MY VIEW OF JIMMY Carter is so cynical that I sometimes don't notice when his bleats of moral outrage make sense. He is so good at crying wolf, so wonderful at draping the flag over himself, so terrific at posing, at being sincere and sanctimonious and honest and true and warm and maybe even brave, clean and reverent, that you can fail to notice when he is very nearly on target. He has been recently with Ronald Reagan.
You would have a hard time appreciating that from what the press has been writing. In this view, it is Jimmy Carter who is the heavy. It was Carter who was wrong when he all but called Ronald Reagan a warmonger and when earlier he said that his Republican opponent was pandering to racism and hate when he talked about states' rights to an audience in Mississippi.
For this, Carter caught hell. He has recanted, confessed though a spokesman to the sin of exaggeration, swung back and then recanted some more. He acts for all the world like a man who does not quite understand where he went wrong -- why everyone can't understand what he is talking about. The reason for this is that not everyone is as good at reading the record as Carter is and few people have had his experiences as a southern politician. From his own perspective, what he's saying makes sense.
It's silly, of course, to portray Reagan as a warmonger or racist. He is neither. But on the issue of war, Reagan has been awfully quick to talk about sending in the Marines. Reagan would have sent in the Marines to Lebanon, Ecuador, North Korea and, in a manner of speaking, Cuba. For the latter, he called for us to surround the island and "stop all traffic in and out." You might think that this little bit of gunboat diplomacy had something to do with Cuba. It didn't. It had to do with Afghanistan -- Reagan's response to the Soviet invaison.
What's missing here is a blood-curdling call to war. The language falls short of that. What Reagan is saying, in his own way, has more to do with such concepts as backbone and guts and not being pushed around than it does with war. But Carter can be excused for thinking that when a man has called for the use of force 10 or so times in the last decade, that he is, if not a warmonger, then at least something short of what used to be called a peacenik.
Carter might seem to be on shakier ground when it comes to his comments on Reagan and race: "Hatred has no place in this country. Racism has no place in this country." They were strong words and they quickly produced howls of indignation. Jerry Ford, for one, came to Reagan's defense and Carter's throat, calling the remark "one of the lowest, most intemperate assaults ever made by a United States president" -- in itself yet another example of political hyperbole.
To Carter, all this must be mystifying. Reagan made his remarks about states' rights at the Neshoba County fair in Mississippi. Neshoba County and the nearby city of Philadelphia are not just another county and another city when it comes to the history of civil rights in this country. This was the place where these young civil rights workers were brutally killed and were only the application of the civil rights statutes and the intercession of the Justice Department could produce a guilty verdict.
Philadelphia, Miss., was the worst place in the world to mention "states' rights." Whatever the term might mean to Ronald Reagan now and whatever it might mean to others, it means something else to Jimmy Carter. It was always a code phrase for racism. It did not mean that the state had some sort of right to tell the government to shove it when it came to occupational safety. It meant, bluntly, that the state could deprive blacks of their civil rights and there wasn't a thing the federal government could do about it.
Southern moderates like Jimmy Carter grew up with that phrase. Southern moderates like Carter who favored civil rights had to work and live and politic in an atmosphere where everything they did was measured against the single issue of race. It was the one issue that could bring you down, and if you came up in the politics of that era and if you heard a man -- even years later -- talk about states' rights in a place like Philadelphia, Miss., you could be excused for thinking he was a pandering to racism.
There is the other explanation, of course, and it is that Ronald Reagan did not know what he was saying. It is possible that he was ignorant of the history of the region, that he did not know what the phrase meant. If that is the case, he ought to take some time off and read up on American history.
For too long now Reagan has been saying ridiculous things -- things about war and troops and blocades and states' rights -- and then sort of just shrugging his shoulders and smiling and giving us that big "who me?" act of his. He's a presidential candidate and what he says is important. Some people are going to start taking him at his word. Jimmy Carter, for one, already does.