• U.S.

THE PEOPLE: America’s Mood

7 minute read

What kind of America is waiting for Jimmy Carter? What is the mood of the country he will govern ? To find out, TIME correspondents across the country talked to people from all levels of American society about their morale, their current concerns, their hopes and fears about the future, their expectations for the new Administration. Herewith the report from Washington Bureau Chief Hugh Sidey, followed by reports from New England, the Middle Atlantic, the South, the Midwest and the West:

The quadrennial celebration of the near future is upon the U.S. From hamlet and city will come the bits and pieces of the American mosaic, and as they move down Pennsylvania Avenue this Thursday, they will reflect for one afternoon the diversity and genius of the nation, its joy and its confusion. There will be floats, mummers, horse platoons —and hope.

But even while the nation is looking cautiously ahead, it is also reaching back, trying to get a grip on its soul. There were cheers and gasps of admiration a few months ago for those square-riggers in the Hudson, spectacular symbols of a graceful youth. Later there were good-natured chuckles when the regulars of George Washington’s command sloshed by boat across the now leaden and polluted waters of the Delaware River—as they had 200 years ago—to surprise the Hessians in Trenton the day after Christmas. In most hearts there was a residue of admiration for the courage that began this experiment in liberty.

The search through the past is much more than just the Bicentennial celebrations and their lingering afterglow. It is people looking for smaller dimensions, for more simplicity in their lives. It is folks digging for roots, trying to build bulwarks against the tide of social disintegration that has washed over so much of the country in the past two decades. George Gallup has found that a lot of Americans are going back to religion for guidance on how to live in these crowded and affluent times. The number of Americans who believe religious influence is increasing has tripled since 1970; 42% of all adults now go to church during a week. It could be, said Gallup, that we are at the beginning of a religious revival.

With 150 million Americans living in cities of 50,000 or more, the U.S. is still very much an urban nation. But the Census Bureau finds that the majority of the population has shifted toward the South and West for sun and casual living, and also for a private corner of the space that remains. All over the country, demographers have noted, the urge is to go small—out of central cities to suburbs, out of suburbs to smaller towns.

In growing numbers, the kids are trying to stay down on the farm—or get out to one. Agricultural schools have more city-born students than farm-bred ones. In the shadowed interiors of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, some of the brightest spots are the rehabilitated neighborhoods where people are drawing together in common interest to find again those small human graces that sustain all existence.

In just the past few days, Betty Friedan, a patron saint of the woman’s movement, announced unblushingly to the world that she had discovered the “sensuous joy” of making chicken soup. Actually, it was mushroom soup because her son is a vegetarian. No matter. She still found some womanly roots in the manipulation of nothing more spectacular than her pots and pans. She proclaimed she had gone full circle—liberated herself from liberation by making her own soup.

The gospel of the grandma propounded by Anthropologist Margaret Mead has been carried to new heights. She argues that grandparents provide kids with wisdom, patience, love and relief from parents. Grandparents add tradition, meaning and identity. Three generations, laughing, loving and living near each other, is the proper family balance, insists Mead. That is not a very new idea, but it is hard to put into practice in a nation that has worshiped speed and movement. A lot of folks are listening. Executives are resisting the rootless life. Staying put, in many cases, has been more tempting than advancement.

Another simple truth that has been rediscovered is the healing power of the earth itself. Nearly half of American households—a peacetime record —planted gardens last year. It was as if some long-dormant, primordial urge had been awakened. An estimated 50 million people went out into the spring sunshine, plunged their fingers into the soil and dropped some seeds into the holes. The Burpee’s seed people in Pennsylvania are now mailing their seed catalogues (perhaps as many as 10 million) for this year. The actual figure is secret. They expect their business to rise when icebound customers catch sight of the pictures of the new “sugar bush” watermelons and “triple treat” pumpkins.

Just before Christmas, Liz Carpenter, toast of a considerable part of the Washington power society for 34 years, pulled up and went home to Austin, Texas. “Champagne gone flat,” she said when she woke up one morning, weary of big power, Big Government, big parties, big people and big ideas. “I want to find my soul,” she said. “I am going to replant my roots.” She bought a house on a hill to look at the sun come up. She planted flowers all around her, and she is going to listen to the sounds of people growing up and living. “Besides,” says Liz, “I think out here is where the action is.”

Jimmy Carter may be the biggest manifestation of that action. Never before have Americans participated in such an open and honest selection of their President. True, not nearly enough people did take part. But those who did had their say unintimidated by bosses, unbought by money. And whom did they choose?—a smile, a quiet voice, the Bible, family reunions, arms around Amy, field shoes, washed blue denims, fists full of peanuts.

He talked nuclear strategy in a place called the “pond house,” near where he caught the catfish that he helped to fry and eat. He pondered the state of the national and world economies while strolling past the weathered brick facades of his tiny town. The issues and their urgency have not diminished but, in a singular way, have been brought closer to earth and home and people. It is not beyond belief that this new dimension will be felt in Washington; a national impulse transmitted through a man and a place practically unheard of when the Administration now ending first came to power.

It is the conviction of many people who watch Carter that he will keep one foot firmly planted in his town, that he will sustain those quiet family rituals and Main Street contacts that give him so much pleasure and sustenance. Some of the journalists who study him are mystified by his seeming fulfillment from hours of small talk with family and friends about weddings, births and deaths. Ironically, it was one of the most urbane of modern politicians who explained the phenomenon best. Said Adlai Stevenson in 1948 when he bade goodbye to the people of Bloomington on his way to become Governor of Illinois: “In quiet places reason abounds … In quiet people there is vision and purpose … Many things are revealed to the humble that are hidden from the great. I hope and pray that I can remember the great truths that seem so obvious in Bloomington but so obscure in other places.”

It is a shame that at the end of Thursday afternoon, when President Carter will turn and walk from the reviewing stand into the White House, the procedure cannot be reversed—that he cannot sit down in the East Room and turn on a television set and see his nation. What a sight it would be.

The scars, yes. Watts, the crime-ridden Detroit streets, Bedford-Stuyvesant, the hovels of Appalachia, poisoned air and the gashes of the strip miners in forested hills. All part of Carter’s new agenda. But he would see something else.

Wild Oregon shore, the hard sweep of the Rockies, plains that still make the eye ache in their loneliness, farms and towns with new life and awareness, cities that work, like Minneapolis and Cincinnati. People wondering—but also hoping again.

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