CHAPTER 9 October 1, 1986
“This has given us a lot of ideas for ours,
” said a smiling Ronald Reagan to an unsmiling Rosalynn Carter, as the incumbent president concluded a quick tour of his predecessor’s new library.
“Yes,” agreed Nancy, who was thinking: ideas for what not
to do. All these kitsch displays: the “Peanut Brigade” banner from ’76; the kids’ letters—“Please stop people from killing the whales”—and worse, Carter’s replies to them, signed “Jimmy.”
“Good,” said Rosalynn, without adding any words or warmth.
The two presidential couples filed out into the sunshine, toward the speakers’ platform, as the Fort McPherson army band played “Hail to the Chief.” Nancy looked over the four circular pavilions that had just been constructed on this hillside and thought they looked like a monotonous world’s fair.
Still, as much as she tried, it was hard for her to dislike the Carters themselves. No matter how prudish and pickle-pussed the two of them might be, there was no getting away from how much they had done for her and Ronnie—first, by defeating the Fords, whom she had no trouble at all disliking; and then, once in the White House, by screwing up so badly they seemed to have spent their whole four years rolling out a red carpet for the Reagans. Someone on Mike Deaver’s staff used to refer to the thirty-ninth president as “the Mastermind,” insisting that Jimmy Carter was the greatest Republican strategist of all time.
Nancy looked back at the building they’d just exited, as if to pay the design a compliment with some extra attention. She was actually trying to take comfort in the thought of how Carter’s papers were now neatly stored in towering rows of banker’s boxes that ran along a huge curving wall. Even failure could be made to look like accomplishment; something settled, achieved
. So maybe there was hope for her and Ronnie if things really did fall apart.
No, things could fall to such smithereens that even an illusion became impossible to construct. Nixon’s library still wasn’t built, and from what she heard it would be a penny arcade of cheap statues and props, while the documents it ought to house remained far away under the government’s lock and key, serving the prison term that Nixon had avoided.
She and Ronnie, along with the Carters, reached the platform. Applause—and jeers—could be heard from the crowd of spectators on the hillside. Nancy for a moment couldn’t tell if the disapproval related to the Sandinistas or South Africa—probably the latter, given that most of Atlanta’s black establishment was here for the dedication. She looked over at Carter, who had just taken his seat; today was the first time she’d seen him in five years, since the night Ronnie had sent all the ex-presidents off to Sadat’s funeral. She regarded his pursed preacherly lips and thought of the handwritten notes to Sadat and Begin now on display in the library behind them, signed “JC,” as if they were memos from Christ himself, ordering the tribes in his Holy Land to make peace.
Well, she thought, it was decent of him to pout over the disrespect the protesters were showing Ronnie. But after a few more seconds she realized the reason for his sour expression: he
was being protested, too! She strained to make out the chant that had gone up: YOU TAKE THE HIGH ROAD! WE’LL TAKE THE NO ROAD!
On the flight down, one of the advance men had told her that a lot of locals opposed the four-lane highway being built to bring people here; the courts had actually halted construction for a while. These boos must be putting a bit of a damper on JC’s sixty-second birthday—not that his successor’s unavoidable presence hadn’t already cast a pall over it. Ninety percent of the news cameras here would be leaving halfway through the program, as soon as Ronnie finished his speech.
She waved hello to Carter’s little strawberry-blond granddaughter, who would cut the ribbon. The girl looked just the way awful little Amy, who’d grown up into more of a slob than Patti, had looked during JC’s White House days. His deciding to quote her on “nuclear proliferation,” as if she were some Quiz Kid, during the ’80 debate! Another gift from the gods.
In one way it was good that she and Ronnie hadn’t gotten to the White House sooner than they did. Had that happened, Patti, who actually did talk about nuclear proliferation, might have been living with them, as the world’s most impossible college student, foisting people even worse than that horrible Caldicott woman on her soft touch of a father.
Nancy looked at her tiny platinum wristwatch.
“I often get invited to library dedications,” spoke the president. “There aren’t that many people still around who knew Andrew Carnegie.”
Jimmy Carter displayed his large, recently whitened teeth to the crowd, imitating amusement while he stole a glance at Mondale, the other person here who’d had the experience of playing straight man to this dunce on a national debate stage. Carter noticed, to his dismay, that Fritz’s stomach, larger than when he’d last seen it, was shaking agreeably. His own vice president was actually enjoying
this. I can think of no other country on Earth where two political leaders could disagree so widely yet come together in mutual respect.
The old actor was sounding
generous while really paying himself a compliment, letting the audience trick itself into thinking that the thirty-ninth president had a peanut shell’s worth of respect for the fortieth. This business of pretending that we’re “all Americans” just trivially separated by party labels was the domestic version of the “moral equivalence” that Reagan and his kind—chief among them Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Democrat—were always deploring on the international plane.
Reagan was now praising Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian,” as well as his sister, Ruth, recently swallowed by the pancreatic cancer that stalked the family—and was likely to get them all before long. He himself was expecting a short ex-presidency, and he was determined to do something different and redemptive with it. Jimmy Carter spoke these words in his inaugural address as governor of Georgia: “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.”
The man being quoted adjusted his smile to something grave and appreciative; he avoided meeting Coretta King’s gaze, so as not to appear to be fishing for additional compliments. But a part of him longed to have a lapel microphone into which he could say to Reagan: “Yes, and you
started your 1980 campaign against me talking about states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi.” The thought of that murderous hamlet, with three civil rights workers buried in an earthen dam, left him righteous—and ever so slightly uneasy. He had come a long way in his ideological life, as far forward as Reagan had gone backward, but he still hoped the papers from this gubernatorial campaign Reagan was referencing would remain unprocessed a while longer, lest some zealous researcher become intrigued by a few leaflets that might suggest why Jimmy Carter had actually gotten only five percent of the black Georgia vote in 1970. . . . using his gifts—in particular, his superb intelligence . . .
Reagan made intelligence sound like a handicap, the way his aides had mocked his predecessor for actually reading the Air Force budget instead of just approving it. Looking out into the audience, Carter observed Sam Nunn, the sort of conservative Democrat on his way to extinction and thus, like a liberal Republican, highly respected. He knew that Nunn considered Reagan’s supposed toughness to be the proper antidote to Jimmy Carter’s own now-legendary weakness, and his jaw jutted forward at the thought of the false comparison. If he’d
made a deal for Daniloff like the one announced yesterday, there’d have been a dozen cartoons in the papers this morning depicting him as a frightened bunny rabbit. Eight years ago, on his
watch, two Russian spies had gotten fifty years in jail apiece, whereas Zakharov had just been allowed to leave the U.S. with a plea of nolo contendere
—and been given permission to come back in five years! That was Reagan’s toughness
. . . . your countrymen still have vivid memories of your time in the White House . . .
He could see two aides smirking, as if to say “Do they ever,” and then realized that one of them wasn’t even Reagan’s but a guy who’d worked for him
! . . . repairing to a quiet place to receive the latest word on the hostages you did so much to free, or studying in your hideaway office for the meeting at Camp David . . .
It was as if the class football hero had been ordered to pay tribute to the class grind. And there’s only one thing left to say. From the fortieth president to the thirty-ninth, happy birthday. And, Mr. President, if I could give you one word of advice: Life begins at seventy!
As everyone laughed—including Fritz, with god-awful gusto—the former president realized that this was the line that would play on the evening news. There you
go again, you son of a bitch. He had to trump him, or at least come up with something sufficiently gracious to guarantee a few words of his own on tonight’s broadcasts. So at the top of his typewritten remarks, he quickly penciled in a new lead: Having heard you speak, Mr. President, I finally, for the first time, understand why you won and I lost.
It was the sort of lie he’d once promised never to tell the American people. The truth was he’d come to understand this long ago.
Copyright © 2015 by Thomas Mallon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.