How Jimmy Carter Does It

Nice guys may finish last, but a sweet-talking candidate for President finished first in a key Democratic presidential primary this spring, knocking most of the original contenders out of the race. The Atlantic's Washington editor followed Jimmy Carter's march through Pennsylvania, and witnessed a new kind of love story, as well as portents of trouble.
Getting to know you

“Where’s he from, anyway?”
“Georgia, I think. He’s the ex-governor of Georgia. Or is it Alabama?”

—Conversation between two young women in the lobby of the downtown Holiday Inn of Erie, Pennsylvania, as the commotion subsides after Jimmy Carter and his substantial entourage have checked in.

Although the Mason-Dixon Line forms the southern border of Pennsylvania, the South seems far away to most Pennsylvanians. It is where the soldiers came from who were decisively defeated at Gettysburg, the turning point the Civil War. And it is where many of the blacks came from, during World War II and since, to settle in places like Philadelphia—once the “City of Brotherly Love,” now a cauldron seething with racial and social tensions. To citizens of the Keystone State, the South is what lies between the North and Miami, and it’s where the liberal kids went in the l960s to help fight the civil rights battles. The cuisine and the accent of southerners, their mannerisms and metaphors are as foreign in Harrisburg and Butler as those of the French. There is a lurking suspicion that southern folks spend a lot of their time lying in bed or looking for snakes. There is also a vague suspicion, and occasionally solid evidence to back it up, that when Pennsylvanians lose their jobs, it is because the factories where they worked are moving south to find cheaper, non-union labor. (Henry Jackson tried to whip that suspicion into a campaign issue—to no avail.)

But it is Jimmy Carter’s view, as paraphrased by his wife, Rosalynn, that “the people are the same most everywhere you go ... they just make their living in different ways.” Their hostility and uncomfortableness can be dealt with. In Pennsylvania, as in New Hampshire or Iowa or Florida or Wisconsin, they’re available to be approached, cajoled, persuaded, and—well, you know—sweet-talked in that nice southern way. Carter believes that Pennsylvanians, like all other Americans, are fundamentally “filled with love.” That means they also are quite susceptible to falling in love. This spring they did, with that man of the New South who, as he puts it, “intends” to be President.

It was only at the last moment that Jimmy Carter, Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, Morris Udall of Arizona, and the rest of the Democratic party discovered that the Pennsylvania primary would be important in 1976. That is not usually the case. Early filing and withdrawal dates generally keep the ballot there cluttered and confusing, unaffected by the results elsewhere. And Pennsylvania is a difficult and expensive state in which to campaign. The people in the eastern third of the state consider the western third to be a part of the Midwest, and the people in the western third consider the eastern third to be in the orbit, if not the suburbs, of New York. In the middle and in various corners live some 3 million other people, a quarter of the state’s total population, who still make their livelihood from agriculture. Labor is very strong, but there are plenty of political anomalies: Pennsylvania went for Herbert Hoover in 1932, and even today, despite an enormous Democratic edge in registered voters, it is represented by two Republicans in the United States Senate. This time around, Pennsylvania was expected to help clarify the perplexing search for a Democratic nominee.

Carter’s chairman for the state was Jack Sullivan, a businessman from the Philadelphia suburb of Jenkintown and a political neophyte—in fact, a registered Republican who had signed up to help after receiving a routine solicitation letter that Carter sent to all of his classmates in the class of 1947 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. None of Pennsylvania’s recognized Democratic leaders were behind Carter until Mayor Pete Flaherty of Pittsburgh, on his own initiative, contacted the campaign people in Atlanta. Flaherty got a call back from Carter, along with an invitation to meet the candidate in Rochester, New York, and travel and talk with him for a day. An independent, somewhat conservative, anti-machine type himself, Flaherty returned to Pittsburgh overflowing with love for Carter and committed to stump the state for him. That was a help, because although Flaherty had lost the 1974 Senate race to Republican incumbent Richard Schweiker, he had 70 percent statewide recognition and a wildly enthusiastic following among almost all of the twenty-nine distinct ethnic groups in the city he had been governing for seven years on a balanced budget. “I don’t think the people want their congressmen running the country,” Pete Flaherty remarked to this reporter as he scanned the field of alternatives to Carter; “and America isn’t looking for a liberal President.”

But to put across a man who was virtually unknown and unrecognizable to the people in Pennsylvania would take more than an old classmate, a big city mayor, and some good television spots. Carter was booked for eleven solid days of campaigning, and his family was scheduled for appearances across the state—Rosalynn, sons Jack, Chip and Jeff, their wives, and even one daughter-in-law’s mother. Before or after the candidate’s own visits to an area, they would hit the surrounding communities, speaking at luncheons, granting television, newspaper, and radio interviews, until it seemed as if Carter, or Carters, were everywhere. There are few news outlets in the state, including weekly papers and dawn-to-dusk radio stations that made it through the month of April without being Carterized.

The message was the simple, comforting one that had worked so well elsewhere: Jimmy wasn’t claiming to be better than everybody else, just one of us folks. One of the rare jokes in his repertoire, but one which usually gets a laugh goes something like this: “I’m not saying I’m the best qualified person in this room to be President. Many of you out there might be able to do just as good a job as I can, or better ... but I sure do thank y’all for not running this year. There are enough candidates already.” Vote for me, he said, and we will restore to the presidency all the “good and decent and honest and truthful and and competent and compassionate” about the American people. “You don’t plot murder and I don’t plot murder, so why should our government plot murder against some foreign leader?” No more Vietnams or Cambodias—wars that were decided upon without consulting the people—no more Watergates, no more secrecy and cynicism in government. The audiences don’t seem to worry about Carter’s unbridled, unmitigated, intense, enigmatic desire to become President, because that is not the prime message he is sending them in public appearances.

A view from Johnstown

Steve Wasylyshyn, a man of Ukrainian descent who works as a painter at the Bethlehem Steel mill, and his friend Joe Porinshak, a Slovak who is retired from his job as a sign painter at the same mill, keep their distance from the crowd gathered on Central Square in Johnstown to meet Jimmy Carter. These steelworkers are resentful of the fuss that is being made, and would like it to be understood by campaign reporters that Carter’s visit is not the most important thing to happen here in a long time. Far from it. First of all, Johnstown, their city of 42,476 people, is a pretty important place. It was the scene of the Johnstown Flood of May 1889, one of the worst in American history, when the Conemaugh River broke through an earth dam and killed 2,200 instantly. Many luminaries s—including actors James Stewart and Charles Bronson, steel executives Roger Blough and Lewis Foy, football star Jack Ham, and baseball pitchers Pete Vukavich and Gene Pentzs—came from the area. Gene Kelly once had a dance studio over on Main Street, where he taught ballet and tap dancing. And Paul Newman (a Udall supporter) happens to be in residence in Johnstown, making a movie about minor-league hockey with the help of the Johnstown Jets. Porinshak, in fact, has been getting $2.30 an hour for going down to the War Memorial and the railroad station to be an extra in the film.

Wasylyshyn and Porinshak lean against a building and grouse about Carter: “He looks too young … He’s got too much glamour ... We want someone who looks like a leader, and none of the Democrats running so far do … He’s got too much teeth; he reminds me too much of Kennedy … Instead of showing his teeth, he should be more serious ... I read somewhere that he’s all shell and no peanut.” If the rank and file of the steelworkers had their way, says Wasylyshyn, they would choose “Hubert Humphreys.” Yet the two know enough about Carter to set straight a woman who thinks he is from North Carolina, and they have a vague notion that Carter understands that you cannot simply do away with “relief” (welfare) as some others naively believe. (After all, they reason, what would happen to all the people who are employed by the welfare system?)

But in the crowd were Carter converts: One elderly couple, reluctant to give their names, said they would not vote for anyone who was already part of the government in Washington; if they couldn’t have Carter, they would take either Ronald Reagan or George Wallace, in that order. A retired miner said that Carter could probably count on fifty votes from his family, because he is “just as good as anybody else”; but beyond that, “he’s sociable, and he’s not hiding nothing.” There was also the usual assortment of religious fanatics who show up at many Carter appearances, drawn by advance knowledge of his religiosity, but then go away disappointed when the candidate won’t promise to “put Jesus in the White House.” What Carter would promise, in a little speech delivered as he stood on a park bench, was that “when I’m elected President, you’ll have a friend in the White House.” They seemed inclined to believe him.

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Sanford J. Ungar, a prominent American author and journalist, was the magazine's Washington editor for many years. He is currently the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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