What most pisses me off this primary season, even as the Bernie Sander’s crowds get bigger, is hearing a pundit say, Of course he can’t win, or, even, get the nomination. And the bigger the crowds, the louder they seem to say it.
As people – politicians, movie actors, athletes, even The Kardashians – move into the collective conscience, a sort of collective shorthand takes over. The press, but it is more than just the press, decide on one simple story and all the complexities are washed away. Now it is the craziness of Donald Trump, or the vague sleaziness of Hillary Clinton, it used to be the naiveté of Jimmy Carter.
My first and lasting impression of Jimmy Carter was that he is far from naive. I first heard him talk in January of 1975, about 21 months before the 1976 Presidential election. I was driving across Nevada on my way to Sun Valley, and just after Lovelock, it started to lightly snow. I turned on the radio, hoping to get a local station with a weather report, and what I got was what I thought was a random southerner talking about US foreign policy. I kept driving and the snow kept lightly falling – heavy enough so that the countryside became magically covered and light enough so the highway was kept clear by traffic – and I kept listening. The speaker, who had been schooled in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, was brilliant, thoughtful and knowledgeable. As I cleared Winnemucca, still heading east, I started to lose the signal, so I pulled over and listened to the final minutes by the side of the road, heater running, anxiously hoping it wouldn’t keep snowing. It was so bizarre – sitting in the car by the side of the road, in a snowstorm, in the middle of Nevada, listening to a talk on how to change our foreign policy – that I still remember it. At the end, I learned that the random southerner was Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia, and I was smitten with him. I still am.
Part of my smitteness is that I am a sucker for southern populists. I like Huey Long – Education and training for all children to be equal in opportunity in all schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions of training in the professions and vocations in life; to be regulated on the capacity of children to learn, and not on the ability of parents to pay the costs. Training for life’s work to be as much universal and thorough for all walks of life as has been the training in the arts of killing – even though I know a refined and educated person shouldn’t like somebody like Huey Long. I was and am a fan of Bear Bryant – If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you. And, as might be expected, before I turned on him for Vietnam, I liked Lyndon Johnson over the Kennedys.
But I also remember that speech by Jimmy Carter because it was the most coherent speech on foreign policy that I have ever heard. Carter had been an officer aboard a nuclear submarine and he had obviously thought about foreign policy and about nuclear war with the total carnage it would bring. It seemed to me that Carter was a peacenik who had actually thought about the problem. By the time I got back to the office a week or so later, I was telling everybody I knew that that Jimmy Carter should be our next president.
The most common reaction I got was laughter but Carter ran a brilliant, if sometimes very rough, campaign making enough converts to become president. Starting as an almost unknown outsider, a born-again Christian outsider from the deep South, Carter surprised the establishment press and I don’t think they ever forgave him for that. Today, partially because of the presses’ simplified picture of him, Carter is considered a mediocre president at best and his decency, as a human, is regarded as Jimmy Carter’s main legacy. But much of what people didn’t like in 1976 is now starting to seem like prophecy.
Even when we know better, much of what we were told and believe about the Carter presidency comes from the press that simplified a complex man. His honest and his openness – he was the first, and maybe the last, president to be interviewed in Playboy (and the first to wear jeans in the White House) – were painted as weaknesses. We want our politicians transparent, yet we want them powerful as well, and power, even in the best of circumstances, means the management of information Nathan Heller pointed out in The New Yorker, and telling the truth is not managing the information.
We are given cartoons of complex people and complex situations and all nuance is lost. Now we are told that Bernie Sanders is unelectable and, really, un-nominatable. That may be true but it may not be true and the press’ insistent dismissal is hurting Sanders by making him seem like a summer fling. That is too bad, because Sanders is a serious candidate.