In the ritual moment which ended this sodden convention of Democrats, wordless stageplay, the kind of symbolic upstaging which politicians take very seriously and remember forever, bitterly.
Jimmy Carter needed one more thing from this convention -- a photograph -- the melodramatic image of winner and loser, standing side by side and smiling, their arms aloft in some sort of macho gesture which reads to the eyes as: Forward Together for Victory.
A sure thing for newspaper front pages, maybe a cover for Newsweek and Time. A photograph that would overwhelm all the discordant messages expressed by mere words.
The president waited and waited, but he hever got his photo of harmony. When Sen. Kennedy arrived on the podium finally, he played a petty little game, knowing what Carter wanted, and glided about with a constricted half-smile on his face. Actually, it looked like a kiss-my-Irish sneer.
Poor little Carter. That is what one felt, watching. Upstaged again. Kennedy shook the president's hand, gave him a patronizing pat on the back, but pedaled out of camera range without granting the consensual pose. Carter, at one point, practically chased the senator across the stage and awkwardly raised his hand -- a clenched fist, the gesture meant to convey to us that he really is a strong leader -- hoping Kennedy would reciprocate. Kennedy sneered and moved once more, departing to his own applause. The last video image in my memory is a closeup of Jimmy Carter, as he waves goodbye, a cold-blue grin frozen on his face. An expression which, if it could talk, might say: I'll get even, someday, with this fat rich kid with his romantic Ivy League crap.
I am making too much of this, of course, except that ritual humiliation is approximately what happened to President Carter all week long.
He won everything that mattered in practical terms and lost all the symbolic moments which stir hearts and souls, which persuade an audience to follow a leader.
When you think about it, this is not a bad summary of his strengths and weaknesses as president. Unpresidential -- that is what the conventional wisdom says of him and reluctantly I conceded there is crude truth there -- on the level of public ritual where a president must be convincing if the nation is to follow. I would still claim that you can't blame Carter alone for this.
Let me share the confusion of my own sympathies between these two men, as a way toward explanation. I imagine others feel similarly. I listened to Kennedy's brilliant perorations Tuesday night on behalf of the poor and downtrodden and was moved, like everyone else in the hall. Moreover, I agree with much of what he proposed.
Yet there always seems something fake about Kennedy, a sense of theatricality, of blarney, as though he is winking at his urbane friends while he arouses the unwashed crowd of "people." Maybe Kennedy is too good at ritual performance, too graceful and gallant, for somehow he always reminds me that, after all, he is rich, a child of the upper class, and afterward he will return to his sailboat somewhere and probably make jokes about the peanut farmer's ineptitude.
Jimmy Carter is hopelessly middle class. (So am I.) I can recognize the virtues of that as well as the clumsy earnestness, the overdeveloped righteousness, the narrowness. One cannot explain away this class conflict between these men -- grit versus glamor, Baptist orthodoxy versus Boston urbanity -- except to say everyone in the audience feels it and reacts to it. Carter entered the contest with those disadvantages -- and already burdened by the prejudices against Southerners -- and I suppose that is why my personal sympathy goes to him, even as I am disappointed by him.
While "sympathy" is certainly one element in appropriate audience response to a leader, too much of it, in the form of pity, undermines him. Pity destroys his mystical stature above us. To say that we "feel sorry" for a president is another way of confessing we don't believe in his magic powers.
Kennedy's magic glamor failed to win for him, but if enough voters decide Jimmy Carter has no magic whatever, they may well take a chance on the cowboy. "Poor little Carter," is, after all, a devastating comment to make on behalf of one who would lead us.
Long after the convention is forgotten, this inability to ritualize our aspirations will be President Carter's central weakness as a candidate, not his positions on issues or even his performance in office, which, as the Carter people correctly assert, has been stronger than the public image of it. That weakness is a lot to overcome. But unlike Kennedy, who mimics rhetoic of the post, Carter is an original in his political style and direction. He certainly has settled on an original theme for his fall campaign -- realism.
I'm not sure it will sell, but I applaud his boldness. It's as though the Carter strategies puzzled over their many problems and decided, finally, to invert a traditional political maxim: Go with your weakness.
The film biography of Carter's first term, though not terribly convincing, developed the theme on one level. The film defined the presidency as limited and frustrating and always the object of criticism and disappointment. "They" criticize Jimmy Carter but you should hear what "they" said about Abe Lincoln. The office is not magic; it's a lot of hard work, with awful limits and vetoes on its esteemed powers.
I happen to believe that message is correct, that the beginning of wisdom for small-d democrats lie in discarding the romanticism and hype surrounding the White House. The mythology of a single leader somehow gallantly boxing his way through the extraordinary web of interlocking issues and agencies and competing power centers, inside the government and out, is an important element in why the last four presidents -- now perhaps five -- became failed leaders.
But will it sell? Carter's humble presidency is certainly a less satisfying vision than the old one which could do anything. Still, I have a hunch that ordinary citizens, well educated on the puffery of presidential candidates, may be more comfortable with this message than are the various elites of influentials -- including the nostalgic press -- who wish to believe that FDR or JFK will return to Washington someday and make the town work right again.
In his acceptance speech, which reads so much better than he delivered it, Carter sold realism on a different level -- his perceptions of a complicated world, changing rapidly and fraught with problems, versus the nostalgic optimism of Ronald Reagan. "All of us can sympathize with the desire for easy answers. There is often a temptation to substitute idle dreams for hard reality."
Intellectually, Carter's version of realism sounds more honest but, like Carter himself, it is not nearly as appealing as Irish blarney or a good dramatic performance by a good actor. I think, in short, that Jimmy Carter himself is going to have the same problems running against the movie actor this fall as he had with the glamorous senator this week. Citizens want realism, but a politician mustn't overdo it.