Joshua made the sun stand still. Jimmy Carter merely raced it.
He went from Washington to Ohio to Missouri. He went from Missouri to Illinois, back to Missouri and then to the Pacific Northwest. All day long, on the last day of the longest political campaign ever, Jimmy Carter, marathoner, ran to stay ahead of the sun.
A billion words have been said. A million miles have been traveled. A trillion dollars have been spent. But the campaign was coming down to the president of the United States trying to stretch the day, to get as many hours out of it as he could, to talk to one more voter, shake yet another hand, make yet one more plea, change -- maybe -- one more mind.
The polls say he's up. The polls say he's down. Pick a poll and you pick a winner. Down below the plane, in a country that is ablaze with the colors of autumn, last-minute calls are being made, phone banks put into operation, television commericals aired, debts called in. It is time to decide. It is time.
The man keeps running. He comes bounding from his plane. The bands -- always there are bands -- play "Hail to the Chief," and then some announcer says, "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States," and he comes out.
He talks of peace and the economy but mostly he talks of the Democratic party. On the last day of what might be his last campaign, Jimmy Carter is suddenly a Democrat. Tip O'Neill, move over. There is no truer party man than the president of the United States. He marches with Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy and Johnson and always he flails the Republican party. Herbert Hoover does not get to rest in peace today.
In Akron, the crowds are sparse. There are six marching bands at the least. They wear green hats and white hats and yellow hats and black hats and red hats. Vice president Mondale is here and Sens. Glenn and Metzenbaum, but the crowd, small and unresponsive, is not moved. Jimmy Carter does what he has to do, says what he has to say and then takes off.
In the air, the schedule is changed. Los Angeles is taken off the itinerary and Detroit substituted. Air Force One is like a helicopter gunship, circling the United States, looking for targets of opportunity. Does this mean that California is considered lost or that Michigan is moved back into the maybe column? Are there new polls? Do they have the country wired and can they tell, up there in that marvelous blue plane that the president rides, can they tell which way the country is going?
Press a button, and he can blow up the world. Pick up the phone and he can talk to the Kremlim. Twitch and a doctor comes running. Think and an aide will put it down in a memo. And say something and the stock market will fall. But change your mind, convince an American, look a farmer, worker, professor, criminal, doctor -- you name it -- in the eye and get him to change his mind, that is a different story. In the end, this may turn out to be the one power that Jimmy Carter does not have.
Somewhere up ahead in his own plane, the marathon man of American politics is prepared to push it as far as it will go. He has the stamina, he has the grit. He campaigned for years to become governor of Georgia. And then he campaigned, nonstop, to become president of the United States. He jogs in the morning and prays and reads and thinks and has, through sheer will, made himself into the man he is. He is the political version of the bionic man and today he runs.
Sometimes it seems that half the country is organized into marching bands. Sometimes it seems that half the country is still asleep. Sometimes it seems that half the country wears glasses and pants suits and does not give a damn. Sometimes it just seems that Jimmy Carter cannot make them give a damn.
Westward he goes, reaching always for the sun. Behind him, the campaign is over. Ahead of him, it is not. The odds go up with every rumor and the odds go down on a new one. He exhorts the Democrats to come out and vote. He says that his is a Democratic country and that if the Democrats come and vote, he will win. From the grave of the Depression he resurrects the Republican ghoul. Kids stare blankly at him. What is it he is talking about?
"Vote for yourselves," he says over and over again. "Vote for yourself."
At every stop, they bring out a phone. They place it on a pedestal and the Secret Service guards it. It connects the president with the White House, with the Pentagon, with the fleets and with the planes and with the world. With this phone, you can dial Armageddon collect.
In the darkness, he will turn for home. At the end of the day, he will go back to Plains. He will fly back into the rising sun, to where he votes, and he will fly over a nation that has made up its mind. When darkness falls, it will have been decided: He will be president for four more years or, shortly, he will be president no more.
In the meantime, there is nothing to do but keep on running. There is nothing to do but use up all the hours, to stretch the day, to go, go, go until only the setting sun finally makes you stop. Joshua had the sun stand still. A president, though, can only do so much.