Jimmy Carter has not been averse to categorizing himself: "I am a Southerner and an American. I am a farmer, an engineer, a father and a husband, a Christian, a politician and a former governor, a planner, a businessman, a nuclear physicist, a naval officer, a canoeist, and, among other things, a lover of Bob Dylan's songs and Dylan Thomas' poetry." Yet, he felt, people too often got him wrong. "I'm a human being," he said, "I'm not a packaged article that you can put in a little box and say, 'Here's a Southern Baptist, an ignorant peanut farmer who doesn't have the right to enjoy music, who has no flexibility in his mind, who can't understand the sensitivities of an interpersonal relationship. He's got to be predictable.'"
And yet the people had to predict him, had to guess from what he had been what he would be as President. As they puzzled with that problem in 1976, Carter said, "Sometimes I think people look too hard. They're looking for something that isn't there. I don't think I'm that complex. I'm pretty much what I seem to be." But like every human being, he contained multitudes. The problem was to pick from those crowds of identities, the ones which would shape his presidency, and thus our lives.
Shakespeare taught us that one can smile and smile and be a villian; Eisenhower taught us that a smile can conceal a sense of botheration. Even Nixon could smile while his insides ground, and old Bill Taft, with his "Smile, Smile, Smile" motto, had a largely dismal time trying to be President. So it is not to the now-famous Carter grin we must look for signs of political happiness, but to the self, discernible, however dimly and indirectly, in his life experience and his reactions to that experience.
No one questions his activity. He is, has been, and will be an extraordinary energetic person and politician, up and at 'em, day after day, ofter right past the lunch hour and into that afternoon period when your average politician wants a drink. His friend Charles Kirbo calls him a "workaholic and a playaholic." The roots of that active orientation toward life go all the way back, to a childhood in which energetic performance was mightily reinforced, and the child discovered that exertion brought better rewards than withdrawal or passivity.
I believe he will also turn out to be a pleasured President, finding, as did Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy, that life in the Oval Office can be fun - is, on the average. He has taken the unusual step of writing his own autobiography, a precedent, one hopes, for all future presidential aspirants; in it he recounts remembered reactions of normal joy, punctuated to be sure with crises of the spirit. But he dwells on the pleasures, the positive possibilities, as he did in his boyhood list of "Healthy Mental Habits." He will be an active-positive President.
Confidence in that prediction is strengthened by the confidence his upbringing gave him. The trauma of illness in his first two years was surmounted and he became a healthy, happy child, thanks to his mother's luck and determination. Jimmy's self-esteem drew on hers: he could feel her steady presence, hear her laughter, see her own confident independence. He grew up in the bosom of a family of "characters", all of whom, for all their differentnesses, loved him.
Home base was a place to hit home runs from. He quested way out beyond what anyone could reasonably expect of a child of Plains: to college, to high naval affairs, to the political top of his state and nation. But he kept coming back - for good, he thought once, and even when Plains became a kind of headquarters for presidential kitch, he could remember and draw upon its genuineness. He is a rooted man who knows where home is. That, too, should contribute to a sense that he can grow beyond his roots.
Like the other active-positive Presidents, his character-based troubles are going to spring from an excess of an active-positive virtue: the thirst for results. The temptation to go ahead and get some high thing done by some temporary low route, may swing him off course, as with Roosevelt and the Court, Kennedy and the Castro problem. But like them, he is unlikely to persevere in an obviously losing line of action. Carter has been stubborn as a south Georgia turtle, but his stubbornness has not extended to self-defeat. That is because, like Harry Truman, he has his eyes open.
Carter's world view - politically speaking - was there before he found amazing grace. That is important for his presidency in two senses. First, his beliefs about people and history and political morality connect with the broadest streams of American tradition, which, while profoundly affected by Christianity, wash on wider shores. Jefferson's cool deism could take in the Carter conception of a fundamentally virtuous citizenry, who, given the chance, could impart to a government of their own a yeomanly rectitude. Harry Truman, a very Lightfoot Baptist, could go along with Carter's sense that leadership vigorously and visibly exercised, can rally social energy by enspiriting people, reminding them of strengths they had forgotten. And Hannah Arendt could have conversed easily with Carter about the "banality of evil" and the easy ways the great pervert the law.
To put that in predictive form: Carter the President will try to call to the American spirit as, say, Theodore Roosevelt did, not as Billy Sunday did.
Second, but first in terms of the personal meaning of his politics, Carter's trust in Christ is a democratic resource. This is more than a matter that Christianity is one root of democracy, that the idea of equal justice under law, for example, did not spring full blown from the brows of the Founding Fathers. Carter the Christian person sees a world lit by a transforming Presence, layered over a darker world where justice needs establishing, where mercy, reached for, may be missed.
The experience of conversion from casual to serious Christianity was, for Carter, a letting go, an inner surrender of pride, which freed him from resting the case for his self-esteem wholly on the shaky argument of secular "success." His religion is a religion of forgiveness and renewal; I think that politically, that helps this man - who recognizes in himself a tendency toward pontification and too harsh a judgement of his fellow humans - stay open to "ideas whose time has come", that wonderful concept which allows a polity to forgive itself for yesterday and move on out into tomorrow. Thus I think people who worry that Carter will, like Woodrow Wilson, come to confuse some line of policy with the will of God, are wrong. Be glad he prays. It helps him.
The Carter style will prove most clearly strong in the homework element. To exceptional intelligence he adds exceptional curiousity, memory and the logical capacity to link large ideas to deep data bases. I doubt he will often be caught with his facts down. But when he is shown to be mistaken, he will admit it and corret it - perhaps not right away, but in time. If the past is any guide, he will organize his intellectual life around comprehensive, long-range goals, and show impatience with incremental thinking.
Carter's rhetoric will take getting used to. He is likely to carry over from campaigning a penchant for idealistic expression - appealing to the best in people - and that edge of indignation which is, in his performances, all the more powerful for being rare. The press will find him hard to report in the traditional ways because he is given to pronouncing absolutes as if they were about to happen and then, of all things, apologizing when they don't. Like every President he will be misunderstood and will himself contribute to the misunderstanding. As in the past, he will try to reach past the media to go directly to The People, and he will pick and choose among reporters when it comes to access. A frequent charge against him will be overhope, and he will find it frustrating when his high purposes are no longer news but his fumbles in pursuing them are. Yet it is obvious that he has found rhetorical themes which resonate strongly with intense public needs. That will be his strong point.
His stylistic weak point is negotiation. When he was governor of Georgia, Carter's legislative relations were often stormy. He would not play the customary patronage and special privilege games, and many felt this traced to a personal failing. Hamilton Jordan, then his executive secretary, said that "Jimmy is not easy to get close to. He doesn't have enough time in his life to let people get close. He doesn't understand the personal element in politics, though nobody is better at campaigning." Not that he was withdrawn: he was constantly dealing with members, showering them with facts, and he once spent a whole day on the House floor speaking for his cherished reorganization plan. But he was late to compromise, hard to convince.
Even in his own account of the senate years, there is little "we," very little sense of the collaborative, and almost no mention of the many names a team-politician would have relished recalling. His autobiography, "Why Not the Best?", mentions only two names in that period, neither a colleague: Horace Tate, executive director of the black teacher's organization, who, the author notes, "became one of my early supporters when I ran for state office," and Reinhold Niebuhr, known to Carter through his books, the man who "observes that the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world." Carter dwells - though unrancorously - on the sins of the legislative world, but what is missing is pleasure and practice in the give and take - even the friendship - many a member has found rewarding.
It is a mistake to suppose that good negotiation consists of instant collapse and agreement with all other sides. Washington is not Atlanta: Carter's Congressional and bureaucratic negotiating partners have much stronger bases of their own than had their Georgia counterparts.
But in the end, it is the developing national mood, the climate of expectations, which will be most fateful for President Carter. We have become a nation of uneasy skeptics, suspicious of all the powers that be, listening in the political cacophony for some reliable theme.Carter has an enormous advantage in following Nixon, who was thought to be unprincipled, and Ford, who was thought to be imcompetent. But uneasy eyes are on him. The politics of gestures will not sustain hope long, and political faith is fragile. It will take achievement - real progress - to convince a nervous nation that this President named Jimmy is The People's man.