Carter vs. the Clamshell: round one is a standoff

Inside, an impeccable incumbent fields the easy questions
By DIANNE DUMANOSKI  |  May 7, 2009

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This article was originally published in the Boston Phoenix on May 1, 1979

PORTSMOUTH, NH – The presidential party arrives in a rush through the side door near the stage, and those in the audience at Portsmouth High School stand to applaud. Many are on their toes and crane their necks to catch a glimpse of Jimmy Carter in the confusion down front. Reporters in the White House press corps scramble for seats. The network camera crews clamber onto the special scaffolding and begin setting up. Suddenly Carter is on the stage, smiling broadly and striding to the lectern, which bears the presidential seal. He beams for a moment before the huge American flag pinned onto the backdrop. The word "impeccable" gets scribbled into the notebook: he looks as perfect as a male model in a magazine. The hair, the pinstriped navy suit, the (television) blue shirt, the blue-and-gray-striped tie, and the bronzed complexion. "Is he wearing makeup?" a reporter whispers. It is impossible to tell.

Carter chooses to begin with a reminiscence about Portsmouth during his '76 primary campaign, the campaign that transformed an obscure one-term governor from Georgia into a presidential contender. He seems a bit off balance and recounts the incident a little awkwardly. At first it is difficult to grasp his point. When he was spending the night at the home of a family in Portsmouth, he says, he learned that he had been named as one of the 10 best-dressed men in the world. "During that political campaign, I had three blue suits that cost $42 each&ldots;.Three blue suits in a political campaign was good enough to get elected."

Even three inflationary years ago, finding a $42 suit itself would have been a feat, enough of one no doubt to qualify Carter also as a finalist in the world bargain-hunting championship. But factual quibbles aside, Carter seemed to be reaching across the perceptible chasm between himself and those in the audience. He was trying to be one of the people again, jes'-plain-folks Jimmy, a guy who shopped at Sears, like them. Casting himself as a Washington outsider in 1976, he had run well in New Hampshire, a state whose people have never had much use for government, federal or otherwise.

Still, trying to play Everyman in the middle of a presidential entourage is a tough act, rife with ironies. "The people of New Hampshire are important to me&ldots;.Portsmouth, Meredith, Keene are not just names on a map. They are voices and faces of friends who told me about their hopes for the country&ldots;." He reminisces again about meeting people in their kitchens and living rooms, in drugstores and beano parlors. The last reference provokes chuckles.

***

The contrast between those early, freewheeling campaign days and today's event, the kickoff of Jimmy Carter's campaign for re-election, is striking. Every detail of this "town meeting" has been carefully planned by Carter's advance staff and the Secret Service; there are no loose ends. Movement inside and outside the high school is controlled. Large areas have been cordoned off. The press is to enter by one door, the audience by another. The anti-nuclear protesters have been relegated to their soccer field. There will be no confrontations. Members of the audience arrive an hour and a half early, bearing blue invitations with the presidential seal, which they'd received after being selected in a drawing. Those wishing to attend had returned coupons printed in local newspapers. From 2000 or so applications, the local League of Women Voters selected 850 names. Most in the crowd look middle-aged. One balding man tugs at his tie. He appears ill-at-ease in his best suit. Another sports a double-knit leisure suit; his wife wears a demure pink dress and sensible shoes.

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