Really excellent interview with Rick Perlstein on Ronald Reagan by David Dayen
This passage caught my eye, even though it's not about Reagan:
You talk about Jimmy Carter as just this smile, someone who was an empty vessel for everyone’s beliefs that they projected onto him. You use this phrase, “they yearned to believe,” to describe liberal feelings toward Carter.
Could you believe that Dems could be attracted like iron filings to a magnet to a blank-slate candidate where everyone sees what they want to see? Yes, how about Barack Obama? It’s very similar. Of course, there’s this old adage, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. But I hope people see the parallel between liberals’ love of Carter, who was not a liberal, and who studiously declined during the campaign to commit himself to any liberal policy, and the present day. Remember in late 2006, Ken Silverstein wrote this article in Harper’s, talking about how Obama was in bed with agribusiness, in bed with local energy interests in Illinois, and not to be trusted? Well, in this time I’m writing about, also in Harper’s, there was an article by Steven Brill called “The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter,” pointing out all of his flaws and misstatements, and it went nowhere. Because they yearned to believe. That’s something I put in throughout the book, they yearned to believe. And it’s a powerful force.
It is, it is.
But I'm not sure that Carter was a empty vessel, or, if he was, the issue is how he became so. I remember when I got sold on Jimmy Carter: Hunter Thompson did it with this article on Carter's Law Day speech. I like this little bit:
One day I was leaving the railroad track with my pockets full of rocks and hands full of rocks, and my mother came out on the front porch - this is not a very interesting story but it illustrates a point - and she had in her hands a plate full of cookies that she had just baked for me. She called me - I am sure with love in her heart - and said, "Jimmy, I've baked some cookies for you." I remember very distinctly walking up to her and standing there for 15 or 20 seconds in honest doubt about whether I should drop those rocks which were worthless and take the cookies that my mother had prepared for me, which between her and me were very valuable.
The first speech I ever made in the Georgia Senate, representing the most conservative district in Georgia, was concerning the abolition of 30 questions that we had so proudly evolved as a subterfuge to keep black citizens from voting and which we used with a great deal of smirking and pride for decades or generations ever since the War Between the States - questions that nobody could answer in this room, but which were applied to every black citizen that came to the Sumter County Courthouse or Webster County Courthouse and said, "I want to vote." I spoke in that chamber, fearful of the news media reporting it back home, but overwhelmed with a commitment to the abolition of that artificial barrier to the rights of an American citizen. I remember the thing that I used in my speech, that a black pencil salesman on the outer door of the Sumter County Courthouse could make a better judgment about who ought to be sheriff than two highly educated professors at Georgia Southwestern College.
The point of the book is, and what Tolstoy points out in the epilogue is, that he didn't write the book about Napoleon or the Czar of Russia or even the generals, except in a rare occasion. He wrote it about the students and the housewives and the barbers and the farmers and the privates in the army. And the point of the book is that the course of human events, even the greatest historical events, are not determined by the leaders of a nation or a state, like Presidents or governors or senators. They are controlled by the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment and unselfishness and compassion and love and idealism of the common ordinary people. If that was true in the case of Russia where they had a czar or France where they had an emperor, how much more true is it in our own case where the Constitution charges us with a direct responsibility for determining what our government is and ought to be?
That the Democrats lost to Reagan... They have a lot to answer for, good as Reagan was. Note that on the next page of Thompson's book, he goes on to say this:
Earlier in the interview, Perlstein says this:
Why do you think that is? How did Reagan overcome the dominant culture of the time? Was it just easier for America to stop thinking about all the bad things that were happening?
Well, first it’s Reagan. The issue of Reagan’s intelligence is a controversial thing. Liberal friends love to dismiss him as dumb. Everyone has a Reagan story that allows us to dismiss him and his appeal. For example, people would make fun of the fact that while in office he would only read one-page memos. Well, so did FDR, because it’s a good management technique. But whatever you think about his intelligence, what’s unquestionable is that Reagan had extraordinary emotional intelligence. He could sense the temperature of a room, and tell them a story and make them feel good. And that’s more fun, right? It’s more fun to feel good than feel bad. That’s part of our human state. And also that’s what leaders are for. Leaders are for calling people to their better angels, for helping guide them to a kind of sterner, more mature sense of what we need to do. To me, Reagan’s brand of leadership was what I call “a liturgy of absolution.” He absolved Americans almost in a priestly role to contend with sin. Who wouldn’t want that? But the consequences of that absolution are all around us today. The inability to contend with climate change. The inability to call elites to account who wrecked the economy in 2008. The inability to reckon with the times when we fall short.
So you can see that Carter the presidential campaigner, at least, and Reagan the campaigner, were tapping into the same vein. So why did Carter fail and Reagan succeed? What happened between Law Day and Inaugural Day?