You might as well know the worst: In my former life I taught English literature in college. And this, while a shameful thing generally, nevertheless equipped me with a way of seeing the world, called "literary analysis," which is indispensable when it comes to understanding Jimmy Carter.
Take the most recent Carter adventure: Gloria Spann, the president's elder sister, who drives a motorcycle, was arrested last Sunday in a waffle house in Americus, Ga; for playing her harmonica beside the juke box. Naturally, this story has been interpreted as merely another episode in the wild-and-woolly Carters. It is nothing of the sort.
It is, in fact, a political parable. And if one reads the story as a political parable, and not as an item of news, both it and the Carters become clear as a harmonica.
First of all, the location of the story is a fast-food restaurant, a place associated with wolfing self-interest. The restaurant is situated in Americus, whose symbolism is obvious. And Americus, in trun, is situated in Sumter County, a name that brings to mind Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began and, specifically, where the country at large received an unmistakable message from the South. What's more, the restaurant is called McWaffler's, which, while sounding even more middle American than McDonald's, just as waffles sound more wholesome than hamburgers, in fact serves a food for fatties.
Yet the name McWaffler's also suggests those who waffle (literally, the sons of those who waffle) -- those who are not merely self-stuffing and self-interested, but without firm principle as well. According to a waitress who was interviewed, "every booth, table and counter in the place was full." So we have a packed house of wafflers, yelling out orders and playing the juke.
Enter then upon this chaotic scene Gloria Spann -- Gloria, a name like sunshine; Spann, like a full embrace. The day, remember, is Sunday, a perfect time for revivals. On this day, in the town of Americus, a woman named for glory arrives by motorcycle at a place teeming with wafflers, and starts to play the harmonica. The news story does not tell us what was playing on the juke box at the time; but whatever it was clearly was not in harmony with Gloria's harmonica, nor was Gloria's harmonica in harmony with it. Yet the harmonica is an instrument complete with its own harmonies. Therefore, the disharmony had to come from the juke box; and therefore, too, Gloria could not have been disturbing the peace, as charged, but was attempting instead to bring harmony to a place of discord.
The place of discord, however, prefers to remain as is. And instead of welcoming Gloria and her "little ole tune," they tell her to "Keep it down," At her arrest, Gloria pleaded "guilty to harmonica playing," but added: "I never even had a speeding ticket." Here, significantly, she is thwarted by speeders, by speed-eating waffle-wolfers. "They were tryin' to listen to the jike box. The couldn't hear the box for the harmonica. It was a real mess."
All this is explained by Carolyn Cable, the waitress, whose name recalls the author, George Washington Cable, who served as a Confederate soldier. (This becomes important when we consider that the manager of McWaffler's is Charlene Lee.) For the present, the emphasis is on "cable" as a line of communication. Carolyn is the line to the wafflers, just as Gloria is the line to the president. The whole parable hinges on this connection. For clearly Gloria was on some mission at McWaffler's, an urgent one, which would explain the motorcycle. And the mission had to originate with you-know-whom.
Here we come to the key to the story. The president has sent his bike-riding sister to bear a message from the South to the rest of the country, as did the firing on Fort Sumter, a message from which the South itself is not excluded (see Cable and Lee). The message is musical, though not California-dreamy or Boston-chic. Instead, it's a "little ole" country-and-western tune like the Carters themselves: as lovable as broter Billy, as healing as sister Ruth, as honest as Jimmy, as brave as Gloria.
And it is called: "Did You Ever See a Robin Cry When Leaves Begin to Fall?" Three interpretations are possible. The robin might represent the president, and the leaves his falling popularity, in which case the story becomes a parable of self-pity. Or, "Begin" might be the Israeli prime minister, thus giving the song a dark forecast and an odd syntax: "Did You Ever See a Robin Cry When (he) Leaves Begin to Fall?" Or -- and most likely -- the question is rhetorical: "Did You Ever See a Robin Cry When Leaves Begin to Fall?" In that case, the song is a call to level-headedness in adversity, meaning that no smart bird ever cries over a change of fortune. It just heads south.
What, then, is the message the president is sending the country via Gloria? He is telling us simply that when we learn to slow down, eat less, quit yelling, forgive Billy and stop playing the juke box on Sunday, then he -- not Jerry or Teddy -- will bring peace and harmony to the world, which includes the Middle East, Even if his sister lands in the slammer.
There you go.