THERE'S A fleeing-frontrunner motif to the Big Race so far, and bruited in the pages of the liberal press are some distinct flight images: Ronald Reagan running hither and yon to regain $90 billion worth of lost ground; Gerald Ford running for daylight, daylight which for him must come in regular bursts on the first Friday and the 20th of each month with the proclamation of jobless and price index figures; and, most recently, Jimmy Carter running for cover from forays into his past.
None of these men deserve to be called frontrunners, of course; their campaign gains are as yet neither lasting nor solid. But, however prematurely they have earned the dubbing as pack leaders, the scalpels (if not hatchets) of the scrutinizers of the Fourth Estate have been waiting for them at every turn. The press's track record with respect to Carter in the last month gives a fair indication of what to expect, both good and bad, from the journalists who gave us a very un-scrutinized Richard Nixon four years ago--they have not forgotten that egregious lapse.
First, the good signs. Even before the returns filtered in from Democratic delegate caucuses in Iowa and Oklahoma, which launched Carter into contender status, reporters were heading toward Atlanta to begin checking into the former Georgia governor's record and the veracity of his campaign rhetoric. Ex-Georgia legislator Julian Bond, a black, had hinted in speeches in New England before Christmas that he, for one, was not in the Carter camp, and didn't esteem Carter as the paradigm of a civil rights candidate. (Carter's press releases had claimed Bond and all other Georgia civil rights leaders were faithfully in the fold.)
So Bond's hints gave the invading investigators a lead to look into, as did all those ballyhooed claims that Carter had trimmed "Big Government" and inefficiency in his 1970-1974 tenure in the Governor's mansion. At the same time, out on the Iowa delegate trail, the roving press pundits following Carter took note of his expediently pliant statements on abortion. Columnists Robert Evans and William Novak inveighed against Carter's abortion hedging, and major liberal newspapers and magazines picked up the theme. Robert Healy, executive editor and grand polemicist of the Boston Globe, entered the fray with a series of columns denouncing Carter as a "pseudo-liberal," and Marty Peretz's New Republic, reversing its favorable review of Carter in an earlier issue, took up the same chameleon chant. One of Healy's political reporters, Curtis Wilkie, produced in the January 25 editions of the Globe the first--and to date, most even-handed piece--on Carter's guber-natorial race and subsequent administration.
Wilkie's story told of Carter's Miachiavellian campaign against liberal ex-Governor Carl Sanders, his strategy of playing to the "redneck" vote and, hence, his tactic of not attacking old-time racists Lester Maddox and Roy Harris. The story also let the air out of Carter's inflated boasts that he streamlined state government without orphaning social programs, by pointing out the confusion in the newly-created juggernaut Department of Human Resources. But the Globe story fairly assessed the divergent opinions of experts on the outcome of Carter's efficiency measures, and pointed out both his post-election emasculation of Maddox and Harris's power and his progressive course of improving prisons, restraining banks and hiring blacks.
On the other side of the ledger, there were some not-so-good aspects to the press's performance on Carter. The Village Voice's Alexander Cockburn developed a monomania for blasting Carter as a "reactionary," which is all very fine, but misrepresented his positions on the death penalty, aid to New York City and right-to-work laws, which is not. Cockburn's penchant for hyperbole is particularly regrettable since his more general case, that Carter is slick and exhibits rightist tendencies, is a convincing one. The real hatchet job, though, appeared in Harper's last week. One of the feistier dirtdaubers in Atlanta, Steven Brill, weighed in with a piece, "Jimmy Carter's Pathetic Lies," that produced the biggest stir in the campaign to date. Carter Press Secretary Jody Powell issued a full-blown rebuttal (Globe, Feb. 6) that, while leaving certain allegations of Carter's duplicity unresolved, left little doubt that Brill played fast and loose with the facts.
The irony of the present campaign is that all of the four leading center-to-liberal Democratic candidates who have held elective office--Carter, Harris, Bayh and Udall--are relatively progressive politicians elected from bedrock conservative constituencies. They are tenacious politicians to have survived such milieus, and it is very possible that each has more than his share of compromise, craftiness and downright dirt lurking in his political past.
Still, this is not to dismiss Carter's glaring vulnerabilities. The Nation, Washington Monthly, The Progressive and other prominent liberal publications have played patsy with "Grinny" Jimmy Earl Carter, while their abovementioned counterparts have neglected to ask him hard questions about his halfway unemployment cures, his "voluntary" busing plan that has failed to integrate Atlanta schools, and his corporation-tilted tax reform proposals. All in all, it's been a mixed performance for the boys on the bus.