So now we have Bill and Bette Fisher, machinist and housewife, of Carnegie, Pa., Average Couple, USA. We were picked by chance," Bette said, after Jimmy Carter's sudden, unannounced visit to their home Thursday night. It wasn't political." Which I'm sure she believes.
High on a hill overlooking the harbor stands a weathered bronze monument cast in the form of a boy and girl earnestly holding a scroll. It reads: "To commemorate the centennial of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner the pupils of Baltimore have erected this memorial upon Hampstead Hall, where in September, 1814, the citizen-soldiers of Maryland stood ready to sacrifice their lives in defense of their homes and their country."
Next to the monument, ringed by old cannons, a tower-like structure looms; it was built long ago to let people have a better view of that setting from the days of citizensoldiers, national sacrifice and Star Spangled Banners. Now a sign posted on the tower says: "Building Under Repair Due to Vandalism." At the base of the hill, on a park bench reading a book, its George Rogers, a black man in a blue cap and yellow sports shirt. He's no Everyman, but the president would find him uncomfortably frank.
"Carter's more or less a one-term man," says Rogers, who voted for Carter last time. "Seems like he plays his cards pretty close to his vest. He tries to please everybody all the time. In a way, he's like Calvin Coolidge. He's there like a referee, not to make waves. He's not what people expected when he came in there."
Rogers will listen to Carter when he speaks to the nation tonight, but without much anticipation. "Oh, yeah, I'll hear him out. He's the commander-in-chief, but my doubts will be a little deeper to start. The scale is more on the negative side now." At this point Rogers would take Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford over Carter. What he'd really prefer is someone like tharry Truman who'd take hold and shake things up. But in Truman's absence any of the others would be better than Carter. Each would be stronger.
And, Rogers, says, this is a time for strength. "The talkin" deal is all right for a while," he says, "but the action deal is better now." Especially, he adds, because of "the crisis deal" we're facing.
Now about that "crisis deal." The word from the mountain, where the wise men were conferring this past, extraordinary week in the presidency, is that Carter believes we confront a national crisis of the spirit, of governance, of a loss of collective will, of an unwillingness to sacrifice for the common good.
Perhaps so, but it's hard to find when you travel out of the political hothouse atmosphere of Washington to a city like Baltimore with ethnic neighborhoods, long established traditions and deep local pride.
In Baltimore this summer life appears good. The Orioles are winning, the Pratt library, where Mencken studied, is filled, the splendid art gallery attracts good numbers of people, the summer festivals are being promoted aggressively, and at the Lexington Market people are acting the same as they have for centuries there. The various stands are filled with offerings from the Chesapeake Bay and the surrounding Maryland countryside. Abundance abounds. Even the gas lines that gripped Baltimore, and the country, are disappearing.
To talk to people at random throughout the city - no poll this, I'm pleased to report - a different tone emerges in conversations about the country. People seem more resigned than angry, more concerned than fearful. When they criticize Carter, they'll also speak sympathetically about him.
"I have mixed emotions about him," said Michaelyn Ambrose, who helps run a day-care center. "He seems too wishy-washy, not a man with a definite plan. He doesn't have the support of the Congress and the American people. But Americans are hard paople to convince, and I'm not sure anybody else could do a better job. After the last energy shortage and now this one, no one believes anything any more."
There's cyncism, all right. Three men were standing in front of petrucci's, a restaurant in "Little Italy," chatting with the owner, Germano Fabiani.
They're bitter about the oil companies, think the country's controlled by the big money, hear longshoremen down on the waterfront say tankers out there in the bay are loaded with oil, waiting to dock until the prices rise further. At the same time they recognize that they're part of the problem. They all drive big cars - Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, and one has three in his family - but they won't get rid of them until forced even though they know they should. Carter's not dynamic enough for them either, but they agree you can't put all the blame on him. "He's caught in the middle," one says.
Running through the conversations is the belief that stronger action has to come - and from the president in Washington. And, a shrewd appreciation of the complexities of the issues.
George Rogers again. He's 50. Ten years ago he retired from the Army as a sergeant, and now works nights as a Maryland penitentiary guard. In the days he studies at the city college so he can get a better correctional system job. The book he's reading is "Political Parties in America."
A canny man, Rogers. The gas deal's like the Vietnam deal, he says. "They say we're winning, winning, winning but you don't believe them. Show us something concrete." Something of a philosopher, too. "Seems like the more we develop, the more life becomes prolonged, the more trouble we're going to have. More like a curse than a blessing. We got to have controls for a realistic world."
Rogers will be by the tube tonight, one of those faceless millions Carter wants to reach and move. He's not so sure about that "crisis deal." But he's ready for the action deal, if the president can deliver it.