During the Presidency of James Earl Carter (between 1977-1980), the 39th Commander-in-Chief dealt with increasing unemployment and inflation, a nationwide gas shortage, coal miner and trucker strikes, the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident, the Skylab Space Station falling to the earth, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. A humble, honest man from Plains, Georgia, Carter sold off his peanut farm to avoid benefiting from the Presidency, admitted to Playboy Magazine that he “lusted in my heart,” and promised the country “I’ll never lie to you.” Forty years later, those days seem like another Camelot.
“Jimmy Carter is all substance, no schmooze,” says the character of Carter’s Vice-President Walter Mondale (played by Mark Coffin) in the play Confidence (and The Speech) currently at Theatre Row, which among other weighty issues asks the existential political question, “Can a good man be President?”
Jimmy Carter was clearly a good man, which is what America desperately needed in the White House after the Watergate scandal and the Constitutional crisis that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment in 1974. Before becoming President, Carter was a nuclear engineer and the Governor of Georgia, and although an evangelical Christian, Carter was also a moderate Democrat with a tinge of the progressive in his political soul. But by the summer of 1979, into his third year as President, Carter was into some serious soul searching. Although he had achieved a foreign policy triumph negotiating the Camp David Accords Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt the previous September, on the domestic front Carter was juggling one emergency after another. By mid-1979, as the Mondale character tells Carter in the play, “Your approval rating is lower than Nixon’s during Watergate.” Desperate to change the political narrative, Carter decided to scrap a major July 5th speech on Energy Policy (to be his second on the burning topic since creating the Department of Energy in August of 1977) to focus more on discussing the country’s seemingly overwhelming angst.
Playwright Susan Lambert Hatem’s story (co-produced with her sister Anne Lambert) focuses on the 10 days that Carter, his devoted wife Rosalynn, and his so-called “Georgia Mafia,” team and support staff, think-tanked themselves at Camp David to strategize a new approach to the speech. The play begins in a college political science classroom where fictional Professor Cynthia Cooper (April Armstrong) is outlining an assignment. At the end of class, an unknown sit-in student named Jonathan (Zach Fifer) presses Cooper for stories about her brief time working as a Carter Administration intern during the summer of 1979, specifically those 10 intense days at Camp David. After initially resisting, Cooper relents under one condition that is the play’s interesting, if not fairly contrived, conceit: She will only tell her story if she plays the role of President Carter and Jonathan becomes the 21-year-old Cooper. Cue the on-stage costuming transformation, where other cast members assist the leads in donning a wig, jacket, and tie for the Professor, and a wig, bra, dress, and short heels for Jonathan. With that the time traveling begins.
The “Confidence” in the play’s title refers to the Carter and Cooper character’s search for that state of mind. Armstrong gamely attempts to channel Carter’s intellect, sense of fairness, and southern accent, while bringing a personal political passion to her performance that is palpable. The scenes between Jimmy and sympathetic and supportive wife Rosalynn (at that point they’d been married 33 years), solidly played by Sarah Dacey Charles, are the play’s most tender moments. Fifer is solid in his gender-bending turn as the young Ms. Cooper, conveying her sweet naiveté as well as her intelligence, but also her struggle between being deferential among a group of powerful men or determined to speak her mind. Cooper is the vehicle through which Hatem explores two political subplots—the then burgeoning issues of women’s rights and climate change. Hatem’s historically astute script should please the political nerds among Boomers in the audience, while not being too “inside baseball” for millennials.
Hannah Ryan’s direction and a solid ensemble cast captures the intensity of that moment in history. Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (Ross Aiden), Press Secretary Jody Powell (James Penca), Speechwriter Rick Hertzberg (Imran Sheikh), and Pollster Pat Caddell (Stephen Stout), whose analysis of the electorate encouraged Carter to think bigger picture for the speech, convey the pressure the President’s staff must have felt in trying to save his presidency. Providing calming and competent support for all that raging testosterone, as well as mentoring intern Cooper, is Sarah Weddington (an engaging Abigail Ludrof), who joined Carter’s staff as an Assistant to the President six years after she argued in the Supreme Court to overturn the Texas abortion law (Roe v. Wade) that led to legalizing abortion in 1973.
Hatem and Ryan work in a nifty breaking-the-fourth-wall/interactive audience scene where Carter and company leave Camp David to hold a town hall-like focus group. Carter asks the assembled for thoughts on how Americans can regain confidence in their government, and audience members selected pre-show serve as respondents. As the President, Armstrong nailed her spontaneous and unscripted responses.
When President Carter went on national television the evening of July 15, 1979, he alerted the nation to the “. . . fundamental threat to American Democracy . . . a crisis of confidence that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” After an immediate positive response from the press and in the polls, Carter began axing cabinet members, which reflected disarray in his administration. The campaign of Ronald Reagan—ultimately the Republican nominee in the 1980 election—questioned Carter’s competence and called him “the scolder-in-chief.” And although the President never used the word, Carter’s honest, farsighted, and insightful address became known as “The Malaise Speech.” Coupled with the Iranian Hostage Crisis that continued through the 1980 campaign season, those episodes cost Carter re-election to a second term.
As impeachment proceedings against our current President were recently taking place, 95-year-old Jimmy Carter was helping build Habitat for Humanity homes after sustaining a head accident requiring 14 stitches. So, in spite of all current evidence to the contrary, the answer is YES—a good man can be the President.
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Photo top (left to right): James Penca (Hamilton Jordan), Imran Sheikh (Rick Hertzberg), Mark Coffin (Walter Mondale), April Armstrong (President Jimmy Carter), Stephen Stout (Pat Caddell)
Charlotte’s Off-Broadway Presents
Confidence (and The Speech) by Susan Lambert Hatem
Produced by Anne Lambert and Susan Lambert
Directed by Hannah Ryan
410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues
Through December 7, 2019