Drawing the Battle Lines

This essay was originally published in the August 25, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Carter defends his record, attacks Ronnie and looks to the future

THE SPEECH. How the triumphant candidate accepts the nomination of his party is always billed by his strategists as not only the kickoff of the campaign but the most important speech of the entire presidential race. Well, sometimes it is all that—and sometimes it isn’t.

As the campaign film celebrating Jimmy Carter ended and the lights went up, the convention podium remained empty while the band played Hail to the Chief. That void was only partially filled when the chief finally emerged, grinning and waving his arms. Somehow he failed to measure up to expectations. His acceptance speech was not electrifying; its voltage, in fact, was low. Said Laurence Radway, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and former chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party: “In the past, Carter has been partly an engineer and partly an evangelical —an evangelical engineer. In his acceptance speech, the engineer was there, but the evangelist wasn’t.”

Looking more intense than usual, Carter attempted to be combative without totally bringing it off. He managed to defend his record, set up Reagan as a target and project a slightly beclouded vision of the future. But he was unable to generate fervid excitement even among his ardent supporters. As frequently happens to the President, his delivery lessened the impact of his speech; it read better than he read it. Unfortunately, the line that may be longest remembered was a slip of the tongue. Citing some of his party’s illustrious members of the past, he named “Hubert Horatio Hornblower … er … Humphrey.” Carter also went on too long. Toward the end of his 51-min. speech, some delegates were yawning and checking their watches.

But the President, whose campaign instincts are often underrated, was aiming not so much at the audience in Madison Square Garden as the one before the TV sets across America. He was not trying to stun or startle them with innovative programs but rather to reassure them with a sober assessment of his own actions.

Carter’s main objective was to launch an effective attack on his opponent. “This election,” Carter declared, “is a stark choice between two men, two parties, two sharply different pictures of what America is.” Though his portrait of the Democrats was rather fuzzy, he painted a bleak Republican future of despair: “the surrender of our energy future to the merchants of oil, the surrender of our economic future to a bizarre program of massive tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the poor and massive inflation for everyone.”

The Democrats usually pride themselves on being the party of vision while denouncing the Republicans for their lack of imagination. In a curious reversal, Carter compared the Democrats’ earthy realism to the Republicans’ Utopian dreams of a world of “good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later.” This was a forecast, no doubt, of the kind of attack that will be launched against Reagan during the campaign. Reagan, said Carter, suggested blockading Cuba after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, while opposing the President’s grain embargo. Scoffed Carter: “He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Russians. He is not sure if he wants to feed them or play with them or fight with them.”

But the actions that Carter took in response to Afghanistan did not seem all that popular with many delegates. When he reminded his audience that he had called for draft registration and the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, there were rolling boos — a rare response during an acceptance speech. Carter smiled, and his supporters in the hall rose to their feet and applauded enough to drown out the jeers.

Although many regard the Carter record of accomplishment in office as slim, the President had successes that he could recite: “We have helped in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, where we stood firm for racial justice and democracy,” he said. He acknowledged that he had been criticized for his Middle East policies, but he insisted that “before I became President, there was no Camp David accord and there was no Middle East peace treaty.” He made perhaps the strongest pledge to Israel ever offered by an American President: “Unlike our Republican predecessors, we have never stopped nor slowed aid to Israel. As long as I am President, we will never do so.” He reaffirmed his human rights policies. The Republicans, he said, “think it is naive for America to stand up for freedom and democracy. Just what do they think we should stand up for?”

Less emphatically, he defended his Administration’s economic policies. He claimed that the U.S. is now importing about 20% less oil than when he took office (6.4 million bbl. a day, vs. 8.9 million bbl.), though his policies can hardly be held responsible for this saving. He properly boasted of the deregulation of the airlines and the trucking industry. His Administration is now making the same effort with the railroads. Said Carter: “This is the greatest change in the relationship between government and business since the New Deal.” The dollar is now stable, he observed, and “we are struggling to bring inflation under control.”

Then he veered back to the attack, calling the 30% cut in personal income tax rates urged by Reagan the “biggest tax giveaway in history. I call it a free lunch that Americans cannot afford.” Carter repeated George Bush’s description of the proposal as “voodoo economics.” The G.O.P. vice-presidential candidate “suddenly changed his mind toward the end of the Republican Convention,” said Carter, “but he was right the first time.” If the Republicans are elected on their tax-cutting platform, warned the President, most of the Federal Government will have to be abolished, “everything from education to farm programs to the G.I. Bill to the night watchman at the Lincoln Memorial.” The diffuse, rather disjointed address was the work of many hands, perhaps too many. A number of senior staffers and Cabinet members contributed ideas, but the major drafts were the work of Chief Speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg and Carter himself.

Hertzberg began writing the first draft a month ago. At Camp David on the weekend before the convention, Carter reworked the fourth draft by hand. Still, grumbled a Carter lieutenant, the final product was “your classic camel.” Carter was not able to get over the hump. His own participation resulted in some of the platitudinous tone; he seems almost frightened by rhetoric. Basically, it remained a speech in search of a theme.

Commented Joel Fleishman, a Duke University political scientist: “Carter seemed to be still struggling for his New Frontier, his New Deal, his new Fair Deal — but it just wasn’t there.

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