The tale of three days this week in five states, with two women who want to live in the White House: Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan.
They are a study in contrasting styles; this, an annotated, if imperfect, view from their roadshows as they move into the last act of America's own political passion play.
This tale begins for each of them in out-of-the-way airports, under the gaze of devoted followers, behind the hot, sweet lights of medialand.
If it is Rosalynn Carter, it must be Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri, in a little under 30 hours. If it is Nancy Reagan, it must be upstate New York in a little under six.
Rosalyn Carter's is a swing through hardship heartland bearing names like Negaunee and Ishpeming, where the unemployment rate is equally unpronounceable. Nancy Reagan's is a remembrance of swings past, a rendezvous with Ol' Blue Eyes and the Boys in Syracuse.
The hottest quotes from the tour:
"Ma and Pa Kettle are living in the White House now," Sintra tells the folks at a GOP fund-raiser. "They should go back where they came from -- a nut farm."
In St.Louis, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) is saying: "I just got word of Ronald Reagan's secret plan to end the hostage crisis. It comes in three parts. The first part is to blockade Ecuador. If that doesn't work, the second part is to cut down all the trees in the United States and put a pollution cloud over Iran. If that doesn't work, he's going to send a three-man team to try to obtain the release, consisting of Eugene McCarthy, Gabby Hayes and Bonzo." The Arrival
A few Reagan for President signs at Syracuse airport, but nothing orgainzed. In Michigan, the Carter crowds are poised at every stop.
In upstate New York, GOP operatives need a "presence" of the candidate who has not been to this traditionally Republican district, now in the throes of uncertainty. Nancy Reagan flies up from New York City, arriving without fanfare, to a "press availability." The cameras are on, and in her newest role as outraged wife of the candidate: and in this corner with black, rather than white, gloves Nancy is ready.
"Tell us, Mrs. Reagan, is Ronald Reagan writing off New York? Is that why you're here?" asks a reporter.
"My poor husband," Reagan says, "If we could only clone him, maybe he could be every place. So once in a while you'll have to hear from me."
It is not clear whether that is a threat of a promise, but this day it seems a certainty as she levels broadsides at what she calls Jimmy Carter's "mean" and "cruel" attacks on her husband.
In Michigan, Rosalyn Carter's arrival is highly organized. Crowds await her. She is the latest of the politically prominent to arrive in this otherwise obscure and forgotten nook. Too close to call politically, say local Democrats, but the truth of the matter is, Traverse City is the hometown of Michigan's Gov. William Milliken and former senator Bob Griffin. Waiting for Carter's show to begin at one stop, somebody laughs that Democrats in Michigan are either crazy, or people of character.
"Tell us, Mrs. Carter," begins a reporter, "The last time you were here we woke up the next morning to hear there had been a rescue attempt of the hostages. Do you have any surprises for us tomorrow morning?"
"Was that the next morning?" asks Rosalyn Carter with a nervous little giggle. "No, I don't know anything more about the hostages than you do."
A little later: "I just wish the hostages would come home tomorrow, whether it helped or hurt us, I don't care." The Schedule
In Syracuse, Reagan meets with one group of elderly and their mentally retarded foster grandchildren and attends a star-studded fund-raiser. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Carter makes five stops. She,too, meets with the elderly, and speaks at four other rallies, is serenaded by young violinists at the hotel and calls it a night at 9 o'clock.
At the center in Syracuse in the afternoon, Nancy Reagan sees profoundly retarded youngsters in pediatrics, several lying in the arms of their foster grandparents. She makes no speeches and pats hands. There are long silences and gazes into unresponsive eyes. And there are many, many photographs.
"I'm a doctor's daughter, and I've always done a lot of visting," she tells someone. To another "grandparent" she says: "We really got this program started in California in 1967. After that I'd go out in the rest of the country and talk about it. We helped get it picked up by ACTION."
Says Verne A. Nesbitt, director of Foster Grandparents in Syracuse:
"I've heard her quoted as saying something like that before, but it was actually started in 1965 by the Office of Equal Opportunity, and was moved to ACTION in 1968."
At night, it's Las Vegas on the Onondaga. There is Sinatra, with Wayne Newton and the rest of The Crowd, brought in by state Republicans to raise a little money to chase Carter out of the White House. Nancy Reagan sits primly in the front row, a half-smile permanently affixed.
Says Sinatra to the crowd of 13,000: "This is the first election when we've had two movie stars running against each other -- Ronald Reagan from Hollywood and Howdy Doodie from Georgia."
Rosalyn Carter starts her afternoon with a speech to 200 senior citizens. "Our opponent has opposed the National Health Plan," she tells them. "He got his start in politics by speaking against Medicare for the American Medical Association."
There are other speeches, to steelworkers and educators and campaign volunteers, and, in between, she misses few outstretched hands. There is even an impromptu walk along Main Street. "Oh, my God," say startled shoppers who recognize her in living color.
Before steelworkers local 4950 in Negawnee, and wearing a specially inscribed Rosalyn Carter hardhat, she says: "We are aware of the problems of iron imports."
Later, on her plane to Madison, she says, "That's what they want to hear, that you know a little about what's happening to them, and you're interested. If I talk about steel and iron imports, then they know the president is concerned. It reassures them." The Entourage
Nancy Reagan and two aides, plus the Secret Service agents, flew to Syracuse on a commercial airline. Sinatra offers his jet for the return flight, but it was too small for all, so one aide had to find her own way home. fCarter has three aides, plus the Secret Service agents, and there was room enough on the Air Force plane to offer a ride or two to political pals.
In the Reagan camp there is Peter McCoy of Los Angeles Office of Sotheby Parke Bernet, who is Nancy Reagan's personal assistant and chief of staff. He also carries her coat. There is Coral Schmidt, her press secretary since Aug. 1, former appointments secretary and advance for Pat Nixon, in her White House days.
There is the ubiquitous Secret Service detail, whose agents can scuffle, and do, if aroused:
"Tell them I didn't know," Nancy Reagan apologizes to a local ABC news TV crew after learning from an evening news report how an agent knocked a mike out of a producer's hand at the airport. So, a hasty interview is sandwiched into the evening to make amends, and advance men worry whether it will be enough to appease a disgruntled press.
With Rosalynn Carter are Madeline MacBean, her pesonal assistant, who also carries the coat; press secretary Mary Hoyt and deputy press secretary Paul Costello (neither of whom get left behind); and the Secret Service detail.
Everybody has been together so long that there is an easy camaraderie. Carter's staff becomes her antenna, picking up the flotsam and jetsam of the campaign to funnel back to her.
Appearing on board after Madison is a poster of "Super Hawk," with Ronald Reagan's familiar visage cast beneath a feather headdress. "What price will we pay for Reagan's last performance?" it asks. The Style
Nancy Reagan doesn't make speeches. She says that with the well-modulated, trained voice of an actress bearing no traces of regional accent. But here in Syracuse, she is suddenly on stage, making a speech. Spontaneously. "The most important election in my lifetime," she is saying, meaning 57 years at least. "Everybody is very nervous and tense -- we need your help very badly. Real battle lines are drawn. If you are an underdog, incumbents can do so many things you can't. Get out and work," she implores. "I love you," she says, disappearing with Sinatra offstage and into the night, never seeing the remaining hour of the show with Wayne Newton and a and a planeload of musicians he brought from Las Vegas.
Rosalynn does make speeches, hundreds of them. Her speech is rapid-fire, her voice untrained and thick with Georgia. She is no actress and rarely misspeaks, yet she does so twice this day. Once she says "Nixon instead of Reagan. "I always make that mistake," she apologizes to piston ring factory workers in Muskegon, Mich. Another time she says: "He's one of Nixon's -- uh, Reagan's advisers.s I have to stop doing that." She is referring to Walter Wriston, head of Citibank, and among those Republicans she believes responsible for the rise in interest rates.
There are moments of guardedness.
Nancy Reagan does not want to comment on whether Jimmy Carter is unprinciipled. "I don't like the way he campaigns," she nevertheless says.
Rosalynn Carter does not want to comment on whether Ronald Reagan is dangerous to the country. "A lot of people have worried about him," she says nevertheless. "You remember when Ford was running. He said Gov. Reagan couldn't start a war, but Carter didn't say that."
Sometimes it's a matter of perspective.
Nancy Reagan says anytime you are running against the incumbent, you are the underdog. Rosalynn Carter says there are disadvantages to incumbency. "As long as I can remember, people said everything Jimmy Carter did was political."
There can be idiosyncrasies.
Nancy Reagan claims she is so superstitious that she does not like to discuss the specifics of what she will do in the White House. There is an element of uncertainty as she says "I don't know if I'm going to be there or not -- it's almost like putting a jinx on it."
There is no uncertainty whatsoever in Rosalynn Carter's mind about where she will be the next four years, or what she will be doing.
"We're going to win," she says without a trace of doubt.