It's not quite Daddy, this milk-faced, muss-haired, chain-smoking, knuckle-cracking, body-yukking man with the covey of Secret Service and the Watch face on the inside of his wrist. But it's almost as good, a White House Carter just the same. Celebrity by proxy, you could call James Earl Carter III, the president's second son and the only one of four Carter children so far to show a runner's quiet craving for the marathon of politics.
"Let's face it, I'm a political animal," 28-year-old Chip Carter says in a sure, soft, Georgia accent somewhere between his father's and a Dan Aykroyd imitation. "What I breathe and eat and talk is politics. I've been involved in Dad's campaigns since I was 12 years old and was delivering handbills to shops in south Georgia. I spent three months on the '66 campaign for governor. I'd drive to a town by myself, go out to the fields and talk to farmers. I was 16. We lost that one."
He smiles - an affordable modesty.
Chip Carter, who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., borrows the royal "we" a lot. He speaks of the programs "we're starting to get through Congress" and the columns "they've been writing about us since Camp David." It sounds pretentious, except in this case it probably stems more from an us-them attitude than from delusions of power. Chip Carter is first and last a loyalist. He will tell you unblinkingly he thinks "Dad is the best first-term president since Mr. Jefferson. And he still has two years to go."
All this fall, Chip Carter has been out on the campaign trial, showing up in Ohio and Texas and Hawaii and Rhode Island to work for local Democratic candidates. It gets him out of Washington, which he doesn't like much, and besides it's his job: He's a full-time employe of the Democratic National Committee. The DNC says there's no better way to use him: Ersatz White House. Fame but not quite. He's also a natural at campaigning, even if he did flunk speech a couple of times in college (one of the reasons he's never graduated).
Chip Carter has been traveling light almost since he got to the White House. He's been to Australia (last spring), to India with Miss Lillian, to Peking and to Britain. He's also involved in the war on hunger. Last Sunday night, he stood in for his father at the International Horse Show. He was there till 2 o'clock munching popcorn.
The only bad part of the job. Carter says, is being away from his 20-month old son, James Earl IV. Carter's wife, Caron, has rarely accompanied him this fall. Stories of their rocky marriage continue to float in Washington. He doesn't deny them, he just says he doesn't want to talk about it. He's still burned over all that press last year when he went home to Plains without Caron.
Chip Carter says he despises Washington gossip. He can't go out to a club anymore without someone phoning up a paper and saying Chip Carter was seen last night having one too many drinks. These days he either stays home, watching movies and playing pool or goes over to the Capitol Hill house of his friend, Steve Shoob. "We drink beer, watch TV, get drunk, whatever," says Shoob, who works in the White House. In college, in Americus, Ga., Shoob and Chip had an apartment together (which they eventually got evicted from). Shoob was the lead singer in the Greasy Peace band: Chip was the roadie. Chip has long been into rock and roll.
On the stump Carter hits bingo games, shopping centers, bake sales, church suppers. You would swear he's running for something. Sometimes he gets up on a stage or the back of a flat-bed truck with the candidate to say a few words. The experience still unnerves him. Other times he just goes through the crowd shaking hands. He likes to grip warmly using both hands. The Carter smile is omni-present.
"Hello. I'm Chip Carter, the president's son."
Wide-eyed senior citizen. "You are? Well, I'll be."
He is very savvy about the political process. Facts and figures and statistics roll from his tongue. He thinks good organization "can get you three percentage points, maybe five." He will tell you Jacksonville, Fla., has more Democrats than all of New Hampshire. He thinks California is "media-event politics."
His dad has recently proven his leadership, he thinks. "People make a president prove his leadership. Kennedy did it with the Cuba missile crisis. Johnson and Nixon had to face it with Vietnam. Dad's doing it in a peaceful context. That's one reason I'm so proud of his popularity upswing."