The decade of the 1970s is like a low-grade virus: Whenever we think we're over it, the symptoms return. This past season, the Fox network launched That '70s Show, a sitcom whose plots revolve around such things as Todd Rundgren concerts. At every wedding reception I've attended lately, they've played "YMCA," triggering that obligatory dance where you're supposed to mime the letters. (I always do it wrong, and end up looking like Koko the sign-language gorilla.) Even flare pants are back.
And Jimmy Carter is running for president again--only this time, his name is Elizabeth Dole.
It stands to reason. In Watergate's wake, people wanted the most un-Nixonian leader possible, and they found him in a Georgia peanut farmer who spoke of love, bragged of his status as a Washington outsider, and could say with a straight face, "I'll never lie to you." A similar phenomenon is at work today. Although Clinton's job approval numbers soared throughout Monicagate, Americans correctly judged his character to be the moral equivalent of a toxic waste dump. So in place of the wizard of id, they might be seeking someone who is utterly self-controlled--a leader who would again make the White House safe for interns.
Who better than Elizabeth Dole? Not only is she a woman, but it is hard to picture an immoral thought taking root beneath her hair helmet. Like Carter, she sports a smarmy manner and humorless grin that spell "the opposite of sex."
At this point, you may be wondering whether the Carter comparison is overdrawn. Like Carter in 1976, Dole can claim moral superiority to the winner of the last election. But in 1999, so can every other candidate. In fact, so can nearly everyone else on this planet, with the possible exception of Charles Manson. And come to think of it, Manson hasn't bombed any aspirin factories lately.
In Dole's case, however, the similarity to Carter goes beyond the ability to surpass a pitifully low moral threshold. It is with words that presidents govern, and her words bear a creepy likeness to Carter's.
Start with slogans. After Dole filed with the Federal Election Commission, her homepage (www.edole2000.org) featured these words: "The United States of America deserves a government worthy of its people." That's mighty close to Carter's promise of "a government as good as its people." In her announcement speech, she said, "We're beginning to lose faith in our own institutions. It's only a short step to losing faith in ourselves, and then we would be lost." She added that we "must renew faith in the goodness of our nation."
In 1976, Carter told the California Senate, "If I had to sum up in one word what this campaign is all about, the word would be faith. The American people want to have faith in their government. And it is our responsibility, as public men and women, to do everything in our power to help them regain the faith that they have lost."
At first glance, these phrases sound nice enough, fitting with the give-'em-heaven religiosity we associate with both Carter and Dole. But that's also a problem. The notion that we're all basically good clashes with the concept of original sin, as the Gospel of Matthew puts it, "No one is good but One, that is, God."
Theology aside, an emphasis on individual goodness implies that the main challenge of politics is not to limit government but to find angelic leaders who will use that power for good ends. "If angels were to govern men," wrote Madison, "neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Since the political world is short on angels, he reasoned, we need strict checks on what government can do.
Madisonian ideas took a beating in the 1970s, just as Carter and Dole were coming into prominence. In the Georgia governorship, Carter enlarged government as much as the state's political culture would allow; and when he became president, he signed the bills establishing the Departments of Energy and Education. In the White House Office of Consumer Affairs and at the Federal Trade Commission, Dole favored increased government regulation and even wanted a Consumer Protection Agency.
Both went so far as to vouch for the virtues of bureaucrats. During the 1976 primary campaign, Carter's rival Jerry Brown criticized government administrators. Carter replied, "That is wrong. I have seen at first hand that most government employees want to do a good job." In her 1988 joint autobiography with Bob Dole, Elizabeth fondly recalled her FTC years: "I believe now what I believed then. Perhaps no one is more unjustly maligned than the bureaucrat."
REASON reader, I hope you weren't sipping coffee while reading that line. If you were, you probably spit it all over the magazine. Take a minute to clean up.
OK now? Back to Dole. Lest you think I got her words wrong, check pages 152-153 of the hardcover edition of The Doles: Unlimited Partners. You'll find that it gets worse: "I tell youthful audiences they can find no higher calling in life than that of the public service." What about the priesthood, the ministry, or the rabbinate? Heck, what about running a business and creating jobs?
"They may not get rich but they'll enrich the lives of countless others." Yeah, like trial lawyers and agribusiness lobbyists. "Because of them, the world is a little better." As Clinton would say, that depends on what the meaning of the word better is. If it includes frustration and impoverishment, she may be right.