Commentary Magazine

Carter's Populism

To the Editor:

By stressing Jimmy Carter’s religion as a source of uneasiness among Jews, Milton Himmelfarb [Carter and the Jews,” August] misses the real concern many Jews have about Carter: his populist heritage which he still embraces. Carter’s religious fervor was, certainly, one reason for this concern, but only a superficial one. Jewish support in the primary campaign for Morris Udall, a Mormon, belies a knee-jerk Jewish prejudice against a candidate because of his religion. It is the whole nexus of Jimmy Carter’s background—religious, political, and geographical—that caused concern, a concern that lessened when it became apparent that Carter was not a Wallace, but grew—and still grows—as we learn more about his populist image of himself. (He has described himself as a populist rather than a liberal and speaks with pride of the influence populism has had on his thought.)

For example, on the eve of his nomination, Carter’s mother, Mrs. Lillian Carter, who by all accounts has had a great influence on Jimmy Carter’s upbringing and philosophy, told Walter Cronkite of her admiration for Tom Watson, “a socialist or some kind of list.” Tom Watson, as Mr. Himmelfarb points out, was not only a socialist, “more accurately a populist,” but a racist, and one of the first order. He was an evangelistic Protestant like the Carters, but to him the Catholic Church was an enemy not because it was a different religion but because he perceived it as demanding loyalty of American citizens to a foreign entity (the Pope); Jews were the enemy not because they were the Antichrist but because they were capitalists and Yankees presumably attempting to repress the poor folk in the South still under the yoke of Civil War defeat and Reconstruction.

Mrs. Carter seemed to think nothing of extolling Watson’s virtues and appeared completely oblivious to his vices. She told how her family were rabid supporters of Watson during the height of Watson’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish period. This would be comparable to, say, George Bernard Shaw continuing to praise Mussolini after World War II.

It is not simply a question of anti-Semitism. Put simply, populism means the will of the people: Vox Populi, Vox Dei. Jews, liberals, intellectuals, and moralists normally shy away from a person who adheres to the concept that rights and wrongs are determined solely by the will of the people . . .

As Richard Hofstadter pointed out in The Age of Reform: “A full history of modern anti-Semitism in the United States would reveal . . . its substantial populist lineage.”

[Hon.] Lewis Kapner
West Palm Beach, Florida



To the Editor:

Milton Himmelfarb leaves—I think inadvertently—the distinct impression that Eugene V. Debs must either have been a villain or a fool to speak well of Tom Watson’s populism while ignoring his background as an “anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and racist.” Mr. Himmelfarb identifies these reprehensible qualities with populism because they happened to occur in the long life of the same human being.

What if, as it appears in this case, those qualities existed in different editions of the same man? Ralph McGill (in The South and the Southerner) differentiates the populist Watson, who made the first serious effort to unite white and black poor against exploitative Old Southern money, from the later, embittered Watson, who embarrassed his former friends with every public statement he made, and cites a single reason for the break in Watson’s thinking: that he was certifiably insane, having cracked up after the sellout of the populists by a corrupt political machine.

This is not to play down the undoubted damage Watson did during his decline. Mr. Himmelfarb is quite right in laying the blame for the detestable Leo Frank lynching at Watson’s door. There was a time, however, when Watson was an upright and honorable man, fearless in the pursuit of a just cause. There was a time when he earned, and twice over, the praise of a man like Debs; and the movement he championed in those days certainly should not have to bear the burden of the terrible errors he made when reason had deserted him.

I am, on the other hand, happy to see Mr. Himmelfarb—a man whom reason or reasonableness will never desert—coming out forthrightly against the fashionable religious and regional bigotry against Governor Carter (see the articles by Richard Reeves and Jimmy Breslin). What is emphatically not sauce for the goose is demonstrably not sauce for the gander, and a posture which was rightly regarded as vile when used against John F. Kennedy does not automatically become righteous when used against Jimmy Carter.

And—it is worth pointing out a little-known fact or two at this moment—Governor Carter does, in fact, come from the same state in which the Frank murder occurred; but he also comes from the only one of the original thirteen colonies in which Jews are among the founding fathers. Fact: the cornerstone of Temple Mikve Israel in Savannah was laid within a year of the founding of the Georgia colony. Fact: within the first year of the colony, fully one-third of Savannah’s population was Jewish. Fact: virtually every civic body founded in the first twenty years of the colony had at least one prominent Jewish member (this included the first library, the first orphanage, and the first charity hospital). Fact: the Georgia colony was one in which the Jewish community, during the Revolution, provided not financiers but fighting heroes (a fact which George Washington was quick to acknowledge, in an open letter famous in the Savannah community). As Governor Carter’s Georgia background is a factor in the election, these—and perhaps a few other—facts deserve airing.

George Warren
Van Nuys, California

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