On the morning of the day he lost the presidency, Jimmy Carter looked like a man mugged by history. His face sagged. His eyes were sad, his body tired, his hands raw and red from shaking countless hands. If it took pain to win the presidency, Jimmy Carter wouldn't mind hurting. It takes more than that, though. It takes a dream.
To the extent that a presidential election is a popularity contest, Jimmy Carter was simply outclassed. He was up against the original class president, the man with all the letters on his varsity sweater, a man who is what he is -- nothing more, nothing less. Ronald Reagan is good on television not because he was once an actor, but he is an actor because he is good on television. Had he gone into the shoe business, he still would have beaten Carter in the debates. He is simply more likeable. The man ought to be in pictures.
But to a very great degree, a presidential election is a time when Americans get to play around with their national myths. The first, of course, is the one about the presidency -- the notion that it's so all-powerful. We confuse media access with power, the cover of Newsweek with real influence, the ability to summon a limo with the ability to make prices go down or Arabs behave.
But the greater myth is the one in our heads -- our notions about America. This is what Jimmy Carter was up against. He was the president who talked, wisely in fact, about making sensible choices in foreign policy. He was the president who talked of keeping our sword sheathed. He was the president who would not fight here or there, who made us happy when he talked about peace but who angered us when someone else said that the very peace we loved was bought at the expense of national honor.
The myth is not that America is not great. The myth is that we are always the greatest -- every time and every place and under every sort of circumstance. The myth is that we are always good when sometimes we are bad because we have to be, and sometimes we are bad because we want to be. The myth is that we always act defensively because we covet no nation's territory, but that we also have these national interests to protect and that means we have to take some territory. Myths don't have to make sense. Myths can contradict. Myths are loving both a John Wayne film and a peace song by Joan Baez.
Jimmy Carter defied those myths. Jimmy Carter did not understand that in order to talk of peace, you have to first talk of war, that you have to indicate that you are willing to fight, that you will protect the national honor even though it is not, like oil, something you can put into the tank and burn. Jimmy Carter got us mad when he talked about negotiating with the Iranians. Negotiate, hell! We wanted to send in the Marines, and when Carter did just that, he blew the myth by blowing the mission. Of course it is not fair to blame him, but then as he very well knows, life is not fair.
The premier American myth is that life will always get better. We believe that if we work hard, if we play by the rules, if we study and apply ourselves, that our lives will get better and better. We believe that for ourselves and for our children.
Inflation mocks that belief. Inflation robs you not only of your money, but of your basic beliefs. Inflation says it is stupid to save and stupid to buy on time and stupid not to simply buy. This is why inflation is so insidious. It does more than simply undermine the economy. It undermines faith in the future.
It was Jimmy Carter's fate to have to butt up against all of this -- to talk not of zero inflation, of ending it, but of managing it. It was Jimmy Carter's fate to come up against a world that was not amenable to American power, that did not, like us, believe our own myths but believed its own. It was Jimmy Carter's fate to be somewhat unlikable and to run against a man who is very likable, to be short and to run against a man who is tall, to be insecure and run against a man who is secure, to be slight and run against a man with shoulders as broad as King Kong's.
The world will not change for Ronald Reagan, either. He, like Jimmy Carter, will not get it to accommodate American myths. But if he can bring inflation under control and if he can lift our spirits while at the same time limiting our aspirations, he will succeed where Carter failed. When all was said and done, this was an election between a cheerleader and a scold, between someone who said that victory was possible and someone who said that the best we could hope for was a tie. No one dreams about a tie.