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The Last of the Straight-Shooters : TURNING POINT: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age, By Jimmy Carter ; (Times Books: $22; 211 pp.)

January 03, 1993|Robert Dallek | Dallek, a specialist in recent American history at UCLA, is the author of, among other books, "Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960," which is just out in paperback from Oxford University Press.

To most Americans, politics is a dirty business in which operators--usually lawyers, lobbyists and special interests--indulge themselves at public expense. The current affinity for term limits grows out of decades of cynicism about the country's elected officials.

There is ample reason for the public's sour mood. Scandals, abuse of voting rights, unrepresentative government dominated by self-serving advocates, all have punctuated our history. The Credit Mobilier, the Whiskey Ring, Teapot Dome, Pendergast, Tammany Hall, poll taxes, Mayors James Curley, Jimmy Walker and Richard Daley, "Landslide Lyndon," Richard Nixon and Watergate, Speaker Jim Wright, the Keating Five and the House Bank are only a representative sample of the underside of American politics. It all brings to mind James Russell Lowell's lament: "Truth forever on the scaffold / Wrong forever on the throne."

But not quite. Over the years, reformers responding to abuses have won their share of fights to improve the nation's political life. Mugwumps, Populists, Progressives, New Dealers, Fair Dealers, civil-rights advocates, Ralph Nader, Common Cause and good-government folks at the national, state, and local level have constantly struggled to preserve democracy and elect honest officials more concerned with the general interest than selfish ones.

Although the need for reform is a constant in the rough-and-tumble of American politics, progress toward more honest, representative government has been a distinctive feature of the 20th Century. Primaries, referenda, recalls, constitutional amendments extending voting rights to women and blacks, civil-rights statutes and Supreme Court decisions--above all the "one man one vote" ruling of 1962--have made the country's political life more democratic and less corrupt.

No President in recent U.S. history has been more committed to advancing the cause of good government and political democracy at home and abroad than Jimmy Carter. Indeed, no Chief Executive in his presidential and post-presidential careers has been a greater moral conscience of the nation than the citizen politician from the rural town of Plains, Georgia.

Carter's new book, "Turning Point," a memoir of his first campaign for a Georgia Senate seat, will add luster to his historical reputation as a man who fought the good fight at every turn. This slender volume recounts Carter's successful uphill battle to overcome "the conservative political establishment" in rural Georgia, where intimidating voters and stuffing ballot boxes was a way of life. In 1964, a Georgia state senator whimsically proposed an amendment to the state's election code that would bar voting by those who had been deceased for more than three years.

Carter's story of dogged determination in the face of very long odds to overcome entrenched corruption and advance the rule of law is both entertaining and inspiring. We meet characters who are the envy of a novelist's imagination: Joe Hurst, for example, the corrupt boss of Quitman County who bragged about "fixing" the vote against Carter. When told he didn't need to stuff the ballot box to win, Hurst replied, "I'm going to do it anyway. . . . We do it every time, and I don't want my people to get out of practice."

The hero of this morality play is Jimmy Carter, though he makes no effort to convince us of that. He recounts events in a matter-of-fact way without the sort of editorializing that would make him appear self-righteous or immodest. By striking just the right tone, Carter makes an excellent case for the idea that the American political system, with all its flaws, works as well as, if not better than, any in the world.

Carter's book is not only a St.-George-slays-the-dragon tale; it is also a reminder of the great changes wrought in American politics in the 1960s by black demands for equal rights and the receptivity of the federal courts and some segments of white America to righting decades of injustice. "While this story is an intriguing tale of political shenanigans," Carter writes, "it also reflects the transformation of Georgia and America, for . . . more than half of our nation's state legislatures, in all regions, were elected by giving exaggerated weight to the votes of mostly white people in rural communities."

Carter accurately describes his 1962 campaign and that of others across the South and around the nation as "a turning point--the first real defeat for the old system on its own turf--that helped to end the legalized system of white supremacy, rural domination of government, and deprivation of civil rights among neighbors."

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