This is Part II of our look at how Doonesbury covered the Carter presidency. Last time, I discussed how Garry Trudeau addressed some of the political and economic questions that faced Americans as they approached the 1976 election: between the hangovers of a final defeat in Vietnam and the resignation of Richard Nixon on the one hand and a sharp and prolonged economic downturn on the other, the country’s bicentennial year was marked as much by profound uncertainty about the nation’s course and deep cynicism about its leadership as it was about celebrating the past.
To get some context for Carter’s first Doonesbury appearance, which happened shortly before the election, I’m going to look at a couple of pieces that helped define the candidate to the wider public, particularly younger readers: Hunter S. Thompson’s essay “Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith” (Rolling Stone 214, 3 June 1976), and Carter’s November 1976 interview with Playboy’s Robert Scheer.
Thompson’s article and the Playboy interview (including a separate reflective essay by Scheer that ran in the same issue) attempted to reconcile tensions in Carter’s persona that seemed to inform contradictory positions he held, especially regarding social issues like drugs, gay rights, and abortion, where his core Christian beliefs clashed with a fundamentally progressive political vision. Carter’s opponent, Gerald Ford, accused Carter of “flip-flopping” on a number of issues, but the contradictions went far deeper than any sort of policy reversal. As Scheer put it, it was unclear who “the real Jimmy Carter” was: a “Lincolnesque barefoot boy who swooped out of nowhere at a time when we needed him” or another “packaged and manipulative” politician; a laid-back Christian or a “proselytizer”; a New South populist or an Eastern establishment centrist? The cover of RS #214 also spoke to the ambiguity surrounding Carter, depicting him wearing the robes of a holy man with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulder.
“Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith” may well mark Thompson’s last instance of engaging with electoral politics with some degree of hope that the system might produce the kind of leadership that the American people deserved. That said, Carter’s traditional values forced Thompson to explain his admiration for him as a man and his enthusiasm for him as a candidate. While he tried to qualify his admiration for Carter by pointing out that there were many people he liked whom he “[didn’t] necessarily think should be president,” a specific version of Carter clearly appealed to Thompson’s political side and his vision of America as a place that promoted freedom. Though, as his title implied, voting for Carter would require “a certain leap of faith,” Thompson was convinced that Carter would govern in a way that would “allow him to stay as happy with his mirror in the White House as he [was] with his mirror” at the Carter home in Plains, Georgia. The version of Jimmy Carter that grabbed Thompson’s imagination found its clearest articulation the first time Thompson heard Carter speak, at an unveiling of a portrait of former Secretary of State Dean Rusk during a 1974 Law Day function at the University of Georgia, which Thompson attended as he was travelling with Ted Kennedy for a story.
By 1976 Thompson had embraced his role as a favorite of the college lecture circuit, indulging fans who tended to focus on the most amusing, but ultimately least interesting, elements of Gonzo journalism: tales of drug-fueled madness. That persona is central to Thompson’s account of his first encounter with Carter, notably his reflections on how a lifestyle anchored by a daily three-hour breakfast complete with a “bucket of Bloody Marys and … six lines of the best cocaine for dessert” was incompatible with the rigors of following a campaign. Yet while Thompson’s reflections accounts of pharmacological excess were already getting shop-worn, he hadn’t lost his gift for trenchant political writing in the years following his revolutionary coverage of the 1972 campaign: looking at Rusk’s portrait, he complained audibly that the artist had failed to include blood on the hands.
The Law Day speech was rescued from obscurity because Thompson, even in his drunken state – he writes that he had to surreptitiously refill a glass of “iced tea” from a bottle of bourbon stashed in a Secret Service car – recognized that he was listening to someone in a position of power say things such people don’t usually say out loud, so he taped the speech. Carter focused on the gap between the highest values of justice that the legal establishment claimed to aspire to and how the law was applied unfairly in a society built on race and class privilege. Carter cited two sources for his concept of justice: the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and “a very close friend of mine, a great poet named Bob Dylan.” Dylan’s songwriting had taught Carter “to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society”; Neibuhr gave Carter a way to think about how the law should function in a society as dynamic as the one captured in Dylan’s words. In a political system charged with “the sad duty … [of establishing] justice in a sinful world,” the law needed flexibility so as to maintain “equilibrium … [between] the forces and counter-forces” pushing for and against new claims for equality and social redress.
And yet, in Carter’s view, the law too often failed to do so. Carter pulled no punches when addressing the failure of Georgia’s legal establishment – embodied in the lawmakers, legal scholars, and jurists whom he addressed – to uphold the highest values of justice: he was there to talk about “the inadequacies of a system of which it’s obvious that you are so patently proud.” He slammed “the powerful and the influential” for failing to embrace the kind of change Neibuhr saw as necessary; they occupied “a privileged position in society of wealth or social prominence or higher education or opportunity” and necessarily wanted to protect a system that favored them. For Thompson, Carter’s commitment to use political power to help redress that kind of systematic injustice, and his vision of a government that was as “honest and truthful and idealistic and compassionate” as the American people could be was evidence that America could actually produce a kind of leadership that a free and dynamic people deserved.
Like Thompson, Scheer was uncharacteristically enthusiastic for Carter’s candidacy, copping to “[wondering] if Jimmy Carter is not too good to be true,” and feeling like a “spaced-out Moonie” covering the campaign. Yet as much as Scheer admired the man, and in some ways saw him as the ideal candidate for the times, Carter’s commitment to his Christian faith and the legacy of his transition from Old South patrician to liberal New South populist raised important questions. If the Law Day speech helped sell Thompson and his readers on Carter’s commitment to narrow the gap between America’s ideals and its realities, Scheer struggled to understand how Carter would balance his avowedly progressive political vision with his faith. Scheer was not alone in this regard: Carter’s seeming inability to clearly resolve the tension between those dynamics led to charges that he was an inveterate flip-flopper on social issues. Moreover, given Carter’s relatively late-coming criticisms of America’s war in Vietnam and his social standing as a White man from an elite family in the Jim Crow South, Scheer was eager to press him on how he had reconciled his role in a difficult past as he pledged to shepherd the nation to a better future.
Sitting down with Playboy gave the Carter campaign an opportunity to clarify the candidate’s stance on questions driving more liberal voters: for the typical Playboy reader, Carter’s faith, and the traditional sense of morality he built upon it, must’ve seemed incongruous at a time when much of the country was becoming more progressive about sexuality and drug use. Campaign manager (and future White House Chief of Staff) Hamilton Jordan saw the kind of people who read Playboy – younger men with a socially libertarian bent and upward aspirations – as people who were “probably predisposed towards Jimmy.” At the same time, Jordan was concerned that those potential Carter voters might not turn out “if they [felt] uneasy about” his potential positions on key social issues.
The long format of the interview (it was the longest interview Carter gave during the campaign, running across twelve pages; Scheer’s accompanying reflections were almost as long) gave Carter space to explore multilayered ideas in a nuanced way that was impossible in more soundbite-focused campaign coverage, revealing him to have a remarkably flexible mind that allowed him to navigate the line dividing traditional Christian morality from progressive social politics.
For Carter, there were no gray zones when it came to the precepts of Christian morality: when Sheer pushed him on the depth of his commitment to those ideals, he exclaimed “I can’t change the teachings of Christ! I can’t change the teachings of Christ!” Abortion, homosexuality and sex outside marriage were sinful, and that was non-negotiable. But Carter tempered that moral absolutism with an equally strong conviction, rooted in Niebuhr, that secular law should be a flexible force balancing competing impulses in a changing society. There was a productive ambivalence in Carter’s worldview: homosexuality was sinful, but laws liberalizing acceptable sexual behavior would help a society adapt to shifting mores. Likewise, while Carter’s faith told him that “abortion is wrong,” and he “personally favored” Georgia’s “more conservative” pre-Roe situation, as a political matter he accepted the ruling and as governor signed a bill that brought Georgia in line with Roe.
Aside from probing Carter on the intersection of faith and politics, Scheer hoped to better understand how Carter’s position as a member of the White Southern elite had shaped his experience of the two principal political questions of the previous twenty years, the war in Vietnam and the South’s reckoning with legalized racism. Scheer learned that while Carter understood these moments with the same kind of intellectual nuance that he demonstrated while discussing faith, morality, and the law, when it came to the question of his role in the Jim Crow South, he was ultimately unable to turn that sharp analytic lens onto himself and fully reckon with some regrettable decisions he’d made while living through horrible times.
Looking back on Vietnam, Carter claimed to have had doubts about the war for years, and expressed regret for not speaking out in favor of a full withdrawal until March 1971, which was a year after the illegal invasion of Cambodia and three years after Walter Cronkite’s famous post-Tet-offensive editorial signaled the mainstreaming of opposition to the war. His own failure to act in accordance with his values acknowledged, Carter was quick to absolve either party from blame for the tragedy, arguing that seeing Vietnam as a partisan question overlooked how the entire government – and most of the American people, he could have added – had, for most of its duration, supported the war no matter who was in power. What was more important was looking forward, and Carter pledged to work to heal the divides the war had wrought on America, starting with a pledge to pardon draft resisters his first week in office. (Carter signed Proclamation 4483, granting legal amnesty to draft dodgers, though not deserters, on his first day in office).
Carter understood resistance to the draft as a symptom of how race and class worked to perpetuate inequality in America. He saw a moral difference between those who had stayed home and faced the potential legal consequences of refusing to serve and those who had chosen to “hide in Sweden” to avoid prosecution. This distinction grew from his awareness that the draft had been inherently unjust: generally speaking, White men of relative means had been more able to avoid serving by staying in college or drawing on family connections. Carter therefore believed that “all of those poor, and often Black, young men” who fought in Vietnam were “more worthy of recognition than those who defected.”
This acknowledgement that structural inequality had shaped America’s experience of the war, however, stood in contrast with what Scheer saw as Carter’s incomplete reckoning with his actions during the Jim Crow era and the fight to undo Southern White supremacy. Scheer was frustrated with Carter’s seeming inability to see himself as someone who, given his position as a “patrician elite,” could not, regardless of his moral commitments, have lived them to their fullest.
At the Law Day event – less than a decade after the Voting Rights Act finally guaranteed the franchise to African-Americans in the South – Carter addressed the role of the law in upholding White supremacy in Jim Crow Georgia, reminding his audience that some of them were among those who, as members of the Georgia Bar Association, had greeted “with horror” Martin Luther King’s demands “that Black citizens be treated the same as White citizens.” Critically, Carter did not exempt himself from that withering criticism. Carter believed he had fallen short in his personal and political quest to advance justice, admitting to the “inadequacy of [his] own comprehension of what government ought to be for its people,” and he recalled his first speech in the Georgia Senate, advocating for abolishing a test that Black voters needed to pass before exercising the franchise. Using the inclusive “we,” Carter reminded his audience how “we had so proudly evolved” the exam “as a subterfuge to keep black citizens from voting,” and “we used [it] with a great deal of smirking and pride for decades.”
Two years later, Carter told Playboy that he regretted his silence and lack of action during the civil rights era, even musing that he might do more good by abandoning his campaign to go fight against White supremacist regimes in South Africa or Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Yet when it came to Carter’s reflections on the positions he’d taken during the civil rights era, Scheer didn’t see the kind of nuanced reckoning Carter had demonstrated when discussing the tensions between his faith and his commitment to progressive social policies, and sensed a degree of whitewashing of the past on Carter’s part.
There’s no one story that neatly encapsulates Carter’s lived attitudes towards Southern racial hierarchy. He was especially proud of an episode that occurred while he was in the Navy, when he and his crew had refused to attend a social function because a Black crewmate was unwelcome. While that’s true, it gives us only an incomplete portrait of the man and the times: what he didn’t talk about was how, as a school board member in Plains, he’d worked to uphold segregation and voted to shift resources from Black schools to White ones. Similarly, Carter had maintained an ambivalent position about race relations at the church he’d attended, verbally opposing its segregationist policies but not leaving to worship at an integrated church.
Yet as Carter and his family had sometimes played a part in perpetuating racial hierarchy, they also faced consequences for challenging the system: in the mid-60s, they were subjected to racist insults and had their property vandalized for supporting Lyndon Johnson and his civil rights policies.
For Scheer, nothing better revealed the ambiguities of Carter’s experience of living in Jim Crow Georgia as his family’s relationship with Koinonia, “an integrated communal farm run on Christian principles” not too far from the Carter homestead. While Carter maintained that he had done some work for Koinonia over the years, in violation of a White boycott against the integrated commune, one of the community’s founders could not recall him ever being there, and said that Carter was “no different” from other White people in the area; Carter was, in fact, a member of the local merchants’ board which led the boycott against Koinonia.
At the same time, even if Carter’s recollections of his past dealings with the community weren’t accurate, his family also supported Koinonia: Carter’s wife Roslyn used her influence to get a preacher to deliver a proper funeral service for a Koinonia child who had died when other pastors had refused to preach to an integrated flock.
As Scheer saw things, Carter was sanitizing a difficult part of his past because he couldn’t admit to himself that while he was, generally, “on the right side” of racial politics as he could be – at least, within the social limits imposed on patrician White families in the Old South – “he didn’t always act courageously.” Carter had taken unfortunate actions, not because he was a “closet racist,” but because he was “caught in a terrible time and he was only human.” Carter’s ambivalence about racial justice was not anomalous; indeed, it reflected how most White Americans approached the question. Carter may have “shunned” the “real heroes of the era” – the people of Koinonia – but, Scheer reminded his readers, so did “all of us.”
“The mythologizing of the past,” Scheer wrote, “leads naturally to the prettification of [the] present,” perhaps, especially, in the South, where in 1976 the echoes of Jim Crow were still evident in things like the regular use of the N-word and the lingering presence of Birchers and former members of White Citizens’ Councils among the Carter family’s extended social circle. Jimmy Carter’s political identity framed him as a leader who would set the nation on the path to healing from past trauma, but his own reckoning with that past was marked by “ambiguity,” political “packaging,” and a degree of “rewritten history.” And yet, Scheer, like Thompson, had a “visceral feeling” that Carter had “visceral feelings” about justice, and a desire to foster it. Over the next bunch of posts, we’ll look at how the Carter presidency, or at least the comic-strip version of it, delivered, or failed to deliver, on those expectations.
Okay: Apologies for a long post with no concrete references to Doonesbury. There was stuff I needed to work out so I could have a base from which to begin this exploration. Next time in the Doonesbury history of Jimmy Carter, we’ll see how some of these dynamics, from Carter’s relationship with Bob Dylan to his pardoning of the draft-dodgers to his appealing folksiness, played out in the strip, starting with GBT’s introduction of Carter, his family, and his political team to the Doonesbury cast. .
3 thoughts on ““I Can’t Change the Teachings of Christ!”: Hunter Thompson, Playboy, and the Moral Ambiguities of Jimmy Carter.”
a fantastic read as always – thank you, Paul!
Thanks, as always, for reading.