THE VIEW FROM KEY WEST: NINETY MILES NORTH OF HAVANA AND NINE HUNDRED YEARS ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL … FAREWELL TO THE BOYS ON THE BUS; OR, JOHNNY, I NEVER KNEW YE … ANOTHER RUDE AND WISTFUL TALE FROM THE BOWELS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM, WITH NOTES, NIGHTMARES AND OTHER STRANGE MEMORIES FROM MANCHESTER, BOSTON, MIAMI AND PLAINS, GEORGIA … AND 440 VOLTS FROM CASTRATO, THE DEMON LOVER OF COCONUT GROVE
“A lot of people will tell you that horses get spooked because they’re just naturally nervous and jittery, but that ain’t right. What you have to remember is that a horse sees things maybe six or seven times bigger than we do.”—Billy Herman, a harness-racing trainer at Pompano Park in Miami
This news just came over the radio, followed by a song about “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey and more money …”* and then came a news item about a Polish gentleman who was arrested earlier today for throwing “more than two dozen bowling balls into the sea off a pier in Fort Lauderdale” because, he told arresting officers, “he thought they were nigger eggs.” …
…. We are living in very strange times, and they are likely to get a lot stranger before we bottom out. Which could happen a lot sooner than even Henry Kissinger thinks……. Because this is, after all, another election year, and almost everybody I talk to seems to feel we are headed for strangeness….… of one sort or another. And some people say we are already deep in the midst of it. Which may be true. The evidence points both ways……. But from my perch in this plastic catbird seat out here on the southernmost rim of Key West, the barometer looks to be falling so fast on all fronts that it no longer matters. And now comes this filthy news in the latest Gallup Poll that Hubert Humphrey will be our next president……. Or, failing that, he will foul the national air for the next six months and drive us all to smack with his poison gibberish.
Jesus, no wonder that poor bastard up in Fort Lauderdale ran amok and decided that all bowling balls were actually nigger eggs that would have to be hurled, at once, into shark-infested waters. He was probably a desperate political activist of some kind trying to send a message to Washington.
Last night, on this same radio station, I heard a warning about “a new outbreak of dog mutilations in Coconut Grove.” The disc jockey reading the news sounded angry and agitated. “Three more mongrel dogs were found castrated and barely alive tonight,” he said, “and investigating officers said there was no doubt that all three animals were victims of the same bloodthirsty psychotic – a stocky middle-aged Cuban known as ‘Castrato’ – who has terrorized dog owners in Coconut Grove for the past three months.
“Today’s mutilations, police said, were executed with the same sadistic precision as all the others. According to the owner of one victim, a half-breed chow watchdog named Willie, the dog was ‘minding his own business, just lying out there in the driveway, when all of a sudden I heard him start yelping and I looked out the front door just in time to see this dirty little spic shoot him again with one of those electric flashlight guns. Then the sonofabitch grabbed Willie by the hind legs and threw him into the back of an old red pickup. I yelled at him, but by the time I got hold of my shotgun and ran out on the porch, he was gone. It all happened so fast that I didn’t even get the license number off the truck.'”
The voice on the radio paused for a long moment, then dipped a few octaves and went on with the story: “Several hours later, police said, Willie and two other dogs – both mongrels – were found in a vacant lot near the Dinner Key yacht marina. All three had been expertly castrated….…”
Another long pause, followed by a moaning sound as the radio voice seemed to crack and stutter momentarily……. And then it continued, very slowly: “The nature of the wounds, police said, left no room for doubt that today’s mutilations were the work of the same fiendish hand responsible for all but two of the 49 previous dog castrations in Coconut Grove this year.
“‘This is definitely the work of Castrato,’ said Senior Dog Warden Lionel Olay at a hastily called press conference late this afternoon. ‘Look at the razor work on this mongrel chow,’ Olay told reporters. ‘These cuts are surgically perfect, and so is this cauterization. This man you call “Castrato” is no amateur, gentlemen. This is very artistic surgery – maybe 50 or 55 seconds from start to finish, assuming he works with a whip-steel straight razor and a 220-volt soldering iron.’
“Olay ended the press conference on a humorous note, urging reporters to ‘work like dogs’ until this case is cracked. ‘And if any of you people own mongrels,’ he added, ‘either keep them out of Coconut Grove or have them put to sleep.’
“Meanwhile,” said the newscaster, “South Miami police have warned all dog owners in the area to be on the lookout for a red pickup truck cruising slowly in residential neighborhoods. The driver, a small but muscular Cuban between 40 and 50 years old, is known to be armed with an extremely dangerous, high-voltage electric weapon called a ‘Taser’ and is also criminally insane.”
Jesus Christ! I’m not sure I can handle this kind of news and frantic stimulus at four o’clock in the morning – especially with a head full of speed, booze and Percodan. It is extremely difficult to concentrate on the cheap realities of Campaign ’76 under these circumstances. The idea of covering even the early stages of this cynical and increasingly retrograde campaign has already plunged me into a condition bordering on terminal despair, and if I thought I might have to stay with these people all the way to November I would change my name and seek work as a professional alligator poacher in the swamps around Lake Okeechobee. My frame of mind is not right for another long and maddening year of total involvement in a presidential campaign …… and somewhere in the back of my brain lurks a growing suspicion that this campaign is not right either; but that is not the kind of judgment any journalist should make at this point. At least not in print.
So for the moment I will try to suspend both the despair and the final judgment. Both will be massively justified in the next few months, I think – and until then I can fall back on the firmly held but rarely quoted conviction of most big-time Washington pols that nobody can function at top form on a full-time basis in more than one presidential campaign. This rule of thumb has never been applied to journalists, to my knowledge, but there is ample evidence to suggest it should be. There is no reason to think that even the best and brightest of journalists, as it were, can repeatedly or even more than once crank themselves up to the level of genuinely fanatical energy, commitment and total concentration it takes to live in the speeding vortex of a presidential campaign from start to finish. There is not enough room on that hell-bound train for anybody who wants to relax and act human now and then. It is a gig for ambitious zealots and terminal action-junkies …… and this is especially true of a campaign like this one, which so far lacks any central, overriding issue like the war in Vietnam that brought so many talented and totally dedicated nonpoliticians into the ’68 and ’72 campaigns.
The issues this time are too varied and far too complex for the instant polarization of a Which Side Are You On? crusade. There will not be many ideologues seriously involved in the ’76 campaign; this one is a technicians’ trip, run by and for politicians.…… Which is not really a hell of a lot different from any other campaign, except that this time it is going to be painfully obvious. This time, on the 200th anniversary of what used to be called “The American Dream,” we are going to have our noses rubbed, day after day – on the tube and in the headlines – in this mess we have made for ourselves.
“Today, wherever in this world I meet a man or woman who fought for Spanish liberty, I meet a kindred soul. In those years we lived our best, and what has come after and what there is to come can never carry us to those heights again.”—from The Education of a Correspondent by Herbert Matthews
My problem with this campaign began not quite two years ago, in May of 1974, when I flew down to Georgia with Teddy Kennedy and ran into Jimmy Carter. The meeting was not so much accidental as inevitable: I knew almost nothing about Carter at the time, and that was all I wanted to know. He was the lame duck governor of Georgia who had nominated “Scoop” Jackson at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, and in the course of that year I had written some ugly things about him.
……. Or at least that’s what he told me when I showed up at the governor’s mansion for breakfast at eight o’clock in the morning. I had been up all night, in the company of serious degenerates …… ah, but let’s not get into that, at least not quite yet. I just reread that Castrato business, and it strikes me that I am probably just one or two twisted tangents away from terminal fusing of the brain circuits.
Yes, the point: my feeling for Southern politicians is not especially warm, even now. Ever since the first cannonballs fell on Fort Sumter in 1861, Southern politics has been dominated by thieves, bigots, warmongers and buffoons. There were governors like Earl Long in Louisiana, “Kissin’ Jim” Folsom in Alabama and Orval Faubus in Arkansas …… and senators like Bilbo and Eastland from Mississippi, Smathers and Gurney from Florida …… and Lyndon Johnson from Texas.
Toward the end of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the governor of Georgia was a white trash dingbat named Lester Maddox – who is still with us, in one crude form or another – and when the curtain finally falls on George Wallace, he will probably go down in history as the Greatest Thief of them all. Wallace was the first Southern politician to understand that there are just as many mean, stupid bigots above the Mason-Dixon Line as there are below it, and when he made the shrewd decision to “go national”‘ in 1968, he created an Alabama-based industry that has since made very rich men of himself and a handful of cronies. For more than a decade, George Wallace has bamboozled the national press and terrified the ranking fixers in both major parties. In 1968, he took enough Democratic votes from Hubert Humphrey to elect Richard Nixon, and if he had bothered to understand the delegate selection process in 1972, he could have prevented McGovern’s nomination and muscled himself into the number two spot on a Humphrey-Wallace ticket.
McGovern could not have survived a second-ballot shortfall in Miami that year, and anybody who thinks the Happy Warrior would not have made that trade with Wallace is a fool. Hubert Humphrey would have traded anything, with anybody, to get the Democratic nomination for himself in 1972 …… and he’ll be ready to trade again, this year, if he sees the slightest chance.
And he does. He saw it on the morning after the New Hampshire primary, when five percent of the vote came in as “uncommitted.” That rotten, truthless old freak was on national TV at the crack of dawn, cackling like a hen full of amyls at the “wonderful news” from New Hampshire. After almost four years of relatively statesmanlike restraint and infrequent TV appearances that showed his gray hair and haggard jowls – four long and frantic years that saw the fall of Richard Nixon, the end of the war in Vietnam and a neo-collapse of the U.S. economy – after all that time and all those sober denials that he would never run for president, all it took to jerk Hubert out of his closet was the news from New Hampshire that five percent of the Democratic voters, less than 4,000 people, in that strange little state had cast their ballots for “uncommitted” delegates.
To Humphrey, who was not even entered in the New Hampshire primary, this meant five percent for him. Never mind that a completely unknown ex-governor of Georgia had won in New Hampshire with more than 30% of the vote; or that liberal Congressman Morris Udall had finished a solid but disappointing second with 24%; or that liberal Senator Birch Bayh ran third with 16%……. None of that mattered to Hubert, because he was privy to various rumors and force-fed press reports that many of the “uncommitted” delegates in New Hampshire were secret Humphrey supporters. There was no way to be sure, of course – but no reason to doubt it, either; at least not in the mushy mind of the Happy Warrior.
His first TV appearance of the ’76 campaign was a nasty shock to me. I had been up all night, tapping the glass and nursing my bets along (I had bet the quinella, taking Carter and Reagan against Udall and Ford) and when the sun came up on Wednesday I was slumped in front of a TV set in an ancient New England farmhouse on a hilltop near a hamlet called Contoocook. I had won early on Carter, but I had to wait for Hughes Rudd and the Morning News to learn that Ford had finally overtaken Reagan. The margin at dawn was less than one percent, but it was enough to blow my quinella and put Reagan back on Cheap Street, where he’s been ever since …… and I was brooding on this unexpected loss, sipping my coffee and tapping the glass once again, when all of a sudden I was smacked right straight in the eyes with the wild-eyed babbling spectacle of Hubert Horatio Humphrey. His hair was bright orange, his cheeks were rouged, his forehead was caked with Mantan, and his mouth was moving so fast that the words poured out in a high-pitched chattering whine …… “O my goodness, my gracious …… isn’t it wonderful? Yes, yes indeed……. O yes, it just goes to show…. I just can’t say enough…….”
No! I thought. This can’t be true! Not now! Not so soon! Here was this monster, this shameful electrified corpse – and raving and flapping his hands at the camera like he’d just been elected president. He looked like three iguanas in a feeding frenzy. I stood up and backed off from the TV set, but the view was no different from the other side of the room. I was seeing The Real Thing, and it stunned me……. Because I knew, in my heart, that he was real: that even with a five percent shadow vote in the year’s first primary, where his name was not on the ballot, and despite Jimmy Carter’s surprising victory and four other nationally known candidates finishing higher than “uncommitted,” that Hubert Humphrey had somehow emerged from the chaos of New Hampshire with yet another new life, and another serious shot at the presidency of the United States.
This was more than a visceral feeling, or some painful flash of dread instinct. It was, in fact, a thing I’d predicted myself, at least six months earlier……. It was a summer night in Washington and I was having dinner at an outdoor restaurant near the Capitol with what the Wall Street Journal later described as “a half-dozen top operatives from the 1972 McGovern campaign.” And at that point there were already three certain candidates for ’76 – Jimmy Carter, Mo Udall and Fred Harris. We had just come from a brief and feisty little session with Carter, and on the way to the restaurant we had run into Udall on the street, so the talk at the table was understandably “deep politics.” Only one person in the group had even a tentative commitment to a candidate in ’76, and after an hour or two of cruel judgments and bitter comment, Alan Baron – McGovern’s press secretary and a prime mover in the “new politics” wing of the Democratic party – proposed a secret ballot to find out which candidate those of us at the table actually believed would be the party nominee in 1976. “Not who we want, or who we like,” Baron stressed, “but who we really think is gonna get it.”
I tore a page out of my notebook and sliced it up to make ballots. We each took one, wrote a name on it, then folded it up and passed the ballots to Baron, a Farouk-like personage with a carnivorous sense of humor and the build of a sumo wrestler.
(Alan and I have not always been friends. He was Muskie’s campaign manager for Florida in ’72, and he has never entirely recovered from his encounter with the Gin-Crazed Boohoo on Big Ed’s “Sunshine Special” …… and even now, after all this time, I will occasionally catch him staring at me with a feral glint in his eyes.)
Indeed, and so much for that – just another bucket of bad blood gone under the bridge, so to speak, and in presidential politics you learn to love the bridges and never look down.
Which gets us back to the vote count, and the leer on Baron’s face when he unfolded the first ballot. “I knew it,” he said. “That’s two already, counting mine… … yeah, here’s another one.” He looked up and laughed. “It’s a landslide for Hubert.”
And it was. The final count was Humphrey 4, Muskie 2 and one vote for Udall from Rick Stearns, who was already involved in the planning and organizing stages of Udall’s campaign. Nobody else at the table was committed to anything except gloom, pessimism and a sort of aggressive neutrality.
So much for the idea of a sequel to Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72. Barring some totally unexpected development, I will leave the dreary task of chronicling this low-rent trip to Teddy White, who is already trapped in a place I don’t want to be.
But there is no way to escape without wallowing deep in the first few primaries and getting a feel, more or less, for the evidence……. And in order to properly depress and degrade myself for the ordeal to come, I decided in early January to resurrect the National Affairs Desk and set up, once again, in the place where I spent so much time in 1972 and then again in 1974. These were the boom-and-bust years of Richard Milhous Nixon, who was criminally insane and also president of the United States for five years.
MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA WITH TED KENNEDY … DEEP, DOWN AND DIRTY; ON THE DARKEST SIDE OF SHAME … THE POLITICS OF MYSTERY AND BLOOD ON THE HANDS OF DEAN RUSK … JIMMY CARTER’S LAW DAY SPEECH, AND WHY IT WAS SHROUDED IN SECRECY BY PERSONS UNKNOWN … DERBY DAY IN THE GOVERNOR’S MANSION AND THE STRANGLING OF THE SLOAT DIAMOND
“If any person shall carnally know in any manner any brute animal, or carnally know any male or female person by the anus or by and with the mouth, or voluntarily submit to such carnal knowledge, he or she shall be guilty of a felony and shall be confined in the penitentiary not less than one year nor more than three years.”—Commonwealth of Virginia Anti-Sodomy Statute, 1792
One of the most difficult problems for a journalist covering a presidential campaign is getting to know the candidates well enough to make confident judgments about them, because it is just about impossible for a journalist to establish a personal relationship with any candidate who has already made the big leap from “long shot” to “serious contender.” The problem becomes more and more serious as the stakes get higher, and by the time a candidate has survived enough primaries to convince himself and his staff that they will all be eating their lunches in the White House Mess for the next four years, he is long past the point of having either the time or the inclination to treat any journalist who doesn’t already know him personally as anything but just another face in the campaign “press corps.”
There are many complex theories about the progressive stages of a presidential campaign, but for the moment let’s say there are three: Stage One is the period between the decision to run for president and the morning after the New Hampshire primary when the field is still crowded, the staff organizations are still loose and relaxed, and most candidates are still hungry for all the help they can get – especially media exposure, so they can get their names in the Gallup Poll; Stage Two is the “winnowing out,” the separating of the sheep from the goats, when the two or three survivors of the early primaries begin looking like long-distance runners with a realistic shot at the party nomination; and Stage Three begins whenever the national media, the public opinion polls and Mayor Daley of Chicago decide that a candidate has picked up enough irreversible momentum to begin looking like at least a probable nominee, and a possible next president.
This three-stage breakdown is not rooted in any special wisdom or scientific analysis, but it fits both the 1972 and 1976 Democratic campaigns well enough to make the point that any journalist who doesn’t get a pretty firm personal fix on a candidate while he’s still in Stage One might just as well go with his or her instincts all the way to Election Day in November, because once a candidate gets to Stage Two his whole lifestyle changes drastically.
At that point he becomes a public figure, a serious contender, and the demands on his time and energy begin escalating to the level of madness. He wakes up every morning to face a split-second, 18-hour-a-day schedule of meetings, airports, speeches, press conferences, motorcades and handshaking. Instead of rambling, off-the-cuff talks over a drink or two with reporters from small-town newspapers, he is suddenly flying all over the country in his own chartered jet full of syndicated columnists and network TV stars……. Cameras and microphones follow him everywhere he goes, and instead of pleading long and earnestly for the support of 15 amateur political activists gathered in some English professor’s living room in Keene, New Hampshire, he is reading the same cliché-riddled speech – often three or four times in a single day – to vast auditoriums full of people who either laugh or applaud at all the wrong times and who may or may not be supporters……. And all the fat cats, labor leaders and big-time pols who couldn’t find the time to return his phone calls when he was desperately looking for help a few months ago are now ringing his phone off the hook within minutes after his arrival in whatever Boston, Miami or Milwaukee hotel his managers have booked him into that night. But they are not calling to offer their help and support, they just want to make sure he understands that they don’t plan to help or support anybody else, until they get to know him a little better.
It is a very mean game that these high-rolling, coldhearted hustlers play. The president of the United States may no longer be “the most powerful man in the world,” but he is still close enough to be sure that nobody else in the world is going to cross him by accident. And anybody who starts looking like he might get his hands on that kind of power had better get comfortable, right from the start, with the certain knowledge that he is going to have to lean on some very mean and merciless people just to get himself elected.
The power of the presidency is so vast that it is probably a good thing, in retrospect, that only a very few people in this country understood the gravity of Richard Nixon’s mental condition during his last year in the White House. There were moments in that year when even his closest friends and advisers were convinced that the president of the United States was so crazy with rage and booze and suicidal despair that he was only two martinis away from losing his grip entirely and suddenly locking himself in his office long enough to make that single telephone call that would have launched enough missiles and bombers to blow the whole world off its axis or at least kill 100 million people.
The sudden, hellish reality of a nuclear war with either Russia or China or both was probably the only thing that could have salvaged Nixon’s presidency after the Supreme Court ruled that he had to yield up the incriminating tapes that he knew would finish him off. Would the action-starved generals at the Strategic Air Command Headquarters have ignored an emergency order from their commander-in-chief? And how long would it have taken Pat Buchanan or General Haig to realize that “The Boss” had finally flipped? Nixon spent so much time alone that nobody else in the White House would have given his absence a second thought until he failed to show up for dinner, and by that time he could have made enough phone calls to start wars all over the world.
A four-star general commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps with three wars and 35 years of fanatical devotion to duty, honor and country in his system would hack off his own feet and eat them rather than refuse to obey a direct order from the president of the United States – even if he thought the president was crazy.
The key to all military thinking is a concept that nobody who ever wore a uniform with even one stripe on it will ever forget: “You don’t salute the man, you salute the uniform.” Once you’ve learned that, you’re a soldier – and soldiers don’t disobey orders from people they have to salute. If Nixon’s tortured mind had bent far enough to let him think he could save himself by ordering a full-bore Marine/Airborne invasion of Cuba, he would not have given the Boom-Boom order to some closet-pacifist general who might be inclined to delay the invasion long enough to call Henry Kissinger for official reassurance that the president was not insane.
No West Pointer with four stars on his hat would take that kind of risk anyway. By the time word got back to the White House, or to Kissinger, that Nixon had given the order to invade Cuba, the whole Caribbean would be a sea of fire; Fidel Castro would be in a submarine on his way to Russia, and the sky above the Atlantic would be streaked from one horizon to the other with the vapor trails of a hundred panic-launched missiles.
Right. But it was mainly a matter of luck that Nixon’s mental disintegration was so obvious and so crippling that by the time he came face to face with his final option, he was no longer able to even recognize it. When the going got tough, the politician who worshiped toughness above all else turned into a whimpering, gin-soaked vegetable……. But it is still worth wondering how long it would have taken Haig and Kissinger to convince all those SAC generals out in Omaha to disregard a Doomsday phone call from the president of the United States because a handful of civilians in the White House said he was crazy.
Ah …… but we are wandering off into wild speculation again, so let’s chop it off right here. We were talking about the vast powers of the presidency and all the treacherous currents surrounding it….… Not to mention all the riptides, ambushes, Judas goats, fools and ruthless, dehumanized thugs that will sooner or later have to be dealt with by any presidential candidate who still feels strong on his feet when he comes to that magic moment for the leap from Stage Two to Stage Three.
But there will be plenty of time for that later on. And plenty of other journalists to write about it….… But not me. The most active and interesting phase of a presidential campaign is Stage One, which is as totally different from the Sturm und Drang of Stage Three as a guerrilla-style war among six or eight Gypsy nations is totally different from the bloody, hunkered down trench warfare that paralyzed and destroyed half of Europe during World War 1.
Athens, Ala. (AP)—Iladean Tribble, who had said she would marry entertainer Elvis Presley on Saturday, confirmed Sunday that the ceremony did not take place. Mrs. Tribble, a 42-year-old widow with four children, was asked in a telephone interview why the wedding did not take place. She replied: “This is the Sabbath day and I don’t talk about things like this on the Lord’s day.”
Well… … that’s fair enough, I guess. Jimmy Carter has said that he won’t talk about his foreign policy until the day he delivers his inaugural address. Everybody has a right to their own quirks and personal convictions – as long as they don’t try to lay them on me – but just for the pure, meanspirited hell of it, I am going to call Iladean Tribble when the sun comes up in about three hours and ask her the same question the AP reporter insulted her faith by asking on the Sabbath.
By Mrs. Tribble’s own logic, I should get a perfectly straight answer from her on Tuesday, which according to my calendar is not a religious holiday of any kind……. So in just a few hours I should have the answer, from Iladean herself, to the question regarding her mysterious nonmarriage to Elvis Presley.
And after I talk to Iladean, I am going to call my old friend, Pat Caddell, who is Jimmy Carter’s pollster and one of the two or three main wizards in Carter’s brain trust, and we will have another one of our daily philosophical chats…….
When I read Mrs. Tribble’s quote to Pat earlier tonight, in the course of a more or less bare-knuckled telephone talk, he said he didn’t know any woman named Iladean in Athens, Alabama – and besides that he didn’t see any connection between her and the main topic of our conversation tonight, which was Jimmy Carter – who is always the main topic when I talk to Caddell, and we’ve been talking, arguing, plotting, haggling and generally whipping on each other almost constantly, ever since this third-rate, low-rent campaign circus hit the public roads about four months ago.
That was before Pat went to work for Jimmy, but long after I’d been cited in about 33 dozen journals all over the country as one of Carter’s earliest and most fervent supporters. Everywhere I went for at least the past year, from Los Angeles to Austin, Nashville, Washington, Boston, Chicago and Key West, I’ve been publicly hammered by friends and strangers alike for saying that I “like Jimmy Carter.” I have been jeered by large crowds for saying this; I have been mocked in print by liberal pundits and other Gucci people; I have been called a brain-damaged geek by some of my best and oldest friends; my own wife threw a knife at me on the night of the Wisconsin primary when the midnight radio stunned us both with a news bulletin from a CBS station in Los Angeles, saying that earlier announcements by NBC and ABC regarding Mo Udall’s narrow victory over Carter in Wisconsin were not true, and that late returns from the rural districts were running so heavily in Carter’s favor that CBS was now calling him the winner.
Sandy likes Mo Udall; and so do I, for that matter……. I also like Jerry Jeff Walker, the Scofflaw King of New Orleans and a lot of other people I don’t necessarily believe should be president of the United States. The immense concentration of power in that office is just too goddamn heavy for anybody with good sense to turn his back on. Or her back. Or its back…. At least not as long as whatever lives in the White House has the power to fill vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court; because anybody with that kind of power can use it – like Nixon did – to pack-crowd the Court of Final Appeal in this country with the same kind of lame, vindictive yo-yos who recently voted to sustain the commonwealth of Virginia’s antisodomy statutes……. And anybody who thinks that 6-3 vote against “sodomy” is some kind of abstract legal gibberish that doesn’t really affect them had better hope they never get busted for anything the Bible or any local vice-squad cop calls an “unnatural sex act.” Because “unnatural” is defined by the laws of almost every state in the Union as anything but a quick and dutiful hump in the classic missionary position, for purposes of procreation only. Anything else is a felony crime, and people who commit felony crimes go to prison.
Which won’t make much difference to me. I took that fatal dive off the straight and narrow path so long ago that I can’t remember when I first became a felon – but I have been one ever since, and it’s way too late to change now. In the eyes of The Law, my whole life has been one long and sinful felony. I have sinned repeatedly, as often as possible, and just as soon as I can get away from this goddamn Calvinist typewriter I am going to get right after it again……. God knows, I hate it, but I can’t help myself after all these criminal years. Like Waylon Jennings says, “The devil made me do it the first time. The second time, I done it on my own.”**
Right. And the third time, I did it because of brain damage……. And after that: well, I figured that anybody who was already doomed to a life of crime and sin might as well learn to love it.
Anything worth all that risk and energy almost has to be beyond the reach of any kind of redemption except the power of Pure Love… … and this flash of twisted wisdom brings us back, strangely enough, to politics, Pat Caddell, and the 1976 presidential campaign……. And, not incidentally, to the fact that any Journal on any side of Wall Street that ever quoted me as saying “I like Jimmy Carter” was absolutely accurate. I have said it many times, to many people, and I will keep on saying it until Jimmy Carter gives me some good reason to change my mind – which might happen about two minutes after he finishes reading this article: But I doubt it.
I have known Carter for more than two years and I have probably spent more private, human time with him than any other journalist on the ’76 campaign trail. The first time I met him – at about eight o’clock on a Saturday morning in 1974 at the back door of the governor’s mansion in Atlanta – I was about two degrees on the safe side of berserk, raving and babbling at Carter and his whole bemused family about some hostile bastard wearing a Georgia State Police uniform who had tried to prevent me from coming through the gate at the foot of the long, tree-shaded driveway leading up to the mansion.
I had been up all night, in the company of serious degenerates, and when I rolled up to the gatehouse in the back seat of a taxi I’d hailed in downtown Atlanta, the trooper was not amused by the sight and sound of my presence. I was trying to act calm but after about 30 seconds I realized it wasn’t working; the look on his face told me I was not getting through to the man. He stared at me, saying nothing, while I explained from my crouch in the back seat of the cab that I was late for breakfast with “the governor and Ted Kennedy”…. Then he suddenly stiffened and began shouting at the cabdriver: “What kind of dumb shit are you trying to pull, buddy? Don’t you know where you are?”
Before the cabbie could answer, the trooper smacked the flat of his hand down on the hood so hard that the whole cab rattled. “You! Shut this engine!” Then he pointed at me: “You! Out of the cab. Let’s see some identification.” He reached out for my wallet and motioned for me to follow him into the gatehouse. The cabbie started to follow, but the trooper waved him back. “Stay right where you are, good buddy. I’ll get to you.” The look on my driver’s face said we were both going to jail and it was my fault. “It wasn’t my idea to come out here,” he whined. “This guy told me he was invited for breakfast with the governor.”
The trooper was looking at the press cards in my wallet. I was already pouring sweat, and just as he looked over at me I realized I was holding a can of beer in my hand. “You always bring your own beer when you have breakfast with the governor?” he asked.
I shrugged and dropped it in a nearby wastebasket.
“You!” he shouted. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The scene went on for another 20 minutes. There were many phone calls, a lot of yelling, and finally the trooper reached somebody in the mansion who agreed to locate Senator Kennedy and ask if he knew “some guy name of Thompson, I got him down here, he’s all beered up and wants to come up there for breakfast…….”
Jesus, I thought, that’s all Kennedy needs to hear. Right in the middle of breakfast with the governor of Georgia, some nervous old darky shuffles in from the kitchen to announce that the trooper down at the gatehouse is holding some drunkard who says he’s a friend of Senator Kennedy’s and he wants to come in and have breakfast… …
Which was, in fact, a lie. I had not been invited for breakfast with the governor, and up to that point I had done everything in my power to avoid it. Breakfast is the only meal of the day that I tend to view with the same kind of traditionalized reverence that most people associate with Lunch and Dinner.
I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon; anybody with a terminally jangled lifestyle needs at least one psychic anchor every 24 hours, and mine is breakfast. In Hong Kong, Dallas or at home – and regardless of whether or not I have been to bed – breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess. The food factor should always be massive: four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon or corned beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert……. Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next 24 hours, and at least one source of good music….… All of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.
It is not going to be easy for those poor bastards out in San Francisco who have been waiting all day in a condition of extreme fear and anxiety for my long and finely reasoned analysis of “The Meaning of Jimmy Carter” to come roaring out of my faithful mojo wire and across 2,000 miles of telephone line to understand why I am sitting here in a Texas motel full of hookers and writing at length on The Meaning of Breakfast……. But like almost everything else worth understanding, the explanation for this is deceptively quick and basic.
After more than ten years of trying to deal with politics and politicians in a professional manner, I have finally come to the harsh understanding that there is no way at all – not even for a doctor of chemotherapy with total access to the whole spectrum of legal and illegal drugs, the physical constitution of a mule shark and a brain as rare and sharp and original as the Sloat diamond – to function as a political journalist without abandoning the whole concept of a decent breakfast. I have worked like 12 bastards for more than a decade to be able to have it both ways, but the conflict is too basic and too deeply rooted in the nature of both politics and breakfast to ever be reconciled. It is one of those very few Great Forks in The Road of Life that cannot be avoided: like a Jesuit priest who is also a practicing nudist with a $200-a-day smack habit wanting to be the first Naked Pope (or Pope Naked the First, if we want to use the language of the church)….… Or a vegetarian pacifist with a .44 magnum fetish who wants to run for president without giving up his membership in the National Rifle Association or his New York City pistol permit that allows him to wear twin six-guns on Meet the Press, Face the Nation and all of his press conferences.
There are some combinations that nobody can handle: shooting bats on the wing with a double-barreled .410 and a head full of jimson weed is one of them, and another is the idea that it is possible for a freelance writer with at least four close friends named Jones to cover a hopelessly scrambled presidential campaign better than any six-man team of career political journalists on the New York Times or the Washington Post and still eat a three-hour breakfast in the sun every morning.
But I had not made the final decision on that morning when I rolled up to the gatehouse of the governor’s mansion in Atlanta to have breakfast with Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. My reason for being there at that hour was simply to get my professional schedule back in phase with Kennedy’s political obligations for that day. He was scheduled to address a crowd of establishment heavies who would convene at the University of Georgia Law School at 10:30 in the morning to officially witness the unveiling of a huge and prestigious oil portrait of former secretary of state Dean Rusk, and his tentative schedule for Saturday called for him to leave the governor’s mansion after breakfast and make the 60-mile trip to Athens by means of the governor’s official airplane….… So in order to hook up with Kennedy and make the trip with him, I had no choice but to meet him for breakfast at the mansion, where he had spent the previous night at Carter’s invitation.
Oddly enough, I had also been invited to spend Friday night in a bedroom at the governor’s mansion. I had come down from Washington with Kennedy on Friday afternoon, and since I was the only journalist traveling with him that weekend, Governor Carter had seen fit to include me when he invited “the Kennedy party” to overnight at the mansion instead of a downtown hotel.
But I am rarely in the right frame of mind to spend the night in the house of a politician – at least not if I can spend it anywhere else, and on the previous night I figured I would be a lot happier in a room at the Regency Hyatt House than I would in the Georgia governor’s mansion. Which may or may not have been true, but regardless of all that, I still had to be at the mansion for breakfast if I wanted to get any work done that weekend, and my work was to stay with Ted Kennedy.
The scene at the gate had unhinged me so thoroughly that I couldn’t find the door I’d been told to knock on when I finally got out of my cab at the mansion …… and by the time I finally got inside I was in no shape at all to deal with Jimmy Carter and his whole family. I didn’t even recognize Carter when he met me at the door. All I knew was that a middle-aged man wearing Levi’s was taking me into the dining room, where I insisted on sitting down for a while, until the tremors passed.
One of the first things I noticed about Carter, after I’d calmed down a bit, was the relaxed and confident way he handled himself with Ted Kennedy. The contrast between the two was so stark that I am still surprised whenever I hear somebody talking about the “eerie resemblance” between Carter and John F. Kennedy. I have never noticed it, except every once in a while in some carefully staged photograph – and if there was ever a time when it seems like any such resemblance should have been impossible to miss, it was that morning in Atlanta when I walked into the dining room and saw Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy sitting about six feet apart at the same table.
Kennedy, whose presence usually dominates any room he walks into, was sitting there looking stiff and vaguely uncomfortable in his dark blue suit and black shoes. He glanced up as I entered and smiled faintly, then went back to staring at a portrait on the wall on the other side of the room. Paul Kirk, his executive wizard, was sitting next to him, wearing the same blue suit and black shoes – and Jimmy King, his executive advance man, was off in a distant corner yelling into a telephone. There were about 15 other people in the room, most of them laughing and talking, and it took me a while to notice that nobody was talking to Kennedy – which is a very rare thing to see, particularly in any situation involving other politicians or even politically conscious people.
Kennedy was obviously not in a very gregarious mood that morning, and I didn’t learn why until an hour or so later when I found myself in one of the Secret Service cars with King, Kirk and Kennedy, running at top speed on the highway to Athens. The mood in the car was ugly. Kennedy was yelling at the SS driver for missing a turnoff that meant we’d be late for the unveiling. When we finally got there and I had a chance to talk privately with Jimmy King, he said Carter had waited until the last minute – just before I got to the mansion – to advise Kennedy that a sudden change in his own plans made it impossible for him to lend Teddy his plane for the trip to Athens. That was the reason for the tension I half-noticed when I got to the mansion. King had been forced to get on the phone immediately and locate the Secret Service detail and get two cars out to the mansion immediately. By the time they arrived it was obvious that we would not get to Athens in time for the unveiling of Rusk’s portrait – which was fine with me, but Kennedy was scheduled to speak and he was very unhappy.
I refused to participate in any ceremony honoring a warmonger like Rusk, so I told King I would look around on the edge of the campus for a bar, and then meet them for lunch at the cafeteria for the Law Day luncheon…. He was happy enough to see me go, because in the space of three or four minutes I had insulted a half-dozen people. There was a beer parlor about ten minutes away, and I stayed there in relative peace until it was time for the luncheon.
There was no way to miss the campus cafeteria. There was a curious crowd of about 200 students waiting to catch a glimpse of Ted Kennedy, who was signing autographs and moving slowly up the concrete steps toward the door as I approached. Jimmy King saw me coming and waited by the door. “Well, you missed the unveiling,” he said with a smile. “You feel better?”
“Not much,” I replied. “They should have run the bloodthirsty bastard up a flagpole by his heels.”
King started to smile again, but his mouth suddenly froze and I looked to my right just in time to see Dean Rusk’s swollen face about 18 inches away from my own. King reached out to shake his hand. “Congratulations, sir,” he said. “We’re all very proud of you.”
“Balls,” I muttered.
After Rusk had gone inside, King stared at me and shook his head sadly. “Why can’t you give the old man some peace?” he said. “He’s harmless now. Jesus, you’ll get us in trouble yet.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “He’s deaf as a rock.”
“Maybe so,” King replied. “But some of those people with him can hear okay. One of the women over there at the ceremony asked me who you were and I said you were an undercover agent, but she was still pissed off about what you said. ‘You should have Senator Kennedy teach him some manners,’ she told me. ‘Not even a government agent should be allowed to talk like that in public.'”
“Like what?” I said. “That stuff about the blood on his hands?”
King laughed. “Yeah, that really jolted her. Jesus, Hunter, you gotta remember, these are genteel people.” He nodded solemnly. “And this is their turf. Dean Rusk is a goddamn national hero down here. What are his friends supposed to think when the senator comes down from Washington to deliver the eulogy at the unveiling of Rusk’s portrait, and he brings some guy with him who starts asking people why the artist didn’t paint any blood on the hands?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Just tell ’em it’s part of my deep cover. Hell, nobody connects me with Kennedy anyway. I’ve been careful to stay a safe distance away from you bastards. You think I want to be seen at a ceremony honoring Dean Rusk?”
“Don’t kid yourself,” he said as we walked inside. “They know you’re with us. You wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. This is a very exclusive gathering, my boy. We’re the only ones on the guest list without some kind of very serious title: they’re all either judges or state senators or the Right Honorable this, the Right Honorable that… …”
I looked around the room, and indeed there was no mistaking the nature of the crowd. This was not just a bunch of good of boys who all happened to be alumni of the University of Georgia Law School; these were the honored alumni, the ranking 150 or so who had earned, stolen or inherited enough distinction to be culled from the lists and invited to the unveiling of Rusk’s portrait, followed by a luncheon with Senator Kennedy, Governor Carter, Judge Crater and numerous other hyper-distinguished guests whose names I forget……. And Jimmy King was right: this was not a natural habitat for anybody wearing dirty white basketball shoes, no tie and nothing except Rolling Stone to follow his name on the guest list in that space reserved for titles. If it had been a gathering of distinguished alumni from the University of Georgia Medical School, the title space on the guest list would have been in front of the names, and I would have fit right in. Hell, I could even have joined a few conversations and nobody would have given a second thought to any talk about “blood on the hands.”
Right. But this was law day in Georgia, and I was the only Doctor in the room….… So I had to be passed off as some kind of undercover agent, traveling for unknown reasons with Senator Kennedy. Not even the Secret Service agents understand my role in the entourage. All they knew was that I had walked off the plane from Washington with Teddy, and I had been with them ever since. Nobody gets introduced to a Secret Service agent; they are expected to know who everybody is – and if they don’t know, they act like they do and hope for the best.
It is not my wont to take undue advantage of the Secret Service. We have gone through some heavy times together, as it were, and ever since I wandered into a room in the Biltmore Hotel in New York one night during the 1972 campaign and found three SS agents smoking a joint. I have felt pretty much at ease around them……. So it seemed only natural, down in Georgia, to ask one of the four agents in our detail for the keys to the trunk of his car so I could lock my leather satchel in a safe place, instead of carrying it around with me.
Actually, the agent had put the bag in the trunk on his own, rather than give me the key……. But when I sat down at our table in the cafeteria and saw that the only available beverage was iced tea, I remembered that one of the things in my satchel was a quart of Wild Turkey, and I wanted it. On the table in front of me – and everyone else – was a tall glass of iced tea that looked to be the same color as bourbon. Each glass had a split slice of lemon on its rim: so I removed the lemon, poured the tea into Paul Kirk’s water glass, and asked one of the agents at the next table for the key to the trunk. He hesitated for a moment, but one of the law school deans or maybe Judge Crater was already talking into the mike up there at the speakers’ table, so the path of least disturbance was to give me the key, which he did…. …
And I thought nothing of it until I got outside and opened the trunk…. …
If your life ever gets dull, check out the trunk of the next SS car you happen to see. You won’t need a key; they open just as easily as any other trunk when a six-foot whip-steel is properly applied……. But open the bugger carefully, because those gentlemen keep about 69 varieties of instant death inside. Jesus, I was literally staggered by the mass of weaponry in the back of that car: there were machine guns, gas masks, hand grenades, cartridge belts, tear gas canisters, ammo boxes, bulletproof vests, chains, saws and probably a lot of other things……. But all of a sudden I realized that two passing students had stopped right next to me on the sidewalk and I heard one of them say, “God almighty! Look at that stuff!”
So I quickly filled my glass with Wild Turkey, put the bottle back in the trunk and slammed it shut just like you’d slam any other trunk … and that was when I turned around to see Jimmy Carter coming at me with his head down, his teeth bared and his eyes so wildly dilated that he looked like a springtime bat…….
What? No. That was later in the day, on my third or fourth trip to the trunk with the iced-tea glass. I have been sitting here in a frozen, bewildered stupor for 50 or 55 minutes trying to figure out where that last image came from. My memories of that day are extremely vivid, for the most part, and the more I think back on it now, the more certain I am that whatever I might have seen coming at me in that kind of bent-over, fast-swooping style of the springtime bat was not Governor Carter. Probably it was a hunchbacked student on his way to final exams in the school of landscaping, or maybe just trying to walk fast and tie his shoes at the same time….… Or it could have been nothing at all; there is no mention in my notebook about anything trying to sneak up on me in a high-speed crouch while I was standing out there in the street.
According to my notes, in fact, Jimmy Carter had arrived at the cafeteria not long after Kennedy – and if he attracted any attention from the crowd that had come to see Teddy I would probably have noticed it and made at least a small note to emphasize the contrast in style – something like: “12:09, Carter suddenly appears in slow-moving crowd behind TK. No autographs, no bodyguards & now a blue plastic suit instead of Levi’s///No recognition, no greetings, just a small sandy-haired man looking for somebody to shake hands with…….”
That is the kind of note I would have made if I’d noticed his arrival at all, which I didn’t. Because it was not until around ten o’clock on the night of the New Hampshire primary, almost two years later, that there was any real reason for a journalist to make a note on the time and style of Jimmy Carter’s arrival for any occasion at all, and especially not in a crowd that had come to rub shoulders with big-time heavies like Ted Kennedy and Dean Rusk. He is not an imposing figure in any way: and even now, with his face on every TV screen in the country at least five nights a week, I’d be tempted to bet $100 to anybody else’s $500 that Jimmy Carter could walk – by himself and in a normal noonday crowd – from one end of Chicago’s huge O’Hare Airport to the other, without being recognized by anybody…….
Or at least not by anybody who had never met him personally, or who had not seen him anywhere except on TV. Because there is nothing about Carter that would make him any more noticeable than anyone else you might pass in one of those long and crowded corridors in O’Hare. He could pass for a Fuller Brush man on any street in America……. But if Jimmy Carter had decided, 15 years ago, to sign on as a brush and gimcrack salesman for the Fuller people, he would be president of the Fuller Brush Company today and every medicine chest in the country would be loaded with Carter-Fuller brushes……. And if he had gone into the heroin business, every respectable household between Long Island and Los Angeles would have at least one resident junkie.
Ah…. but that is not what we need to be talking about right now, is it?
The only thing I remember about the first hour or so of that luncheon was a powerful sense of depression with the life I was drifting into. According to the program, we were in for a long run of speeches, remarks, comments, etc., on matters connected with the law school. Carter and Kennedy were the last two names on the list of speakers, which meant there was no hope of leaving early. I thought about going back to the beer parlor and watching a baseball game on TV, but King warned me against it. “We don’t know how long this goddamn thing is gonna last,” he said, “and that’s a hell of a long walk from here, isn’t it?”
I knew what he was getting at. Just as soon as the program was over, the SS caravan would rush us out to the Athens airport, where Carter’s plane was waiting to fly us back to Atlanta. Another big dinner banquet was scheduled for 6:30 that night, and immediately after that, a long flight back to Washington. Nobody would miss me if I wanted to go to the beer parlor, King said; but nobody would miss me when the time came to leave for the airport, either.
One of the constant nightmares of traveling with politicians is the need to keep them in sight at all times. Every presidential campaign has its own fearful litany of horror stories about reporters – and, occasionally, even a key staff member – who thought they had plenty of time to “run across the street for a quick beer” instead of hanging around in the rear of some grim auditorium half-listening to the drone of a long-familiar speech, only to come back in 20 minutes to find the auditorium empty and no sign of the press bus, the candidate or anybody who can tell him where they went. These stories are invariably set in places like Butte, Buffalo or Icepick, Minnesota, on a night in the middle of March. The temperature is always below zero, there is usually a raging blizzard to keep cabs off the street, and just as the victim remembers that he has left his wallet in his overcoat on the press bus, his stomach erupts with a sudden attack of ptomaine poisoning. And then, while crawling around on his knees in some ice-covered alley and racked with fits of projectile vomiting, he is grabbed by vicious cops and whipped on the shins with a night stick, then locked in the drunk tank of the local jail and buggered all night by winos.
These stories abound, and there is just enough truth in them to make most campaign journalists so fearful of a sudden change in the schedule that they will not even go looking for a bathroom until the pain becomes unendurable and at least three reliable people have promised to fetch them back to the fold at the first sign of any movement that could signal an early departure. The closest I ever came to getting left behind was during the California primary in 1972, when I emerged from a bathroom in the Salinas railroad depot and realized that the caboose car of McGovern’s “victory train” was about 100 yards further down the tracks than it had been only three minutes earlier. George was still standing outside on the platform, waving to the crowd, but the train was moving – and as I started my sprint through the crowd, running over women, children, cripples and anything else that couldn’t get out of my way, I thought I saw a big grin on McGovern’s face as the train began picking up speed….… I am still amazed that I caught up with the goddamn thing without blowing every valve in my heart, or even missing the iron ladder when I made my last-second leap and being swept under the train and chopped in half by the wheels.
Ever since then I have not been inclined to take many risks while traveling in strange territory with politicians. Even the very few who might feel a bit guilty about leaving me behind would have to do it anyway, because they are all enslaved by their schedules, and when it comes to a choice between getting to the airport on time or waiting for a journalist who has wandered off to seek booze, they will shrug and race off to the airport.
This is particularly true when you travel with Kennedy, who moves at all times with a speedy, split-second precision on a schedule that nobody except a perfectly organized presidential candidate would even try to keep pace with. When he is traveling with a detail of Secret Service agents, the caravan stops for nothing and waits for nobody……. The SS agents assigned to Kennedy are hypersensitive about anything that might jack up the risk factor, and they move on the theory that safety increases with speed.
There was no need for King and Kirk to warn me that the SS detail would have a collective nervous breakdown at the prospect of taking Senator Kennedy and the governor of Georgia through the streets of downtown Athens – or any other city, for that matter – to search for some notoriously criminal journalist who might be in any one of the half-dozen bars and beer parlors on the edge of the campus.
So there was nothing to do except sit there in the university cafeteria, slumped in my chair at a table right next to Dean Rusk’s, and drink one tall glass after another of straight Wild Turkey until the Law Day luncheon ceremonies were finished. After my third trip out to the trunk, the SS driver apparently decided that it was easier to just let me keep the car keys instead of causing a disturbance every 15 or 20 minutes by passing them back and forth……. Which made a certain kind of fatalistic sense, because I’d already had plenty of time to do just about anything I wanted to with the savage contents of his trunk, so why start worrying now? We had, after all, been together for the better part of two days, and the agents were beginning to understand that there was no need to reach for their weapons every time I started talking about the blood on Dean Rusk’s hands, or how easily I could reach over and cut off his ears with my steak knife. Most Secret Service agents have led a sheltered life, and they tend to get edgy when they hear that kind of talk from a large stranger in their midst who has managed to stash an apparently endless supply of powerful whiskey right in the middle of their trunk arsenal. That is not one of your normal, everyday situations in the SS life; and especially not when this drunkard who keeps talking about taking a steak knife to the head of a former secretary of state has a red flag on his file in the Washington SS headquarters in addition to having the keys to the SS car in his pocket.
Carter was already speaking when I came back from my fourth or fifth trip out to the car. I had been careful all along to keep the slice of lemon on the rim of the glass, so it looked like all the other iced-tea glasses in the room. But Jimmy King was beginning to get nervous about the smell. “Goddamnit Hunter, this whole end of the room smells like a distillery,” he said.
“Balls,” I said. “That’s blood you’re smelling.”
King winced and I thought I saw Rusk’s head start to swing around on me, but apparently he thought better of it. For at least two hours he’d been hearing all this ugly talk about blood coming over his shoulder from what he knew was “the Kennedy table” right behind him. But why would a group of Secret Service agents and Senator Kennedy’s personal staff be talking about him like that? And why was this powerful stench of whiskey hanging around his head? Were they all drunk?
Not all – but I was rapidly closing the gap and the others had been subjected to the fumes for so long that I could tell by the sound of their laughter that even the SS agents were acting a little weird. Maybe it was a contact drunk of some kind, acting in combination with the fumes and fiendish drone of the speeches. We were trapped in that place, and nobody else at the table liked it any better than I did.
I am still not sure when I began listening to what Carter was saying, but at some point about ten minutes into his remarks I noticed a marked difference in the style and tone of the noise coming from the speakers’ table and I found myself listening, for the first time all day. Carter had started off with a few quiet jokes about people feeling honored to pay ten or twelve dollars a head to hear Kennedy speak, but the only way he could get people to listen to him was to toss in a free lunch along with his remarks. The audience laughed politely a few times, but after he’d been talking for about 15 minutes I noticed a general uneasiness in the atmosphere of the room, and nobody was laughing anymore. At that point we were all still under the impression that Carter’s “remarks” would consist of a few minutes of friendly talk about the law school, a bit of praise for Rusk, an introduction for Kennedy, and that would be it…. …
But we were wrong, and the tension in the room kept increasing as more and more people realized it. Very few if any of them had supported Carter when he won the governorship, and now that he was just about finished with his four-year term and barred by law from running again, they expected him to bow out gracefully and go back to raising peanuts. If he had chosen that occasion to announce that he’d decided to run for president in 1976, the reaction would almost certainly have been a ripple of polite laughter, because they would know he was kidding. Carter had not been a bad governor, but so what? We were, after all, in Georgia; and, besides that, the South already had one governor running for president……. Back in the spring of 1974 George Wallace was a national power; he had rattled the hell out of that big cage called the Democratic National Committee in ’72, and when he said he planned to do it again in ’76 he was taken very seriously.
So I would probably have chuckled along with the others if Carter had said something about running for president at the beginning of his “remarks” that day, but I would not have chuckled if he’d said it at the end…. …Because it was a king hell bastard of a speech, and by the time it was over he had rung every bell in the room. Nobody seemed to know exactly what to make of it, but they knew it was sure as hell not what they’d come there to hear.
I have heard hundreds of speeches by all kinds of candidates and politicians – usually against my will and for generally the same reasons I got trapped into hearing this one – but I have never heard a sustained piece of political oratory that impressed me any more than the speech Jimmy Carter made on that Saturday afternoon in May 1974. It ran about 45 minutes, climbing through five very distinct gear changes while the audience muttered uneasily and raised their eyebrows at each other, and one of the most remarkable things about the speech is that it is such a rare piece of oratorical artwork that it remains vastly impressive, even if you don’t necessarily believe Carter was sincere and truthful in all the things he said. Viewed purely in the context of rhetorical drama and political theater, it ranks with General Douglas MacArthur’s “old soldiers never die” address to the Congress in 1951 – which still stands as a masterpiece of insane bullshit, if nothing else.
There were, however, a lot of people who believed every word and sigh of MacArthur’s speech, and they wanted to make him president – just as a lot of people who are still uncertain about Jimmy Carter would want to make him president if he could figure out some way to deliver a contemporary version of his 1974 Law Day speech on network TV……. Or, hell, even the same identical speech; a national audience might be slightly puzzled by some of the references to obscure judges, grade-school teachers and backwoods Georgia courthouses, but I think the totality of the speech would have the same impact today as it did two years ago.
But there is not much chance of it happening….… And that brings up another remarkable aspect of the Law Day speech: it had virtually no impact at all when he delivered it, except on the people who heard it, and most of them were more stunned and puzzled by it than impressed. They had not come there to hear lawyers denounced as running dogs of the status quo, and there is still some question in my own mind – and in Carter’s too, I suspect – about what he came there to say. There was no written text of the speech, no press to report it, no audience hungry to hear it, and no real reason for giving it – except that Jimmy Carter had a few serious things on his mind that day, and he figured it was about time to unload them, whether the audience liked it or not….
Which gets to another interesting point of the speech: although Carter himself now says, “That was probably the best speech I ever made,” he has yet to make another one like it – not even to the extent of lifting some of the best images and ideas for incorporation into his current speeches – and his campaign staff attached so little importance to it that Carter’s only tape recording of his Law Day remarks got lost somewhere in the files and, until about two months ago, the only existing tape of the speech was the one I’d had copied off the original, before it was lost. I’ve been carrying the bastard around with me for two years, playing it in some extremely unlikely situations for people who would look at me like I was finally over the hump into terminal brain damage when I’d say they were going to have to spend the next 45 minutes listening to a political speech by some ex-governor of Georgia.
It was not until I showed up in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for the ’76 primaries and started playing my tape of the Law Day speech for a few friends, journalists and even some of Carter’s top staff people who’d never heard it that Pat Caddell noticed that almost everybody who heard the speech was as impressed by it as I was…. But even now, after Caddell arranged to dub 50 tape copies off of my copy, nobody in Carter’s brain trust has figured out what to do with them.
I am not quite sure what I would do with them, myself, if I were Carter, because it is entirely possible that the very qualities that made the Law Day speech so impressive for me would have exactly the opposite effect on Carter’s new national constituency. The voice I hear on my tape is the same one all those good conservative folk out there on the campaign trail have found so appealing, but very few of them would find anything familiar in what the voice is saying. The Jimmy Carter who has waltzed so triumphantly down the middle of the road through one Democratic primary after another is a cautious, conservative and vaguely ethereal Baptist Sunday school teacher who seems to promise, above all else, a return to normalcy, a resurrection of the national self-esteem, and a painless redemption from all the horrors and disillusion of Watergate. With President Carter’s firm hand on the helm, the ship of state will once again sail a true and steady course, all the crooks and liars and thieves who somehow got control of the government during the turmoil of the Sixties will be driven out of the temple once and for all, and the White House will be so overflowing with honesty, decency, justice, love and compassion that it might even glow in the dark.
It is a very alluring vision, and nobody understands this better than Jimmy Carter. The electorate feels a need to be cleansed, reassured and revitalized. The underdogs of yesteryear have had their day, and they blew it. The radicals and reformers of the Sixties promised peace, but they turned out to be nothing but incompetent troublemakers. Their plans that had looked so fine on paper led to chaos and disaster when hack politicians tried to implement them. The promise of Civil Rights turned into the nightmare of busing. The call for law and order led straight to Watergate. And the long struggle between the Hawks and the Doves caused violence in the streets and a military disaster in Vietnam. Nobody won, in the end, and when the dust finally settled, “extremists” at both ends of the political spectrum were thoroughly discredited. And by the time the 1976 presidential campaign got under way, the high ground was all in the middle of the road.
Jimmy Carter understands this, and he has tailored his campaign image to fit the new mood almost perfectly…. But back in May of ’74 when he flew up to Athens to make his “remarks” at the Law Day ceremonies, he was not as concerned with preserving his moderate image as he is now. He was thinking more about all the trouble he’d had with judges, lawyers, lobbyists and other minions of the Georgia establishment while he was governor – and now, with only six more months in the office, he wanted to have a few words with these people.
There was not much anger in his voice when he started talking, but halfway through the speech it was too obvious for anybody in the room to ignore. But there was no way to cut him short, and he knew it. It was the anger in his voice that first caught my attention, I think, but what sent me back out to the trunk to get my tape recorder instead of another drink was the spectacle of a Southern politician telling a crowd of Southern judges and lawyers that “I’m not qualified to talk to you about law, because in addition to being a peanut farmer, I’m an engineer and nuclear physicist, not a lawyer….… But I read a lot and I listen a lot. One of the sources for my understanding about the proper application of criminal justice and the system of equities is from Reinhold Niebuhr. The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. Listening to his records about ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.”
At first I wasn’t sure I was hearing him right and I looked over at Jimmy King. “What the hell did I just hear?” I asked.
King smiled and looked at Paul Kirk, who leaned across the table and whispered, “He said his top two advisers are Bob Dylan and Reinhold Niebuhr.”
I nodded and got up to go outside for my tape recorder. I could tell by the rising anger in Carter’s voice that we were in for an interesting ride…. And by the time I got back he was whipping on the crowd about judges who took bribes in return for reduced prison sentences, lawyers who deliberately cheated illiterate blacks, and cops who abused people’s rights with something they called a “consent warrant.”
“I had lunch this week with the members of the Judicial Selection Committee and they were talking about a ‘consent search warrant,'” he said. “I didn’t know what a consent search warrant was. They said, ‘Well, that’s when two policemen go to a house. One of them goes to the front door and knocks on it and the other one runs around to the back door and yells ‘come in.'”
The crowd got a laugh out of that one, but Carter was just warming up and for the next 20 or 30 minutes his voice was the only sound in the room. Kennedy was sitting just a few feet to Carter’s left, listening carefully but never changing the thoughtful expression on his face as Carter railed and bitched about a system of criminal justice that allows the rich and the privileged to escape punishment for their crimes and sends poor people to prison because they can’t afford to bribe the judge…. …
(Jesus Babbling Christ! The phone is ringing again, and this time I know what it is for sure. Last time it was the Land Commissioner of Texas, threatening to have my legs broken because of something I wrote about him….… But now it is the grim reaper; he has come for my final page and in exactly 13 minutes that goddamn mojo wire across the room will erupt in a frenzy of beeping and I will have to feed it again….… But before I leave this filthy sweatbox that is costing me $39 a day I am going to deal with that rotten mojo machine. I have dreamed of smashing that fucker for five long years, but …… Okay, okay, 12 more minutes and …… yes ……)
So this will have to be it, … I would need a lot more time and space than I have to properly describe either the reality or the reaction to Jimmy Carter’s Law Day speech, which was and still is the heaviest and most eloquent thing I have ever heard from the mouth of a politician. It was the voice of an angry agrarian populist, extremely precise in its judgments and laced with some of the most original, brilliant and occasionally bizarre political metaphors anybody in that room will ever be likely to hear.
The final turn of the screw was another ugly example of crime and degradation in the legal profession, and this time Carter went right to the top. Nixon had just released his own, self-serving version of “the White House tapes,” and Carter was shocked when he read the transcripts. “The Constitution charges us with a direct responsibility for determining what our government is and ought to be,” he said. And then, after a long pause, he went on: “Well…. I have read parts of the embarrassing transcripts, and I’ve seen the proud statement of a former attorney general who protected his boss, and now brags of the fact that he tiptoed through a minefield and came out….… quote, clean, unquote.” Another pause, and then: “You know, I can’t imagine somebody like Thomas Jefferson tiptoeing through a minefield on the technicalities of the law, and then bragging about being clean afterwards….…”
Forty-five minutes later, on our way back to Atlanta in the governor’s small plane, I told Carter I wanted a transcript of his speech.
“There is no transcript,” he said.
I smiled, thinking he was putting me on. The speech had sounded like a product of five or six tortured drafts…. But he showed a page and a half of scrawled notes in his legal pad and said that was all he had.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “That was one of the damnedest things I’ve ever heard. You mean you just winged it all the way through?”
He shrugged and smiled faintly. “Well,” he said, “I had a pretty good idea what I was going to say, before I came up here – but I guess I was a little surprised at how it came out.”
Kennedy didn’t have much to say about the speech. He said he’d “enjoyed it,” but he still seemed uncomfortable and preoccupied for some reason. Carter and I talked about the time he invited Dylan and some of his friends out to the governor’s mansion after a concert in Atlanta. “I really enjoyed it,” he said with a big grin. “It was a real honor to have him visit my home.”
I had already decided, by then, that I liked Jimmy Carter – but I had no idea that he’d made up his mind, a few months earlier, to run for the presidency in 1976. And if he had told me his little secret that day on the plane back to Atlanta, I’m not sure I’d have taken him seriously…. But if he had told me and if I had taken him seriously, I would probably have said that he could have my vote, for no other reason except the speech I’d just heard.
Which hardly matters, because Jimmy Carter didn’t mention the presidency to me that day, and I had other things on my mind. It was the first Saturday in May – Derby Day in Louisville – and I’d been harassing Jimmy King since early morning about getting us back to Atlanta in time to watch the race on TV. According to the schedule we were due back at the governor’s mansion around three in the afternoon, and post time for the Derby was 4:30….… But I have learned to be leery of politicians’ schedules; they are about as reliable as campaign promises, and when I’d mentioned to Kennedy that I felt it was very important to get ourselves back to Atlanta in time for the Derby, I could tell by the look on his face that the only thing that might cause him to go out of his way to watch the Kentucky Derby was a written guarantee from the Churchill Downs management that I would be staked down on the track at the finish line when the horses came thundering down the stretch.
But Carter was definitely up for it, and he assured me that we would be back at the mansion in plenty of time for me to make all the bets I wanted before post time. “We’ll even try to find a mint julep for you,” he said. “Rosalynn has some mint in the garden, and I notice you already have the main ingredient.”
When we got to the mansion I found a big TV set in one of the basement guest rooms. The mint juleps were no problem, but the only bet I could get was a $5 gig with Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary – which I won, and then compounded the insult by insisting that Powell pay off immediately. He had to wander around the mansion, borrowing dollars and even quarters from anybody who would lend him money, until he could scrape up five dollars.
Later that night we endured another banquet, and immediately afterward I flew back to Washington with Kennedy, King and Kirk. Kennedy was still in a funk about something, and I thought it was probably me……. And while it was true that I had not brought any great distinction to the entourage, I had made enough of an effort to know that it could have been worse, and just to make sure he understood that – or maybe for reasons of sheer perversity – I waited until we were all strapped into our seats and I heard the stewardess asking Teddy if she could bring him a drink. He refused, as he always does in public, and just as the stewardess finished her spiel I leaned over the seat and said, “How about some heroin?”
His face went stiff and for a moment I thought it was all over for me. But then I noticed that King and Kirk were smiling……. So I strangled the sloat and walked back to my hotel in the rain.
THE LAST CRAZED CHARGE OF THE LIBERAL BRIGADE; THE SHREWDNESS OF RICHARD NIXON, THE DEEP AND ABIDING COURAGE OF HUBERT HUMPHREY AND ALL OF HIS NEW FOUND FRIENDS … JIMMY CARTER AT HOME IN PLAINS, ONE YEAR LATER THE LEAP OF FAITH
Beaumont, Texas (Apr 29)—Anarchist presidential candidate Hunter S. Thompson announced yesterday during opening ceremonies at the Beaumont Annual Stock Auction that Democratic front-runner Jimmy Carter was “the only candidate who ever lied to me twice in one day.” Thompson’s harsh denunciation of Carter – who was also at the auction, for purposes of wrestling his own bull – came as a nasty shock to the crowd of celebrities, bull wranglers and other politicos who were gathered to participate in ceremonies honoring Texas Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong, who followed Thompson’s attack on Carter with an unexpected statement of his own, saying he would be the number two man on a dark-horse(s) Demo ticket with Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Armstrong also denounced Carter for “consciously lying to me, about the price of his bull.” The Carter-owned animal, a two-year-old peanut-fed Brahman, had been advertised at a price of $2,200 – but when the front-runner showed up in Beaumont to ride his own bull, the price suddenly escalated to $7,750. And it was at this point that both Thompson and Armstrong stunned the crowd with their back-to-back assaults on Carter, long considered a personal friend of both men……. Carter, who seemed shocked by the attacks, lied to newsmen who questioned him about the reasons, saying, “I didn’t hear what they said.”
The Law Day speech is not the kind of thing that would have much appeal to the mind of a skilled technician, and that kind of mind is perhaps the only common denominator among the strategists, organizers and advisers at the staff-command level of Carter’s campaign. Very few of them seem to have much interest in why Jimmy wants to be president, or even in what he might do after he wins: their job and their meal ticket is to put Jimmy Carter in the White House, that is all they know and all they need to know – and so far they are doing their job pretty well. According to political odds-maker Billy the Geek, Carter is now a solid 3-2 bet to win the November election – up from 50-1 less than six months ago.
This is another likely reason why Carter’s brain trust is not especially concerned with how to put the Law Day speech to good use: the people most likely to be impressed or even converted by it are mainly the ones who make up the left/liberal, humanist/intellectual wing of the Democratic party and the national press – and in the wake of Carter’s genuinely awesome blitzkrieg in Pennsylvania and Texas, destroying all of his remaining opposition in less than a week, it is hard to argue with the feeling among his staff-command technicians that he no longer needs any converts from the left/liberal wing of the party. He got where he is without the help he repeatedly asked them for during most of 1975 and early ’76, and now the problem is theirs. The train has left the station, as it were, and anybody who wants to catch up with it now is going to come up with the air fare…….
But I have just been reminded by a terrible screeching on the telephone that the presses will roll in a few hours and that means there is no more time at Rolling Stone than there is in the Carter campaign for wondering why about anything. Idle speculation is a luxury reserved for people who are too rich, too poor or too crazy to get seriously concerned about anything outside their own private realities… … and just as soon as I finish this goddamn wretched piece of gibberish I am going to flee like a rat down a pipe into one of those categories. I have maintained a wild and serious flirtation with all three of them for so long that the flirtation itself was beginning to look like reality……. But I see it now for the madness it was from the start: there is no way to maintain four parallel states of being at the same time. I know from long experience that it is possible to be rich, poor and crazy all at once – but to be rich, poor, crazy and also a functioning political journalist at the same time is flat-out impossible, so the time has come to make a terminal choice….
But not quite yet. We still have to finish this twisted saga of Vengeance and Revelation in the shade of the Georgia pines……. So, what the hell? Let’s get after it. There is plenty of room at the top in this bountiful nation of ours for a rich, poor and crazy political journalist who can sit down at a rented typewriter in a Texas motel with a heart full of hate and a head full of speed and Wild Turkey and lash out a capsule/narrative between midnight and dawn that will explain the whole meaning and tell the whole tale of the 1976 presidential campaign…….
Hell yes! Let’s whip on this thing! Until I got that phone call a few minutes ago I would have said it was absolutely impossible, but now I know better……. If only because I have just been reminded that until I saw Hubert Humphrey “quit the race” a few days ago I was telling anybody who would listen that there was no way to cure an egg-sucking dog……. So now is the time to finish this rotten job that I somehow got myself into, and also to congratulate my old buddy Hubert for having enough sense to ignore his advisers and keep the last faint glimmer of his presidential hopes alive by crouching in the weeds and praying for a brokered convention, instead of shooting his whole wad by entering the New Jersey primary and getting pushed off the wall and cracked like Humpty Dumpty by Jimmy Carter’s technicians.
I am beginning to sense a distinctly pejorative drift in this emphasis on the word “technician,” but it is only half-intentional. There is nothing wrong with technicians, in politics or anywhere else. Any presidential campaign without a full complement of first-class political technicians – or with a drastic imbalance between technicians and ideologues – will meet the same fate that doomed the Fred Harris campaign in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. But the question of balance is critical, and there is something a little scary about a presidential campaign run almost entirely by technicians that can be as successful as Carter’s.
“Awesome” is the mildest word I can think of to describe a campaign that can take an almost totally unknown ex-governor of Georgia with no national reputation, no power base in the Democratic party and not the slightest reluctance to tell Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and anyone else who asks that “the most important thing in my life is Jesus Christ” and to have him securely positioned, after only nine of 32 primaries, as an almost prohibitive favorite to win the presidential nomination of the nation’s majority political party, and an even bet to win the November election against a relatively popular GOP president who has managed somehow to convince both Big Labor and Big Business that he has just rescued the country from economic disaster. If the presidential election were held tomorrow I would not bet more than three empty beer cans on Gerald Ford’s chances of beating Jimmy Carter in November. …
… What? No, cancel that bet. The Screech on the telephone just informed me that Time has just released a poll – on the day after the Texas primary – saying Carter would beat Ford by 48% to 38% if the election were held now. Seven weeks ago, according to Time via The Screech, the current figures were almost exactly reversed……. I have never been much with math, but a quick shuffling of these figures seems to mean that Carter has picked up 20 points in seven weeks, and Ford has lost 20.
If this is true, then it is definitely time to call Billy the Geek and get something like ten cases of 66 proof Sloat Ale down on Carter, and forget those three empty beer cans.
In other words, the panic is on and the last survivors of the ill-fated Stop Carter Movement are out in the streets shedding their uniforms and stacking their weapons on street corners all over Washington……. And now another phone call from CBS correspondent Ed Bradley – who is covering Carter now after starting the ’76 campaign with Birch Bayh – saying Bayh will announce at a press conference in Washington tomorrow that he has decided to endorse Jimmy Carter.
Well… … how about that, eh? Never let it be said that a wharf rat can get off a sinking ship any faster than an 87% ADA liberal.
But this is no time for cruel jokes about liberals and wharf rats. Neither species has ever been known for blind courage or stubborn devotion to principle, so let the rotters go wherever they feel even temporarily comfortable……. Meanwhile, it is beginning to look like the time has come for the rest of us to get our business straight, because the only man who is going to keep Jimmy Carter out of the White House now is Jimmy Carter.
Which might happen, but it is a hard kind of thing to bet on, because there is no precedent in the annals of presidential politics for a situation like this: with more than half the primaries still ahead of him, Carter is now running virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and – barring some queer and unlikely development – he is going to have to spend the next two months in a holding action until he can go to New York in July and pick up the nomination.
Just as soon as I can get some sleep and recover from this grim and useless ordeal I will call him and find out what he plans to do with all that time……. And if I were in that nervous position I think I would call a press conference and announce that I was off to a secret think tank on the Zondo Peninsula to finalize my plans for curing all the ills of society; because a lot of strange things can happen to a long-shot front-runner in two months of forced idleness, and a lot of idle minds are going to have plenty of time for brooding on all the things that still worry them about living for at least the next four years with a president who prays 25 times a day and reads the Bible in Spanish every night. Even the people who plan to vote for Jimmy Carter if he can hang on between now and November are going to have more time than they need to nurse any lingering doubts they might have about him.
I will probably nurse a few doubts of my own between now and July, for that matter, but unless something happens to convince me that I should waste any more time than I already have brooding on the evil potential that lurks, invariably, in the mind of just about anybody whose ego has become so dangerously swollen that he really wants to be president of the United States, I don’t plan to spend much time worrying about the prospect of seeing Jimmy Carter in the White House. There is not a hell of a lot I can do about it, for one thing; and for another, I have spent enough time with Carter in the past two years to feel I have a pretty good sense of his candidacy. I went down to Plains, Georgia, to spend a few days with him on his own turf and to hopefully find out who Jimmy Carter really was before the campaign shroud came down on him and he started talking like a candidate instead of a human being. Once a presidential aspirant gets out on the campaign trail and starts seeing visions of himself hunkered down behind that big desk in the Oval Office, the idea of sitting down in his own living room and talking openly with some foul-mouthed, argumentative journalist carrying a tape recorder in one hand and a bottle of Wild Turkey in the other is totally out of the question.
But it was almost a year before the ’76 New Hampshire primary when I talked to Carter at his home in Plains, and I came away from that weekend with six hours of taped conversation with him on subjects ranging all the way from the Allman Brothers, stock car racing and our strongly conflicting views on the use of undercover agents in law enforcement, to nuclear submarines, the war in Vietnam and the treachery of Richard Nixon. When I listened to the tapes again last week I noticed a lot of things that I had not paid much attention to at the time, and the most obvious of these was the extremely detailed precision of his answers to some of the questions that he is now accused of being either unable or unwilling to answer. There is no question in my mind, after hearing him talk on the tapes, that I was dealing with a candidate who had already done a massive amount of research on things like tax reform, national defense and the structure of the American political system by the time he announced his decision to run for president.
Nor is there any question that there are a lot of things Jimmy Carter and I will never agree on. I had warned him, before we sat down with the tape recorder for the first time, that – although I appreciated his hospitality and felt surprisingly relaxed and comfortable in his home – I was also a journalist and that some of the questions I knew I was going to ask him might seem unfriendly or even downright hostile. Because of this, I said, I wanted him to be able to stop the tape recorder by means of a remote-pause button if the talk got too heavy. But he said he would just as soon not have to bother turning the tape on and off; which surprised me at the time, but now that I listen to the tapes I realize that loose talk and bent humor are not among Jimmy Carter’s vices.
They are definitely among mine, however, and since I had stayed up most of the night, drinking and talking in the living room with his sons Jack and Chip Carter and their wives – and then by myself in the guest room over the garage – I was still feeling weird around noon, when we started talking “seriously,” and the tape of that first conversation is liberally sprinkled with my own twisted comments about “rotten fascist bastards,” “thieving cocksuckers who peddle their asses all over Washington,” and “these goddamn brainless fools who refuse to serve liquor in the Atlanta airport on Sunday.”
It was nothing more than my normal way of talking, and Carter was already familiar with it, but there are strange and awkward pauses here and there on the tape where I can almost hear Carter gritting his teeth and wondering whether to laugh or get angry at things I wasn’t even conscious of saying at the time, but which sound on the tape like random outbursts of hostility or pure madness from the throat of a paranoid psychotic. Most of the conversation is intensely rational, but every once in a while it slips over the line and all I can hear is the sound of my own voice yelling something like “Jesus Christ! What’s that filthy smell?”
Both Carter and his wife have always been amazingly tolerant of my behavior, and on one or two occasions they have had to deal with me in a noticeably bent condition. I have always been careful not to commit any felonies right in front of them, but other than that I have never made much of an effort to adjust my behavior around Jimmy Carter or anyone else in his family – including his 78-year-old mother, Miss Lillian, who is the only member of the Carter family I could comfortably endorse for the presidency, right now, with no reservations at all.
Whoops! Well……. we will get to that in a moment. Right now I have other things to deal with and……. No, what the hell? Let’s get to it now, because time is running out and so is that goddamn sloat; so now is the time to come to grips with my own “Carter Question.”
It has taken me almost a year to reach this point, and I am still not sure how to cope with it……. But I am getting there fast, thanks mainly to all the help I’ve been getting from my friends in the liberal community. I took more abuse from these petulant linthead bastards during the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries than I have ever taken from my friends on any political question since the first days of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and that was nearly 12 years ago……. I felt the same way about the first wild violent days of the FSM as I still feel about Jimmy Carter. In both cases my initial reaction was positive, and I have lived too long on my instincts to start questioning them now. At least not until I get a good reason, and so far nobody has been able to give me any good reason for junking my first instinctive reaction to Jimmy Carter, which was that I liked him……. And if the editors of Time magazine and the friends of Hubert Humphrey consider that “bizarre,” fuck them. I liked Jimmy Carter the first time I met him, and in the two years that have passed since that Derby Day in Georgia I have come to know him a hell of a lot better than I knew George McGovern at this point in the ’72 campaign, and I still like Jimmy Carter. He is one of the most intelligent politicians I’ve ever met, and also one of the strangest. I have never felt comfortable around people who talk about their feeling for Jesus, or any other deity for that matter, because they are usually none too bright……. Or maybe “stupid” is a better way of saying it; but I have never seen much point in getting heavy with either stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don’t bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone. They will not inherit the earth, but then neither will I……. And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there’s a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.
And so much for all that gibberish. The bastards are taking the whole thing away from me now, and anything else I might have wanted to say about Jimmy Carter will have to wait for another time and place. At the moment, failing any new evidence that would cause me to change my mind, I would rather see Jimmy Carter in the White House than anybody else we are likely to be given a chance to vote for. And that narrows the field right down, for now, to Ford, Reagan and Humphrey.
Carter is the only unknown quantity of the four, and that fact alone says all I need to know. Admittedly, a vote for Carter requires a certain leap of faith, but on the evidence I don’t mind taking it. I think he is enough of an ego maniac to bring the same kind of intensity to the task of doing the job in a way that will allow him to stay as happy with his own mirror in the White House as he is now with his mirror in Plains.
There is also the fact that I have that Law Day speech to fall back on, which is a lot better reason to vote for him than anything I’ve seen or heard on the campaign trail. I have never thought the problem with Carter is that he is two-faced in the sense of a two-headed coin……. But he is definitely a politician above all else right now, and that is the only way anybody gets into the White House. If Carter has two faces, my own feeling is that they are mounted one behind the other, but both looking in the same direction, instead of both ways at once, as the friends of Hubert Humphrey keep saying.
It also occurs to me now and then that many of the people who feel so strongly about keeping Jimmy Carter out of the White House don’t know him at all. And a lot of the people who accuse him of lying, dissembling, waffling and being “hazy” have never bothered to listen very carefully to what he says, or to try reading between the lines now when Carter comes out with some mawkish statement like the one he has used to end so many speeches: “I just want to see us once again with a government that is as honest and truthful and fair and idealistic and compassionate and filled with love as are the American people.”
The first time I heard him say that up in New Hampshire I was stunned. It sounded like he had eaten some of the acid I’ve been saving up to offer him the first time he mentions anything to me about bringing Jesus into my life……. But after I’d heard him say the same thing five or six more times, it began to sound like something I’d heard long before I’d ever heard Jimmy Carter’s name…….
It took me a while to dig it out of my memory, but when it finally surfaced I recognized the words of the late, great liberal, Adlai Stevenson, who once lashed it all together in one small and perfect capsule when he said “……. in a democracy, people usually get the kind of government they deserve.”
* “Black Rose” by Billy Joe Shaver. © 1973, RCA Records.
** “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” by Tom T. Hall © 1976, Hallnote Music.