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-by Betty Smartt Carter


Jimmy, We Hardly Knew Ye

In Oliver Stone's film Nixon, Anthony Hopkins sweats and soliloquizes in an eerily empty White House, dreaming of the Vietnam War as a virus and yelling at his mother's ghost. Historical quibbling aside, the real Richard Nixon did at least invite a Shakespearean caricature. As paranoid as Lear and as guilty as Macbeth, Nixon personified the crisis of America raging against itself, struggling to uphold the myth of its essential goodness, but losing a war against its most vicious desires.

Jimmy Carter, according to biographer Kenneth Morris, also reflected the spirit of the nation-in this case a nation struggling to redefine itself. Walking hand in hand with Rosalynn down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, Carter brought to the beleaguered White House not so much an avenging Hamlet as Mr. Smith, a good-natured and guileless citizen who preferred to enter office on his own two feet (the heck with the motorcade).  A newcomer to national politics, he promised to restore faith and trust to government. He would never, he said, lie to the American people. Nor would he make any secret of his Christian beliefs, having written freely of his "born-again" experience in his campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best? (recently reissued with a new introduction). Carter may have been the last public figure to say those words without wincing.

Although Carter owed his presidential victory more to political circumstances than to personal charm, he certainly appealed to post-Watergate Americans cynical about politics. Defining himself as a farmer, a nuclear engineer, and a serious Bob Dylan fan (among other things), he appeared complex and idiosyncratic beside the elephants and donkeys of Washington. His thoughtful answers to difficult questions clearly sprang from a deep well of reflection rather than party ideology.

Carter's obvious individualism, says Morris, mirrored the national individualism born a decade earlier. The revolution of the sixties had actually been an implosion-a ...

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