The bias that Carter encountered
Jody Powell was indicating the other day that he felt the President had been pretty much sandbagged by his foes in Washington and the North. He didn't quite say so, but it was clear that Powell saw much of Jimmy Carter's trouble in the presidency as stemming from the unfriendly climate which he encountered here and which persisted and grew with his years in the White House.
Powell is both wrong and right. President Carter promised he could and would make government work. He did, but only in part, and not enough to convince the voters he had earned another four years.
When a president makes such a promise, he cannot later say that this or that factor prevented its fulfillment. Implied in a presidential candidate's commitment (certainly as it will be interpreted by press and public) is that he has taken all possible negative factors into account.
But Powell is right about the unfriendly climate. Much of it was simply anti-Southern, anti-Georgian, and anti-Southern country people. It came mainly from Northern city dwellers, many of them from minority groups who, undoubtedly without sensing it, were expressing a bias against those in the United States who have long suffered from post-Civil War prejudice.
Reporters first noticed this anti-Carter feeling at the New York convention in 1976 where New Yorkers were giving only grudging backing to the new Democratic standard bearer. There was no wild excitement about Carter. Instead , there was widespread suspicion about this man who came from the South and, more than that, was so deeply involved in his Southern Baptist religion.
Even when reassured that Carter was a "liberal" and courageous in dealing with civil rights questions, these New York Democrats, predominantly Jewish or Roman Catholic, still remained cool to the Georgian. Because of this reticence toward Carter, Gerald Ford almost won New York that fall.
Among the minorities in the North (except the blacks) and among the liberals in general President Carter never was accepted. They treated him as a stranger, and their suspicion never let up.
These skeptics were particularly irritated by the President's avowals of deep faith. They sometimes laughed at his disclosure of having been "born again" and his daily prayer and his regular church and Sunday school activity. They never seemed to understand how genuinely committed the President was to his religion. Instead, they would make out Mr. and Mrs. Carter to be sanctimonious and even hypocritical.
So it was that, when Senator Kennedy decided to rally the liberals in a crusade to unseat the President, he found them coming behind him immediately -- and eagerly.
Certainly some of this zeal to oppose Carter stemmed from the feeling that the President had not done enough in support of social programs. And certainly, too, Democratic liberals don't need much prodding to get behind a Kennedy for president. But when you talked to these liberals you found something else -- this suspicion, this prejudice, centered on where Carter came from, on where he went to Church, and on his deep involvement in his religion. Some of the very people who have suffered so much from bigotry through the years were, again unknowingly, expressing a kind of bigotry against the President.
Billy Carter helped to underscore the Northern-held concept of the President and his friends as coming out of Dogpatch. Put Billy Carter in a Northern big city and the liberals would quickly excuse him, perhaps as being ill or eccentric. But there was little sympathy from liberals for Billy even after it was disclosed he was being treated for alcoholism.
So Jody Powell had it right, or mostly right. His President didn't get entirely a square deal here in the North. He was treated with suspicion, and unfairly so.