he adds: “The truth is, I just don’t think it’s a very important issue—and I don’t think the unions really do either.”

Carter keeps promising a more detailed analysis of his tax program. He calls for the elimination of most income tax deductions, which in turn would permit a general lowering of tax withholding rates. This sensible reform has long been advocated by some liberal economists. But in response to a question put by an aide to Henry Jackson at a forum in Boston last week, Carter said that deductions for home mortgages should also be cast out. Sure enough, Scoop Jackson thundered two days later: “What Carter is threatening, in actuality, is the destruction of the working-and middle-class American family.”

Cities, not states should receive revenue-sharing money, he believes, and cities should also be relieved of the costs of welfare. He says that all able-bodied people who are on welfare should be removed from the rolls and, if necessary, trained by the Labor Department for a job they can handle in the private sector. But he estimates that only 10% of relief recipients fall into that category. The rest, he believes, are unemployable and must be treated with “all the love, respect, compassion and understanding that they deserve.”

A strong advocate of civil rights, Carter often says that “the passage of the civil rights acts during the 1960s was the greatest thing to happen to the South in my lifetime. It lifted a burden from the whites as well as the blacks.”

Even so, Carter is opposed to “forced busing.” He acknowledges that it is necessary in some cases because blacks may have no better way of establishing their right to attend all-white public schools. Once that right is affirmed, however, he thinks blacks themselves will begin to lead a movement for a voluntary busing plan similar to the one adopted in Atlanta while he was Governor. The Atlanta plan provides that any child who wants to be bused may be, so long as it does not lead to greater segregation. At the same time, no child may be bused against his will, and—most important of all—blacks must be involved at all levels of the decision-making process in the school system.

Though Carter was accused of waffling on abortion in Iowa before the first caucuses, his position is clear, if complicated. He opposes abortion and would use the bully pulpit of the presidency to discourage it. Rather generally, he says he favors federal programs that would emphasize birth control and easier adoption procedures. But, because he believes that a woman has a legal right to decide for herself, he does not favor a constitutional amendment to ban abortions. Feminists would be happier with his stand on the Equal Rights Amendment; he supports it wholeheartedly.

Foreign policy is not Carter’s strong suit. A New Hampshire speech that was billed as a “major address” was largely platitudinous: if the U.S. loves the rest of the world, he seemed to say, the rest of the world will love the U.S. He supports détente in principle but echoes the complaint of many conservatives that the Soviet Union is taking advantage of it. He criticizes Henry Kissinger’s penchant for secrecy, which clashes with Carter’s notion of a government open to inspection by the people. He favors withdrawing American troops from Korea within the next five years and reducing U.S. forces in Western Europe.

The Defense Department, Carter charges, is the “most wasteful agency in the Federal Government.” The old sailor would reduce its budget by $5 billion to $7 billion, cancel production of the B-l bomber, but go ahead with the Trident submarine. Worried about the dangers of the nuclear arms race, Carter is convinced that the President must make nuclear disarmament a firmly fixed national goal. He tells his audiences that in his inaugural address he would state clearly the commitment of the U.S. Government to a “zero goal”—the elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world through multilateral negotiations. He admits, however, that the goal will probably not be reached “in my lifetime.”

Carter does not want to break up the CIA or curtail covert operations. But he pledges to deal harshly with any illegal activities. “I will know what is going on and if there is wrongdoing, I will find out about it. I will tell the American people about it and I will see to it that those responsible are punished.”

His campaign style is to give fairly general speeches, then throw the meeting open to specific questions. Carter usually makes a genuine effort to respond adequately and will often ask his questioner if the answer was satisfactory. But he rarely delivers a formal, policy address from a text, and while he has issued a series of brief position papers, he has made little or no effort to lay out his proposed policies in full detail. One reason: he lacks the kind of large professional staff maintained by his opponents from Congress. Still, in his day-to-day campaigning, Carter is at least as specific on the issues as any candidate in the race.

In the end, the most important issue may be Carter’s character and personality. For all his emphasis on establishing an “intimate” relationship with the voters, he shields a part of himself from the public. “Jimmy is not easy to get close to,” confides his campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan. “He doesn’t have enough time in his life to let people get close. He doesn’t really understand the personal element in politics, though nobody is better at campaigning.”

The candidate contends that he understands the needs of the people, perhaps even some that they do not yet recognize. Fully a year ago, he visited the mayor of Plains to discuss the need for a new zoning ordinance in town. Carter feared that once he became President, tacky souvenir shops and motels would spring up all over the place. To the lovers and the haters alike, Carter simply reiterates: “Trust me.” Whether or not enough will do so will be seen only after many more contests, but the determined, supremely confident believer from Georgia certainly has shaken up the race.

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