Washington — It was a scene that stunned a nation. As newly sworn-in President Carter left the Capitol, he and his family headed toward the limousines that were to carry them at the head of the Inauguration Day parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
But instead of stopping to get in, they strolled past the waiting autos into the clear but bitingly cold January afternoon.
"He's walking!" exclaimed an astonished Army sergeant when word of the unprecedented hike reached him. He then grabbed for the parade "hot line" to alert parade coordinators.
Hand in hand with his wife, Rosalynn, and daughter, Amy, Jimmy Carter walked the mile-and-a-half parade route waving, his face lighting up with that now-familiar Carter smile, pausing once to let Amy retie a shoe.
The United States indeed had a new president.
He was the first in mdoern times from the Deep South and, with evident strain , a nation was trying to learn to call him "Jimmy."
It was a time of extraordinary transition and loss of confidence. The country had gone through an emotional wringer. Many said America was losing faith in itself.
The United States always won the wars it fought, didn't it? But not in Vietnam: Half a million soldiers backed by the best in technological weaponry had not defeated a second-rate country.
No President since Eisenhower had served out two full terms, and one President served without ever having been elected.
America believed it was ruled by the ballot, not the bullet. Yet assassins' bullets had cut down John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot and wounded while campaigning for the presidency, and two attempts were made on President Ford's life.
America thought it had learned to control its mammoth economy, but in 1976 there was unemployment and persistent inflation.
Americans had believed in the integrity of the White House and the FBI and the CIA -- and then there was Watergate and kindred abuses. So the public was harboring doubts over whether the system would work. Said a White House aide at the time, "They are uncertain about what is happening to them and untrusting of the basic institutions to solve their problems."
Then came Jimmy Carter. He was unlike anybody who had ever seriously run for the presidency in modern times.He was from outside Washington and ran against the establishment. He said extraordinary things about never lying to the electorate and about human rights. Could the nation trust him?
The election told the story of its uncertainty. His approach was unorthodox and his touch often uncertain. His original 33-point lead over President Ford in the polls melted like a snowbank, and he finally won by a hair, 51 percent to 48 percent, with only 54 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. Voter turnouts had declined in each presidential election since 1960, and 1976 showed a further drop. In the end it was probably the black vote that made up the narrow Carter margin.
Throughout the long primary campign, the public kept asking, "Jimmy who?" Carter's campgn was based on value representation more than issue representation -- the effort to establish a feeling of confidence and intimacy between voter and office-seeker.
Carter promised to try to make government "as good and honest and decent and truthful and fir and competent and idealistic and compassionate, and as filled with love, as are the American people." He said this again and again, at a time of Americahs spritual uncertainty.
After covering Ronald Reagan for three days in the New Hampshire primary campaign in January 1976, another reporter and I decided to break away, hire a car, and go over to Durham to take a look at this remarkable unknown, the one-term governor of Georgia.
He welcomed us simply and unaffectedly to the small traveling campaign party, and it was easy to like him. He had a trademark grin and a homely but attractive face that reminded me somehow of Eleanor Roosevelt. He seemed a trifle shy for all the passionate ambition that we suspected lurked within (and that surely must have fueled his improbable campaign through the primaries so far), and there was that unaffected manner and sunburst smile.
We drove over to the small gathering at the hall of the University of New Hampshire. I was to hear his brief introductory remarks several times. He pledged not to lie to the American people, and he gave his string of promises about government in a low voice with a little catch in his throat, as though it were occurring to him for the first time. The audience sat silent, and you could feel it was impressed.
An officious young man who sat by himself rose and asked the first questions, which came oddly in that taciturn setting whre New Englanders are not accustomed to wearing religion on their sleeves. He asked CarteR, in effect, in evangelical language, whether he was saved.
Henry L. Mencken, that ribald Baltimore cynic, would have rubbed his hands over the situation -- the embarrassed Yankee audience, the exposed political candidate; what new awkwardness would come next? But Mencken would have been surprised. Carter paused for a second that seemed like a minute and then aswered simply and matter-of-factly, "Yes, I am born again," and quietly asked for more questions.
We all sighed with relief and later went out into the waist-high snowdrifts meditating that a spark of communication had passed between audience and candidate in language more familiar perhaps with revivalist Georgia than snowbound New Hampshire.
some of us wondered what the next four years would be like if the next President shoudl be this surprising novelty. My predominant impression was that the audience yearned to believe Carter. The country was looking for something different.
As Carter put the matter himself: "We have been through too much in too short a time. Our national nightmare began with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and of Martin Luther king Jr., and the wounding of George Wallace. We watched the widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the division and bitterness that war caused, and the violence in Chicago in 1968 and the invasion of Cambodia, and the shootings at Kent State, and revelations of official lying and spying and bugging, and the resignations in disgrace of both a president and a vice-president, and the disclosure that our security and law-enforcement agencies were deliberately and routinely violating the law. No other generation in American history has ever been subjected to such a battering as this."
Like his Republican opponent this year, Carter in 1976 committed one gaffe after another: He supported the idea of "ethnic purity" in neighborhoods, and then apologized; he gave what many considered an inappropriate interview to Playboy magazine; he used harsh words toward Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson.
On the other hand, millions of Americans believed that he would bring a new element into government at a time of middle-class deterioration.
Candidate Carter promised to cut the defense budget by $5 billion to $7 billion. He said he woudl reform the tax system, which he called a "national disgrace." He would end inflation and unemployment (i.e., bring them down to 4 percent or less) and not raise taxes on middle or low incomes. He would "reduce the number of federal agencies to no more than 200" out of 1,900. Also, he would balance the budget.
Carter had little or no experience in Washington when he made those promises; it is generally felt that he greatly underestimated the difficulty of governing the nation -- not to speak of wreaking the reforms he promised. He has since argued that foreign events thwarted his pledges, that nobody could have foreseen the oil shortage, and that Congress rebelled.
But President Carter still boasts of achievements: normalization of relations with China, the Panama Canal treaties, the Camp David summit conference which resulted in a historic agreement between Egypt and Israel, the creation of two Cabinet departments, and so on.
How did Jimmy Carter make his amazing breakthrough to leadership of the world's most powerful nation? He seemed to offer what the nation wanted at the time, and he discovered how porous the expanded state primary system is. He devoted his full time to it for a period of years.
Sen. George McGovern in 1972 showed how a dedicated minority could penetrate the presidential selection system for a cause -- in his case, opposition to the Vietnam war.
Mr. Carter was elected Georgia governor for a nonrenewable four-year term in 1970 and decided in 1972 to run for the presidency. The secret was to get into the first primaries and let the news media -- the torrent that carries the canoe -- bear you along.
The first test was the Iowa Democratic precinct caucuses of Jan. 19, 1976. Carter forces had prepred for a year. Only 45,000 Democrats turned out, but Carter got 27.63 percent of the vote; Birch Bayh, 13.16 percent; others, less. A New York Times headline proclaimed: "Results in Iowa Regarded as a Major Push for Carter." Time magazine announced: "Carter clearly has the momentum."
There followed two more critical tests. In New Hampshire's Feb. 23 primary, proudly proclaimed as the "first in the nation," only 22,895 Democratic votes were cast. Carter got 29 percent; Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona, 24 percent; Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, 16 percent; and others, lesser proportions. With a fraction of a million votes cast, Jimmy Carter was now the "front-runner."
On March 9 came the third test, FloridA, which matched a moderate, pro-civil rights Southerner against Alabama Governor Wallace, the champion of segregation and anti-intellectualism. Carter had paid 19 campaign visists to Florida in the previous 14 months. He got 34 percent of the votes; Wallace, 31 percent; Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, 24 percent. That did it.
When his original million-dollar campaign fund ran out, the new federal campaign financing law sustained him. Jimmy Carter was on every TV screeb, every front page, and in every political conversation from then on to victory.
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