He flipped on the TV. A Washington socialite was being interviewed by Johnny Carson. “She didn’t want to talk about her new book. She wanted to talk about her trip to Plains, Georgia. In the beginning she wasn’t a believer, she said. No, sir. She had been just as cynical as a lot of us liberals. But she’d talked with Jimmy Carter for hours. Just sat there on the porch, the two of them, talking about life and government and religion. And now she was a believer. Jimmy Carter was real, she said. ‘He is going to save our country. He is going to make us all better people.’” MacDougall traveled to Boston’s Logan Airport to fly to the Republican convention. At the newsstand, “Jimmy Carter’s face was staring at me from dozens of magazines.” And, from the covers of paperback books with titles like The Miracle of Jimmy Carter. He turned around: “a stack of T-shirts with peanuts on the front, and the words, ‘THE GRIN WILL WIN.’ This wasn’t a clothing store.”
[ Return to the review of “Reaganland.” ]
Although, simultaneously, 70 percent of the electorate told pollsters they had no intention of voting in November at all. One of them, a rabbi, wrote a New York Times op-ed. “I was one of the millions who rejected Barry Goldwater’s foreign policy, voted for Lyndon Baines Johnson, and then got Mr. Goldwater’s foreign policy anyway. I, too, voted for law and order and got Richard M. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew. And now I think of the man who promised Congress that he would not interfere with the judicial process, and then pardoned Mr. Nixon as almost his first official act.” So: no more voting. “If Pericles were alive today, he might be inclined to join me.”
The epidemic of political apathy spread particularly thick among the young. During the insurgent 1960s, the notion of universities as a seedbed of idealism was accepted as a political truism for all time. No longer. A university provost explained that he was seeing “a new breed of student who is thinking more about jobs, money, and the future”—just not society’s future. College business courses were oversubscribed. But politics? “Watergate taught them not to care,” a high school civics teacher rued. A college professor gave a speech to his daughter’s high school class, rhapsodizing about the excitement of the Kennedy years. “A few minutes into my talk I realized we weren’t even on the same planet.” He asked if they would protest if America began bombing Vietnam again. “Nothing. In desperation, I said: ‘For God’s sake, what would outrage you?’ After a pause, a girl in a cheerleading uniform raised her hand and said tentatively, ‘Well, I’d be pretty mad if they bombed this school.’”
Jimmy Carter kicked off his general election campaign in Warm Springs, Georgia, on the front porch of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vacation home. Democrats traditionally opened on Labor Day in Detroit’s Cadillac Square. But Detroit was in the middle of a crime spree. Cadillac Square was only blocks from the Cobo Hall arena, where, the UPI reported, “gangs of black youth,” taking advantage of the fact the cash-strapped city had been forced to lay off nearly a thousand cops, had recently set upon a rock concert, robbing, beating, and raping attendees.
So: Warm Springs it was.
Two of Roosevelt’s sons were by Carter’s side. A seventy-three-year-old black man, subject of a famous Life magazine picture showing the man playing accordion in his Navy uniform as Roosevelt’s funeral train trundled by, played the New Deal anthem “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The Roosevelt connection marked Carter as an heir to the Democrats’ glorious liberal past. The Georgia setting invoked his Southern identity; if elected he would be the first president from the Deep South since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Featuring an African American spoke to his proud identity as a post-racist Southerner. Jimmy Carter would be the candidate for everyone. In his speech, he feinted left, comparing Ford to Herbert Hoover—another “decent and well-intentioned man who sincerely believed that government could not or should not with bold action attack the terrible and economic and social ills of our nation.” He feinted right: “When there is a choice between government responsibility and private responsibility, we should always go with private responsibility When there is a choice between welfare and work, let’s go to work.” Then—and most importantly—he staked his claim as the candidate unconnected to the corrupt legacy of Richard Nixon:
“I owe the special interests nothing. I owe the people everything.”
Ford opened at the White House, signing a series of bills before the cameras. What bills? It didn’t matter. “We agreed,” Mal MacDougall later explained, “there were no issues strong enough to decide the election.” Symbolism mattered: a trustworthy man was now in charge.
“Trust,” Gerald Ford said, jabbing at his opponent at his first campaign rally a week later, in the basketball arena of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, “is not cleverly shading words so that each separate audience can hear what it wants to hear, but saying plainly and simply what you mean.”
He received an enthusiastic volley of applause.
“Not having to guess what a cand—”
A sound like a gunshot rang out. The president who had suffered two assassination attempts the previous September flinched—then, realizing that it was a firecracker, continued on as if nothing had happened. The applause swelled and swelled, until the entire crowd was up on its feet, as if in heartfelt gratitude at watching a political leader not being assassinated. The incident exemplified Ford’s campaign theme: he had returned the United States to normalcy.
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