There is mystery about our 39th president. There is enchantment, poetry and art. All that he touches he renders eerily absurd and sometimes dangerous.
Looking back on the past 3 1/2 years of unparalleled buffoonery, we all have our favorite episodes: the time our president landed in Poland and, through the lips of an ill-chosen translator, notified a crowd of amused Poles that he understood their deepest sexual yearnings; the London economic summit where he "personally recommended" that Dylan Thomas be reburied in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner; the 33-page white paper exculpating Hamilton Jordan from allegations that he had spit Amaretto and cream upon a damsal in a Washington saloon; that startling attack on the presidential canoe by the amphibious rabbit; that idiot turkey roaming the White House grounds, and so forth. This unique world leader has given students of the occult much to think about.
And now the first absurd week of Campaign '80 has passed. Of course, that there would even be, for Carter, a Campaign '80 is absurd. Most pols, looking back on such an incredible record of botched promises and blown policies, would accept reality and vamoose. Yet, hark, Jimmy Carter has one great strength. He is a solipsist. That is to say he believes that nothing exists beyond himself, not the inflation figures, the unemployment figures, the productivity figures, the growls from the Kremlin, the record number of American embassies burned, nothing. These disastrous facts tell him only what he wants to hear -- namely, that he is the sweetest, most honest, most loving president of all time. Here is solipsism and artistry and, as Somerset Maugham has written, "The artist's egoism is outrageous. . . . He is by nature a solipsist and the world exists only for him to exercise upon it his powers of creation." Jimmy Carter's powers of creation are devoted to the creation of confusion and the absurd.
When our helicopter rescue mission to Iran miscarried in fiery chaos, he called it an "incomplete success." That is art, perhaps even great art.
Last week, on Sept. 1, the artist began his presidential campaign in Tuscumbia, Ala., with a speech whose sheer cant wearied even him. Then things perked up. Departing from his prepared text -- or so we are told -- he broke into one of his famed spiels of gimcrack moralizing, and the subject was an unlikely one: the Ku Klux Klan. It was a sonorous moment; it was also, apparently, befuddling. This is not 1925, not even 1965. This diatrible took no courage at all, and the principles that motivated it could only be cheap. The Klan is now composed of a mere handful, the majority of whom are pinhead bullies. Had our president railed against the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, his sermon would have been no more ludicrous. Yet somehow he enchanted his listeners. No one hooted and, within a few hours, the news was not of Jimmy Carter apologizing for cheap theater, but of Ronald Reagan apologizing for something he did not say.
At about the same time as the Tuscumbia diatribe, Reagan was in economically depressed Detroit declaring, "I am happy to be here where you're feeling it firsthand with the economic problems that have been committed, and [President Carter is] opening his campaign down in the city that gave birth to and is the parent body of the Ku Klux Klan." Mark this down as a maladroit attempt by Reagan to emphasize that he was campaigning at the scene of one of our president's disasters while the Wonderboy was safely removed from harm's way. But aside from blowing a line, is this the stuff of scandal and sacrilege? It is for an artist of Jimmy Carter's stature.
In his very next public appearance, just hours after his theatrics in Tuscumbia, a heaving and sighing Carter bawled, "I resent very deeply what Ronald Reagan said about the South and about Alabama and about Tuscumbia. . . . Anybody who resorts to slurs and to innuendo against a whole region of the country, based on a false statement and a false premise, is not doing the South or our nation a good service." Well, our president need not impair his health. Reagan never said anything about "a whole region of the country." And if you will but read the above Reagan quote, which I present as a personal attempt to heal our nation's wounds, you will see that Reagan owed no apology to the South or to Alabama. wLet him settle with an apology to Tuscumbia, not the birthplace of Kluxery but the home of its competing Imperial Kleadquarters. And let our president apologize for deceiving the press and thereby the nation as to Reagan's remarks.
Returning to the Tuscumbia diatribe: What was the point of it? Was it delivered to terrify that small band of lunkheads who reportedly demonstrated in their Kluxian garb before his speech? Marginal groups demostrate against him every day. Why does he not launch into a melodramatic sermon against the Communist Worker's Party? Was he attempting to ingratiate himself to blacks? Then why was George Wallace on the speakers' platform, and why did Carter embrace him?
What our president was doing, of course, was sending Wallaceites the message that in some numinous way he remains just like them. He did this in Campaign '76. To blacks, he was sending the contradictory message that he is just like them. This too he did in Campaign '76. And with the press he was merely practicing his artistry, bringing to reality as much confusion and absurdity as possible. It is Campaign '76 all over again.