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The Presidency

A Tale of Two Southern Presidents

October 04, 1998|James C. Cobb | James C. Cobb, B. Phinizy Spalding distinguished professor of history at the University of Georgia, is the author of "The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity."

ATHENS, GA. — Last month, Jimmy Carter scolded fellow Southerner Bill Clinton for misleading the American people about his improper relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. Carter's remarks came on the 20th anniversary of the Camp David accords, his greatest achievement as president and the stimulus for his highest approval rating during his four years in office. It is a tad ironic that Carter's 75% approval rating then, after he had facilitated a giant step toward peace in the Middle East, is roughly equivalent to Clinton's today, after he has been nailed for adultery and quite possibly perjury and obstruction of justice. The story of the public's reaction to these two Southern presidents tells us a great deal about what has happened in U.S. politics, society and culture in the last quarter of the 20th century.

At the outset, Carter's conquest of the presidency reflected a Watergate-rocked nation's willingness to seek leadership from the risen and at least partly redeemed South. Although his election set off a Southern love feast, Carter was soon sent home from the picnic. When, in true Southern Baptist fashion, he began to preach about the need to lower expectations, his sermons fell on the deaf ears of a generation steeped in self-indulgence and instant gratification. His uninspiring oratory and his inability to deal with the Iranian hostage crisis sealed his bitter fate. He ultimately lost the presidency to an opponent whose jingoistic rhetoric and advocacy of states' rights and religious fundamentalism made him seem far more Southern than Carter himself. Indeed, both Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who put many a Southern demagogue to shame with his flogging of the Willie Horton episode, seemed much more traditionally Southern in their political styles than did Carter or does Clinton.

In the years between Carter's departure from and Clinton's arrival at the White House, much was heard about the Southernization of America. But the implication is decidedly negative. Instead of the affirmative message of reconciliation, tolerance and humility preached by Carter, the nation, it is said, has fallen captive to the dark underside of Southernness: the thinly veiled bigotry, intolerance and self-righteousness exemplified by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). It is a convenient but misleading generalization.

For starters, Gingrich and Lott are Republicans, not the race-mongering, Yankee-baiting, Democratic "Dixieland band" who once dominated Congress. Furthermore, the "Southern strategy," adopted by Richard M. Nixon and used by Reagan and Bush, which targeted Southern white males fed up with the Democratic Party's racial and socioeconomic liberalism, is increasingly difficult to distinguish from the campaign tactics Republicans employ elsewhere in the nation.

If this suggests the dangers of relying on old regional stereotypes, it doesn't mean that they are totally invalid, however. In his 1941 classic, "The Mind of the South," W.J. Cash described the white Southern male as "one of the most complete hedonists ever recorded. To bite off the nose or gouge out the eye of a favorite enemy . . . , to love harder than the next man, to be known eventually far and wide as a hell of a fellow--such would be his focus." On the other hand, the white Southerner's moral code was absolutely "mosaic in its sternness." Thus, his uncontrolled hedonism served constantly to "exacerbate the sense of sin in him and keep his zest for absolution always at white heat."

In his statement to the nation following his testimony to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, Clinton might have been thinking about how great it would be to chomp down on Ken's schnoz. Soon after, however, he was biting his lip, huddling with preachers and seeking forgiveness not only from God but from practically every other mortal on the planet. If Cash's description seems to fit Clinton well, it is less appropriate for Carter, who had puritanism aplenty but lacked even a redeeming smidgen of counterbalancing hedonism.

Neither Carter nor Clinton seems to exhibit what Cash called the obsessive "attachment to racial values" that typified white Southern males in general. In fact, both showed remarkable appeal with black voters, and it was a good thing, for despite claims that Carter had restored the old "solid" Democratic South, he actually received less than 50% of the white vote in the region. Clinton has fared even worse among white Southerners, gaining only roughly one-third of their votes. Until recently, Clinton would have had considerable difficulty defeating the Antichrist in a head-to-head vote among white Southern men.

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