At 9 o'clock in the morning on Jan. 1, a liberal Democratic politician in the Midwest who was considered part of the Kennedy orbit was awakened by a telephone call from the president of the United States -- getting an early start on the new year in a reelection drive that is remorseless, pugnacious and unique.
The politician, who had never before talked to Jimmy Carter, had been ignored by Sen. Edward Kennedy and may end up supporting the president. He is not alone. Never before have so many total strangers been telephoned by a president.
The prospect of President Carter spending nights and weekends alone by the telephone is accompanied by unpleasant agents issuing unveiled warnings to Kennedy backers. Furthermore, predictions by Carter operatives last summer that blood would flow if Kennedy challenged have not been invalidated by the president's political revival. By both word of mouth and mass media advertising, Kennedy's integrity is questioned.
The result: a campaign even less edifying than most. Nor does it bear much relationship in substance to Carter's three years in office. But combined with events in Central Asia, the president's telephonic campaigning plus gut-fighting backstage has produced one of the most dramatic turnarounds in American political history. It seems unlikely to be abandoned in favor of more enlightened fare.
The campaign's underlying claim is that Carter has abandoned partisan politics since the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Having found time to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" the day before the Iowa caucuses, though not to debate with Kennedy, the president declared on nationwide television: "In a time of crises for our country, I believe it is very important for the president not to assume in a public way the role of a partisan campaigner in a political contest."
Carter also has found time for calls whose number the White House cannot fix but run 20 to 40 each week night and a great more on weekends. In New Hampshire, Kennedy's precinct workers are finding that in some blocks, nearly every Democratic household has received a presidential phone call.
The soft-spoken Carter invariably makes a soft sell. The harder sell comes from his agents, who blandish before the uncommitted the treasured memory of a White House visit. For those who stay neutral too long (such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York) there are reminders that the train is leaving the station and there may not be any more empty seats aboard. The language is appropriately harsher for those Democrats who actually came out for Kennedy.
Life has been less pleasant of late for Tim Hagen, the pro-Kennedy Allegheny County (Cleveland) chairman in Ohio. Democratic National Committeeman Joe Crangle of New York found that his loyal support of the president at party gatherings the past three years meant nothing once he came to Washington to work in the Kennedy campaign. Joel McCleary, Carter's New York coordinator, was overheard telling Crangle face-to-face: "You S.O.B. You're the one guy we're going to get."
The tone was faithfully conveyed in describing Kennedy, first by word of mouth and now in television and radio commercials prepared for New Hampshire. Each Carter radio spot there begins: "Whenever Sen. Kennedy paints his vision of the American future, his record catches up with him."
With that opener, Kennedy is attacked for opposing higher defense spending and for failing to pass "71 percent" of his tax reform proposals. "We cannot spend our way out of every problem," the commercial's narrator intones.
Running against Kennedy in New England as detente crumbles, Carter's projected image is of a born-again hawk. Although he has squeezed hard against the military's spending requests for three years and still proposes increases regarded as grossly inadequate by defense-oriented legislators, one radio commercial has his voice putting "a strong defense on the top of my priority list."
As for Kennedy's 71 percent alleged failure quotient on tax reform, the president's commercials do not mention the burial of his entire tax reform program. Nor do they discuss Carter's intense objection to tax reduction, overriding in the current budget the advice of key economic advisers.
Until now, mundane discussion of how much should be spent on defense or whether taxes should be cut has been isolated from Carter's immaculately sealed campaign. With the president seldom submitting to questions or making a political speech, such debate is not necessary in a campaign of blandishments, threats, negative media advertising and those nightly presidential telephone calls.