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As Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter throughout 1976, Patrick Anderson crafted clever word changes, subtexts, laugh lines, and such, only to cringe watching his man kick-start rallies with the proven icebreaker: “Now I’m going to read you a statement my staff has prepared.”
Anderson, a novelist, essayist, and ghostwriter of the autobiographies of Jeb Magruder and Hugh Hefner, recently dusted off a bittersweet memoir that he penned just after Carter’s miraculous ascendance to the presidency; the result, Electing Jimmy Carter: The Campaign of 1976, is an impudent look at big-time politics. Given Carter’s latter-day re-emergence as Bill Clinton’s intractable foreign policy czar, this book seems more timely now than at any point since 1980. Students of Carter, the ’76 election, or the American political process during the mid-’70s—and aspiring speechwriters—should consider Electing Jimmy Carter required reading. Even nonjunkies will find it a font of good gossip.
Like most speechwriters, Anderson’s access to the boss was limited but telling. Propagandists function closer to politicians’ hearts than policy advisers (to say nothing of constituents), because there is between politician and propagandist an unspoken knowledge that the latter deals, almost as psychoanalyst would, with those questions most deeply troubling the former’s soul: Am I liked? What’s lacking in me? Do I have original ideas?
Seldom, then, does the politician wind up liking his propagandist. Anderson recalls that Carter “was compelled to put you down from time to time, just to remind you who was boss, or perhaps to remind himself.” During their last meeting in January 1977, the president-elect, that pre-eminent preacher of post-Watergate morality, startled his wordsmith by placing without explanation a whirring tape recorder between them. “You’re so rigid and demanding,” Carter told him. “Sometimes I didn’t know if you were working for me or I was working for you.”
Carter’s ban on husband-and- wife teams in his administration effectively spelled the end of Anderson’s tenure; Anderson’s wife, who had toiled in the campaign for Rosalynn Carter, became the first lady’s White House secretary. But Anderson’s admitted problems with authority, and more fundamental misgivings, also necessitated his return to literary pursuits. “I had blundered into the political world but never really belonged there,” he concedes. “I had always been as much spy as speechwriter….and I always knew I would send back a report to my own people.”
Eighteen years later, we profit from his account. In easygoing style, candid enough to admit bitterness and hubris, Anderson traces Jimmy Carter’s evolution from punch-line to president. He tells what Jimmy Carter and his family were “really like,” and what it meant to work for so alternately proud and humble a man: “Forget the big smile. That was a disguise….He had grown up in Plains, his mother’s son, the smartest kid in town, isolated by his intellect, and he remained isolated by his ego, his pride, his ambition, his religion, his sense of mission.”
The author’s explanation for Carter’s rise focuses—correctly—on the candidate’s post-Watergate religiosity. “Carter’s religion fueled…this essentially nonpolitical introvert to political success and it was basic to the idealism and decency that made him attractive to millions who didn’t otherwise share his fundamentalist beliefs.” (Likewise, Anderson hits the mark when he attributes Carter’s fall to the man’s practice of faith: “[I]n his soul, he was enslaved by a guilt-ridden, sin-saturated theology that told him half the country was wallowing in the devil’s embrace….In time, he lost us.”)
The author was drawn in by Carter’s early stump appearances, those philosophical ruminations on the Bible by way of Bob Dylan, delivered by a sometimes heckled candidate at seedy Southern seafood joints throughout 1975. These were seminal moments in American politics, however short-lived. They proved, so soon after the rigid Nixon years, that a politician could identify with counterculture icons and ideas without committing professional suicide.
While such speeches might attract the likes of Anderson, however, they weren’t enough to win campaigns; the candidate began fine-tuning. “[H]e grew more and more suspicious of new ideas, issues that might somehow backfire, and more inclined to return to the “themes’—honesty, compassion, trust—that had served him so well,” Anderson recalls. Carter “presented himself…as a decent man who believed America could be great again.” It was a simple strategy more successfully followed by Carter’s successor.
Already possessed of what the author dubs an “instinct for evasions,” Carter streamlined his image into that of a more traditional Democratic standard-bearer in 1976 by fuzzing details. Anderson was not unaware of Carter’s essential formlessness, but was prepared to believe the best about his candidate: “If Carter sometimes seemed a chameleon, was he not at least trying to reach out in every possible direction? Whether he was simply reaching for votes, or was driven by a dream of unity…was a matter of faith.”
The candidate’s elusive public persona also stemmed from his hodgepodge team of Democrats. “I’ve been in Mexican whorehouses that were better organized than the Carter campaign,” swears Anderson. The campaign invariably pitted “the Georgia mafia,” who pledged personal allegiance to Carter, against the Kennedy holdovers, who saw in Carter a vehicle for their faction’s post-Nixon rejuvenation.
According to Anderson, the aides most responsible for Carter’s victory were fellow Georgians Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan, men Anderson reviled yet respected. “[T]hey could rule Carter’s world….They saw the people Carter didn’t want to see and did the dirty work he didn’t want to do….To win their favor, via loyalty and humility, was to rise in Carter’s world; to lose it was to twist slowly in the wind.” Effective and brutal, the pair irked Anderson, and the patrician Yankee’s unease exemplified the campaign’s most basic personnel rifts. Consider Anderson’s recollection of his one encounter with Southerner Bert Lance: “[I]t was loathing at first sight. He was the kind of big, bluff, bullshitting, backslapping, backstabbing, mush-mouthed professional country boy who makes my skin crawl.”
Anderson’s takes on campaign outsiders, usually celebrities, come equally unvarnished. These anecdotes dot the corners of his campaign portrait, reminding us that internal campaign machinations don’t tell the whole story. ABC News’ Sam Donaldson takes the hardest hits. An on-air populist, Donaldson privately ridiculed Carter’s trademark call for government “as good as its people.” Anderson writes:
“ “What we need,’ Sam would roar, “is a government as filled with greed, with violence, with lust, with corruption, with incompetence as the American people! Jesus Christ, if we had a government as good as our people, this would be Italy!’ ”
By August, says Anderson, “Donaldson was widely believed to be cracking up. He would be glimpsed, toupee askew, talking to teenage girls, beating on walls with a rubber hose, and muttering incoherently about Jimmy Carter.”
Elsewhere, Anderson diagnoses Carter’s “Jesus complex,” and details how the president-to-be piously rebuked Warren Beatty, James Caan, and Tony Randall at a Hollywood fundraiser for his own campaign, confessing that he used to be as materialistic as they. He describes Norman Mailer mantraing, “I blew it,” after an snoozy session with Carter; and delivers the scoop on Carter’s infamous Playboy interview, wherein the Baptist candidate foolishly acknowledged “lust in his heart” for women other than his wife.
Equally important is Anderson’s remembrance of the illicit antics pervading the one Democratic presidential campaign mounted “in that brief, golden era after the dawn of the sexual revolution and before the sudden darkness of AIDS.” He writes that “the distance from “Hey, it’s great to meet you!’ to “Let’s go up to my room’ was often measured in minutes.” But sex wasn’t all: Back then, despite obvious risks for all involved, reporters and staffers did drugs together! Why? “I think we shared those joints for symbolic reasons,” Anderson believes. “The reporters and I were friends, yet the campaign made us adversaries. By smoking, we made a separate peace.”
It’s a snapshot of campaign life one doesn’t find in Teddy White’s books, and one characteristic of Anderson’s irreverent and honest approach. Though Electing Jimmy Carter ends with Inauguration Day, undeniably the chief value of this book is the osmotic insight it offers into the Carter presidency, won and managed during a troubled time for America, and terminated, like the three before it, with resounding rejection from her people.