Friday, July 15, 2011

Grits and Fritz

I have a strong picture in my mind of my family's living room on this night 35 years ago.

It was on this night that Jimmy Carter became the Democrats' nominee for president, and it was truly an incredible accomplishment. Carter literally came out of nowhere in 1976 to become his party's nominee, taking the unprecedented approach of entering every primary contest.

People often forget that segregationist George Wallace was one of the leading Democrats when the 1976 presidential primaries were about to begin — and, since it was widely assumed by most that the Republican nominee would be defeated in the aftermath of Watergate and the disastrous 1974 midterm elections, many Americans feared Wallace might very well be the next president.

But Carter scored some key victories over Wallace in early primaries in Florida and North Carolina, forever eliminating Wallace as a presidential contender. For a time, the other Democrats appeared to work together in something of an Anyone But Carter movement, but Carter continued to prevail in the primaries, ultimately winning two–thirds (with most of his losses coming after the matter had already been decided).

He was the first major–party presidential nominee from the Deep South in my lifetime, and he became the first president to be elected from the Deep South in more than a century.

It's happened a little more frequently since. Bill Clinton, after all, was governor of Arkansas. And, if you want to stretch the point, George W. Bush was governor of Texas — although I can tell you, after a lifetime of living in this region, that Texas is really considered more of a border state by most Southerners.

Everything west of Fort Worth is looked upon as southwestern — which is an altogether different thing.

(One of the things I remember thinking later that year after Carter had won the election was that I looked forward to hearing presidential speeches delivered by someone who spoke like most of the people I knew.)

On this evening in 1976, I can remember sitting in our living room with my father and watching Carter accept the nomination.

In the minutes before Carter gave his speech, the TV cameras scanned the convention crowd. Unlike today, presidential nominees in those days usually didn't name their running mate selections until the last day of the convention, and Carter had announced earlier in the day that his choice for running mate was Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale.

Thus, some rather hurriedly printed Carter–Mondale signs were distributed among the delegates to wave, which the cameras clearly showed in their shots of the crowd.

But one homemade sign stood out. It simply said, "Grits and Fritz." Fritz, in case you don't know, is a rather common nickname for Frederick, which happens to be Mondale's middle name.

"Grits and Fritz" stuck. I saw bumper stickers bearing that slogan right up to Election Day — I even saw people wearing buttons that said that as they attended the inauguration festivities the following January.

"My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for president," Carter said with his trademark grin, repeating the introductory line he had uttered countless times in the snows of New Hampshire and elsewhere.

My father roared with laughter. So did the delegates, but their laughter changed rather rapidly into an enthusiastic — and prolonged, as I recall — cheer.

At that moment, I knew the Nixon–Ford days were just about over.

Those were heady days for Democrats, but, of course, they had no idea what was ahead of them — escalating energy prices, a recession and a hostage crisis that set the table for five Republican victories in the next seven national elections, and 18 years (of the next 30) in which Republicans held at least one of the chambers in Congress.

Funny, but I feel like I have lived through it all a couple of times since then.

Ironically, Carter gave a speech that was probably even more memorable — although Carter almost certainly doesn't like to remember it — exactly three years later. It was the so–called "malaise speech."

(It's really ironic that it should be remembered that way. Carter never used the word malaise in his speech, but people still speak of it as if he did.)

On this night in 1979, America was not a happy place. Gas prices had gone up nearly 50% since that night in 1976, but the minimum wage had risen by only 26%.

But that was still in the future on this night in 1976.

In 1976, this night was a triumph for Carter and the Democrats. On this night 35 years ago, Democrats believed that they were on the verge of seizing political power for a generation, much as the Democrats who met to nominate Barack Obama 32 years later appear to have felt.

It remains to be seen whether Obama's presidency ends the way Carter's did.

No comments: