Mined from the notebooks. Sunday, September 4, 2016. Posted Sunday, October 9.
Newlyweds: Ensign James Earl Carter and his bride the former Rosalynn Smith. July 7, 1946. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Carter National Historic Site via PBS and The Washington Post.
Jimmy Carter padded his resume a bit when he ran for President in 1976.
He made a point of telling voters he’d been a farmer, a businessman, an engineer, and a nuclear physicist. He couldn’t hide the fact he’d been governor of Georgia but he didn’t emphasize it or, rather, he treated it matter of factly, as not something worth boasting about, unlike those other jobs he’d held. He was much prouder of those things. What he was really proud of, though, was that they let him run for President as not just another politician. He’d held real jobs. Done real work. Demonstrated real talent and ability. He was knowledgeable and skilled in many fields.
His resume, selectively evaluated and applied, helped him run in the first presidential election after Watergate as an outsider and a populist. He wasn’t like those political animals in Washington. Most definitely not like that scheming liar Richard Nixon.
For the same reasons, he was prouder of things he wasn’t or he could make it sound that way when he was on the stump. Here he is in Iowa in 1975, as described by Rick Perlstein in The Invisible Bridge:
The event, on February 26, 1975, was the first of Carter’s unprecedented twenty-one campaign visits to the state---the first of many time perhaps (for the event was too far below the radar for any record of it to have been preserved) in which he drawled winsomely that, since his assets were already listed in his campaign literature, he would instead note his liabilities.
“I’m not a lawyer.” (A good laugh line.)
“I’m not from Washington.” (That one was even better.)
“I’m not a member of Congress.” (Bull’s-eye.)
“I’ve never been part of the national government.” That line, a reporter said, drew so much laughter that he couldn’t continue.
He was a farmer. But almost only nominally in 1976. He’d grown up on a farm but by the time he ran for president his primary non-political occupation was a warehousing and seed-growing business for other farmers. So he was a businessman. It was a stretch calling himself an engineer but not too much of one. He studied engineering in college at Georgia Tech and then at the Naval Academy and as an officer in the submarine corps he was expected to know his way around an engine room and every other part of a sub.
As he relates in his recent memoir, A Full Life:
While not on duty, each officer was responsible for supervising one of the major functions of the ship’s operations. In addition, I was expected to learn from experienced enlisted men about every valve, pipe, lever, switch, hatch, torpedo, compass wheel or instrument that was used in the normal operation of the ship and in times of combat or other emergencies.
If things broke down, Ensign Carter had to know how to fix them in a hurry. Which happened now and then.
On one occasion we had a fire in our engine room while submerged, and, as engineering officer, I was the leading firefighter. I donned the appropriate clothing and gas mask, discovered the source of the fames in the main motor, and directed the application of carbon dioxide and dry powder, since water or foam could not be used. I was wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone to the captain, and I reported that the fire was under control. The next thing I remember was lying on a table in the crew’s mess room with a hospitaman’s mate trying to get me to breathe oxygen.
So I suppose he could have added firefighter to his resume.
As for nuclear physicist, that was a bit of creative licensing. He’d studied some physics, having taken a few graduate level courses when he was a young officer recently recruited into Hyman Rickover’s newly formed nuclear-powered submarine corps. What nuclear physics he actually knew, he learned by doing. Rickover sent him and another young officer along with a team of seamen to the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York,---where he could have crossed paths with my grandfather, Pop Mannion’s father, a metallurgist at GE---to assist in building one of the twin nuclear engines that would power the USS Seawolf, the Navy’s second nuclear-powered submarine, then under construction. And while he was at GE, he took those classes at nearby Union College.
Union is practically right down the street from Mom and Pop Mannion’s house, the house I grew up in. Pop Mannion’s best friend taught computer science there. Pop taught there himself for a year. At his friend’s urging, he was trying it out while on a sabbatical from the state university at Albany to see if he was interested in making a change. (He decided the place was too small and the faculty too chatty. He wondered when his potential future colleagues got any work done, they were so busy yakking it up in the department halls.) I had friends who went to school there. I went to dances and parties and concerts and plays on its campus. I considered going there myself but I had an itch to move away from home and as Oliver Mannion likes to say, “Thank God for that or you’d never have met mom and I wouldn’t be here.” Our good blogging buddy, Chad Orzel, teaches physics there. My nephew, Lyle Mannion’s son, was accepted at Union. But he was accepted by RPI too and RPI won.
All this is to say I’m familiar with the place, So when at Father Blonde’s funeral last Saturday [August 27] one of Mrs M’s cousins told us that his son would be starting school there this fall, I had some things to tell him. Some of what I told him was in answer to his actual questions.
One was that the college scenes in The Way We Were were filmed at Union. It was big news that Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford were being spotted here and there about and around town. A teacher at the high school got a job as an extra and was that close to both of them. He can be glimpsed at the punch bowl in the scene at the college dance. Redford, he reported, was short.
Another bit of trivia I passed along is that when I was a kid Union’s one claim to presidential greatness was that Chester A. Arthur graduated from there. There’s a statue of him on campus. The statue got a bit part in The Way We Were too. There’s a brief scene in which Redford and Bradford Dillman, playing their characters’ young selves as a pair of campus cut-ups, put a fishing pole in the statue’s hand as a prank.
Nowadays, of course, as I told Mrs M’s poor too-polite to look bored or wander away cousin, Union can claim, with more pride but less accuracy, Jimmy Carter as one of their own, and, I said, I think they should erect a statue of Carter to honor him. But, I added, the statue should acknowledge the reason behind Carter’s connection to the school and depict him not as President or elder statesman and humanitarian but as a young Navy officer. In fact, it should depict this incident from when he was an ensign serving aboard the non-nuclear sub Pomfret in 1949 and a storm came up while the Pomfret was running along the surface. I told Mrs M’s cousin the story, but here’s Carter telling the story himself in A Full Life:
I was standing watch on the bridge about two hours after midnight, with my feet on the slatted wooden deck, when I saw an enormous wave dead ahead. I ducked down beneath the chest-high steel protector that surrounded the front of the bridge and locked my arms around the safety rail. The wave, however, smothered our ship, several feet above my head. I was ripped loose, lifted up, and carried away from the ship. This was my first experience with impending death, but when the wave receded I found myself on the main deck directly aft of the bridge and was able to cling to our five-inch gun. In the interval before the next wave, I scrambled back onto the bridge, where I found the lookouts hugging their protective rail, drenched above their waists. We all donned life preservers, and I tethered myself in place with a rope. If we had been traveling just a few degrees at an angle to the waves, I would have been lost at sea. It would have been impossible for the ship to return to the same site, and finding me in the dark would have been a hopeless effort. The next morning I made a report to the captain, but with a minimum of dramatic effect, just telling him that I had been swept from the bridge, landed on the afterdeck, and recovered without injury.
He reported it to the captain “with a minimum of dramatic effect”? Hard to imagine any less dramatic retelling of the story than the one he gives in A Full Life, but never mind. That’s the scene I think the statue should show, young Ensign Carter clinging to the gun mount while the ocean swirls around him.
When Carter was running for president as a farmer, didn’t fail to mention he’d been in the Navy. Counting his time at the Academy, he served for about ten years. He told that story or encouraged to get told. It was hardly on par with JFK’s PT-109 heroics but it portrayed Ensign Carter as a brave, unflappable, and resourceful young officer and implied the potential for heroism while emphasizing his humility. Carter was vain about his modesty.
“You almost drowned, Governor Carter?”
“Shucks, Ah hardly thought about it. Ah was more concerned for my shipmates.”
What he didn’t emphasize or what I don’t recall him emphasizing is that he was a young officer on the rise. He was on the command track. If he hadn’t left the Navy, he’d have very likely been made captain of his own sub within a few years.
But his father died in 1953 and for reasons he claims in his memoir he still can’t entirely explain he felt obligated to resign his commission and return to Georgia to take over the family business.
The decision almost cost him his marriage. Rosalynn had no wish to return to Plains and the stifling, narrow-minded, parochial small town life she believed she and Jimmy had long outgrown and left behind for good. She liked being a navy wife for the independence it allowed her. (Jimmy was often away at sea, and she commanded the homefront while he was gone with a freehand and a confidence most housewives of the time could only dream of.) And she was, although shy and not particularly socially ambitious for her own, she was ambitious for her husband who was highly regarded by his superiors and definitely on the command track. What she didn’t realize at the time was that her multi-talented and extremely ambitious husband had just exchanged the command track in one profession for what would prove to be the ultimate command track in another. Politics.
Carter wouldn’t have liked saying in in so many words, because it went against the central theme of his campaign, but it was implicit whenever he did talk about his time as governor: Among his many skills, talents, and accomplishments was that he was an extremely smart and gifted politician. Practically a natural. Arguably born to be president.
His competence at almost everything he set his hand to, his wide-ranging intelligence and extensive breadth of knowledge, was the basis of Dan Aykroyd’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live.
The “Ask President Carter” sketch is so funny because of its inherent truthfulness. It was possible to imagine Carter being able and happy to help people with their most mundane but practical problems, from explaining to a frustrated postal worker how to recalibrate the armature on a malfunctioning automatic letter sorting machine to talking a strung-out teenager down from a bad acid trip.
The “Pepsi Syndrome” skit in which Aykroyd’s Carter attempts to shut down a nuclear power plant in full meltdown and is mutated by exposure to the radiation into the amazing colossal President was inspired by Carter’s visit to Three Mile Island after the disaster there. But it had a biographical fact behind it too.
When he was in the Navy, Rickover sent Carter and part of his crew from GE to help dismantle and rebuild a Canadian nuclear power plant that had been destroyed by an accident that had resulted in a meltdown of the reactor. Carter and his men took turns working in ninety-second shifts inside the reactor. They wore protective gear that probably didn’t protect them very much.
So, Rosalynn was almost certainly right. If he’d stayed in the Navy, he probably would have risen very high. Possibly becoming an admiral. Possibly rising even higher. Oliver Mannion gets a kick out of imagining an alternative universe in which people remember former Secretary of the Navy James Earl Carter or even former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Carter.
Since his days as president, Carter has added painter, poet, novelist, and carpenter, plumber, and electrician to his resume. Teacher has been available to him all along. The title of his memoir, A Full Life, is the opposite of resume padding. It’s an understatement.
That Carter was good at pretty much everything he set his mind to reminds me of one of my---and Oliver’s---favorite moments from The West Wing.
President Bartlet and his wife Abbey, the doctor, are having one of their many minor affectionate arguments in which Abbey expresses her usual frustrations about being married to the President of the United States. Bartlet defends himself and their marriage by pointing out that things could have been worse. She could have married an astronaut.
Bartlet: Did you know that hardly any of the guys who landed on the moon are married to the same people they were married to before they went there?
Abbey (baffled by what strikes her as a complete non-sequitur): What?
Bartlet: I'm just saying that it could be worse. I could have been an astronaut.
Abbey (Not about to put up with any of his self-aggrandizing arrogance): You could not have been an astronaut.
Bartlet: I’d have been a great astronaut.
Abbey: You're afraid of heights, speed, fire and small places!
Bartlet (after almost conceding the point): I’d have overcome it to go to the moon.
At which point Abbey remembers just what kind of man she’s married to.
Abbey (with as much love and admiration as exasperation): I know you would have.
I imagine similar conversations took place regularly around the Carter household. Are probably still taking place.
I believe Jimmy Carter could have been an astronaut if he’d set his mind to it, and he’d have been a good one, the commander of a moon mission, perhaps. He over-achieved in everything he did.
Until, of course, he became president.
Carter's memoir, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, his novel The Hornet's Nest, and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Pelstein are available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
“Ask President Carter.” You didn’t think I would try to get away without posting it, did you?