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The Man Behind the Cardigan

An exclusive interview with the secretary of symbolism.

 Note: in the late spring of 1960, the Spanish Poet J. E. Cirlot sent an open letter to the editor of the Paris Review. “The error of symbolist artists and writers,” he wrote “has always een precisely this: that they sought to turn the entire sphere of reality into a vehicle for impalpable correspondences.”

Since that time a wide variety of essayists and symbolist journeymen have, through word and deed, taken Cirlot’s indelicate observation to heart, but none has more thoroughly engaged popular attention than Duane P. Delacourt, current secretary of symbolism. It has only been a year since Delacourt first burst into public view, but in that time, the lanky southerner has presided over an ever-widening array of symbolic activity that has included the Fireside Chat, the Inaugural Stroll, the last two presidential trips abroad, and, most exquisitely, the Annual Human Rights Awards Banquets. Personally involved in the selection of everything from cardigan fabrics to overseas monuments, the new secretary has orchestrated the most felicitous revue of “impalpable correspondences” in the history of symbolist theory.

How, in his own estimation, had it all fared? On the eve of his first anniversary with the Carter administration, I met with Delacourt in his cramped office on the third floor of the Executive Office Building for a comprehensive mood check.

TNR: Mr. Secretary, perhaps we should begin with a general overview. Where essentially do we stand right now? Are people really as receptive to symbols as they once were?

DD: Well, as you know, much debate within the symbolist community centers around just that question. If you’ll grant me, for argument’s sake, the definition of symbolism as the simple art of thinking in images, then possibly it is an art now lost to civilized man. And if responsibility is to be spooned out, I think you’ll find that Descartes and his ubiquitous disciples can be properly credited with having the general atrophy of formal symbolism. Now having said that, I will also concede that there are a number of well-meaning social engineers who think this is a splendid development, but practitioners of symbolist theory—and there are more of us than you might think—can’t help but feel a little saddened.

Of course, some people never let go. Two days before the election, I gave Jimmy copies of Fromm’s The Forgotten Language and Bayley’s The Lost Language of Symbolism to read before he composed his victory speech. Neither of those works is quite as strident as it sounds, but the governor found them both alarming enough to order a security check on the authors and a formal rebuttal from Pat Caddell. Now, Pat is a very nice young man, and a perfectly competent opinionist, but his knowledge of applied philosophy doesn’t extend beyond fortune cookies. Nonetheless, he was quick to recognize that the two books cast grave doubts on the wisdom of his beloved style-over-substance manifesto, and so he lost no time in denouncing them both. I found the whole incident quite baffling; it seemed to me so basic that the other voices should be heard in the Carter camp, especially since both were easily available in paperback.

TNR: But since you knew that the president was planning on creating a Department of Symbolism, weren’t you in effect undercutting yourself by submitting the books? 

DD: Not at all. If I was going to be involved in something as conceptual as a Department of Symbolism, I had to make sure I was on firm ground intellectually. There are a lot of budding nihilists around the Senate committee rooms, and I was determined not to go up on the Hill and be manhandled by some hot dog two years out of Brandeis. Also, the program had to have a certain integrity if it was going to withstand the rigors of 20th-century situational thinking. It’s all very fine if you’re a medieval Florentine prince and you’re dispensing the kind of heavy-handed church-and-state iconography that people are willing to die for, but symbology is much more complicated now, precisely because of its tenuous nature. Carter was convinced that our safety lay in our indisputable honesty, and that we should concede from the onset—both on the record and off—that symbols are in a state of constant flux and evolution. I once wrote a position paper on the apple pie motif for the Nixon administration.

TNR: For whom?

DD: I was doing think-tank freelancing out of New York. The apple pie was coming under a lot of fire in those days, and the domestic council ordered a study. It was an intriguing question: here you had one of the most durable symbols in American folklore, and suddenly, after prospering for 200 years, it’s in trouble, just floundering in a sea of disrepute. Why? Well, after considerable trial and error, I was finally able to trace it to the Marshall Plan, when a new global awareness first began to erode our traditions of indigenous imagery. By Vietnam, suspicions had given way to open derision, and apple pie—and by extension, motherhood—gradually became the objects of unprecedented scorn.

TNR: But it’s the same apple pie it always was, isn’t it, Duane?

DD: Of course. And that’s the shame of it. Our traditional inventory has been seriously compromised.

TNR: But what of your own source material? Many of your symbols were old standards; the cardigan, the tree house, the stroll, the phonathon…

DD: Well, that’s not quite accurate. All of those grew out of a tradition of regionalism. They had never been tried on a national scale. Has any American ever taken up arms for a cardigan sweater? No, these were relative newcomers as symbols go. The interesting thing is that they were never intended to be the iconographic focus of the administration. They were only deployed for the short gain, to get people involved. You may not believe this, but Carter really meant it when he said that he wanted to make government as good and decent and caring as the American people.

TNR: But if I may interrupt, Mr. Secretary, isn’t the whole reason we have government in the first place because people are not inherently good and decent and caring?

DD: Well, I’m not going to get any shoving matches with you over the imperfectability of man. The point is that Jimmy identified something in the American people that belied all the cynicism and mistrust of the previous 20 years. He saw a people hungry to be led. But even freshly mandated, a leader needs access to his people if he is to lead. Some presidents have turned to activism. Jimmy Carter turned to symbolism. What you people failed to understand was that it was never meant to be more than a means to an end, a way for the president to restore proper trust and faith before he turned to the country for the sorts of sacrifices his future programs would require.

TNR: It’s true that we haven’t seen so much of the early symbols in recent months.

DD: And do I look like I’m out of a job? No way. Like Midge Costanza, I’m just beginning. I think the president explained it best the morning after the election. We were in Plains, out on Lillian’s front porch, when Jimmy suddenly turned to me and Rosalynn and said, “In the symbol, the particular represents the general, not as a dream, not as a shadow, but as a living and momentary revelation of the inscrutable.” He was quoting Goethe, of course, but the sentiment was pure Carter.

TNR: What did Rosalynn say?

DD: Nothing. She didn’t have to. She just took Jimmy’s hand and gently squeezed it. The stone in her engagement ring, a symbol of conjunction, caught in the sun. The exquisiteness of the moment was not lost on me.

TNR: Evidently not. Indeed, I imagine it carried the day.

DD: No, no, it was just a flash and then it was gone. I am not, as you might imagine, in a constant state of frenzy over all that is gestural. As you may know, my formal training is not even in symbolism. For years, I toiled in the vineyards of metaphysics.

TNR: You started your career as a metaphysicist?

DD: Cosmologist, to be precise. For six years I thought and wrote about physical systems. My doctoral thesis was entitled “The Universe: A Theoretical Blueprint.” In my day, I was thought to be quite dangerous. 

TNR: Is that how you hooked up with Carter? Did he see the paper published?

DD: As a matter of fact he did, but we didn’t meet until several years later. Actually, the first person to give me a job was John Lindsay. I met him at a Future Shock symposium in New Haven just after his first election. By that time, I’d had my fill of metaphysics, so when he offered me a position as a symbolist in his administration, I leapt at it like a cubist in heat.

TNR: May we assume that the shirt-sleeves through Harlem was one of your early efforts?

DD: No, no I had nothing to do with that. My duties were a little more circumscribed. IN fact, for the first nine months my only serious responsibility was to read Jimmy Breslin. Every night at 11:45, the Night Owl edition of the News was delivered to my office. Breslin’s article was always page three, and it invariably focused on the plethora of bureaucratic indignities visited upon some long-suffering Hispanic mother of twelve trying to make ends meet in “the city they call New York.” My responsibility was to see to it that the city had atoned for its various failings by the time the mayor’s switchboard was opened at nine. I woke plumbers up at three in the morning, roused building inspectors from their beds, called negligent landlords, dispatched electricians to fix exposed wiring, sent engineers into the sewers, health officials through sandstorms to scrape down peeling, lead-based paint, and more than once hand-delivered welfare checks to the disabled occupants of some seven story walk-up. Because it all took place under the cover of darkness, the mayor called it Fairy Godmother Duty, and it absolutely confounded Breslin. As far as he was concerned, the city was coopting his “little people,” turning their individual miseries to its own advantage. He started going further and further out of town to find his indigents. When he finally started signing off his columns with lines like, “Yes, life is hell when nobody cares in the country they call Suffolk,” we know we’d won.

TNR: Tell us about some of your other symbolist projects for Lindsay.

DD: Well, the Big Apple was one of mine.

TNR: That was a great triumph.

DD: Yes, but I had my off days just like anyone else. I once advised the mayor to send his children to exclusive boarding schools as a protest against the pitifully underfunded public school system. It was a terrible misjudgment, but I learned from it. Very few people are unaware of where Amy Carter now attends school.

TNR: How does developing symbols for Carter compare with developing them for Lindsay?

DD: Quite favorably. Carter’s overall symbology is busier, more textured and concerned with detail, but that’s because his vision is that much more complicated. Ironically, the smallest symbols—the cardigan, the chat, or the stroll—inspire the most faith. If a citizen sees that the president of the United States dresses, talks, and ambulates just like everyone else, then he’s more likely to trust him to do a good job with the SALT talks. For the average American, it is tantamount to believing in himself. Of course, you can take it too far; Barry Jagoda, Carter’s television adviser, once requested air time to show the president putting his trousers on one leg at a time.

TNR: You spoke a moment ago of vision. One complaint heard often is that after more than a year in office, the president has yet to articulate a clear vision for the future of this country. How do you respond to that?

DD: Patiently, but with just a trace of irritation. Nothing could be more unfair. Jimmy Carter has done more to identify this nation’s options than any president in recent years. His is a dream of a nation with priorities, a proud, free society, where a man can turn to his neighbor and say, “We are a nation without unnecessary water projects.” And the Carter record doesn’t stop there. In little over a year, Carter has bound the nation’s Vietnam wounds…

TNR: I thought President Ford bound our Vietnam wounds.

DD: No, he bound our Watergate wounds. Vietnam was quite beyond Ford’s reach or understanding. Unlike Carter, Ford was never able to look beyond the East-West competition, the strategic confrontation of a bi-polar world. Partly because Dr. Kissinger was always at his elbow, he completely failed to note the interaction of the four distinctly different worlds that have emerged in the last 30 years. All four of them interact in very fluid combinations, depending on the issues. The Carter foreign policy recognizes this and respects the fact that there is a redistribution of global power, that there are non-aligned as well as aligned countries which are regionally or internationally influential. This is the reasoning behind the president’s recent trips. For instance, as Zbiggy has repeatedly pointed out, it is difficult to speak of the distribution of global power without mentioning Venezuela. It is impossible not to mention Brazil. It is unthinkable not to evoke India. 

TNR: Has he tried?

DD: Yes, but his face gets all puffy and red and he ends up holding a press conference. Zbig is basically a big picture man, so we generally prefer to keep him under wraps as much as possible. In fairness to him, though, it should be pointed out that he was enormously helpful during the symbolism plenary sessions before both trips.

TNR: The Carter trips have been called, among other things, masterpieces of symbolism, haven’t they?

DD: Well, they were to the extent that all state visits are. That originally gave Jimmy some problems, as he didn’t want the world community to think that he was just using the host countries for their symbols. In fact, it bothered him so much that he seriously considered staying in one country, France, say, for six weeks, traveling about, staying with French citizens in their homes, getting to know the people on a personal basis, to show he really cared about the French and their problems, not just their symbols. He only abandoned the idea when he began to worry that people might worry he was on vacation.

TNR: Mr. Secretary, which countries would you say worked out the best for you personally?

DD: Well, Poland obviously, but that was partially because of our strategy of reverse symbolism, originally suggested to us by the staff theoretician for the Trilateral Commission. What I was faced with was the necessity of undoing all the ill will that had been generated by the Nixon visit in 1971. You may recall that right after Dwight Chapin’s in-flight admonishment to the press to refrain from Polish jokes while in Poland, the Polish tarmac jockeys wheeled the landing ramp up to the wrong side of Air Force One. By the time they discovered their error and Nixon finally emerged, half the press corps was in uncontrollable hysterics. It was a moment of enormous embarrassment to the Poles, forcing Nixon to cut his losses and depart while the ramp was still in place. Well, after a gaffe like that, Jimmy could not very well go to Poland without making some sort of unilateral gesture that would represent a comparable loss of face. So we dreamt up the incompetent translator ploy, and it worked like a dream.

TNR: And then some. What other successes did you log that trip?

DD: I’d say that India was a trumph.

TNR: but the newspapers reported that feelings between the Desai and Carter left something to be desired, that their talks were…

DD: Cold and blunt. Yes, I know. Look, the man’s an ascetic, a spiritual leader, and while Jimmy can certainly hold his own on that level, he understandably was put off by all the urine stories. Desai’s a queer bird, no doubt about it. But in spite of his eccentricities, he and Carter really did get along well. I think the visit brought them much closer.

TNR: But Carter called him a “close personal friend” before they’d even met. Isn’t that hard to improve on? 

DD: On the contrary. We’re talking semantics here. When the president calls somebody “a close personal friend,” regardless of whether they’ve actually met or not, he means it in a Christian sense. He means that he regards that person as his brother.

TNR: We wondered about that. It seemed he called every leader he talked with a close personal friend. Even Poland’s Gierek, with whom he spent only 20 minutes in discussion. After you take away the time needed for translation, that’s less than some people spend with a wrong number.

DD: Well, what you have to understand is that the president connects with his peers very easily. Take Giscard. The symbology in France was unavoidably distasteful. The Arc de Triomphe and Normandy Beach signified the transition from past glories to the present interdependencies. That’s pretty rough on a country’s national pride. But the chemistry between the two was so good that Giscard didn’t even flinch when Jimmy announced in his departure speech that “Yesterday was one of the best years of my life.”

TNR: I guess what I mean to raise here is the possibility that even in “close, personal” friendships, the president is striving for effect and not substance. I think you’ll agree that this problem is at the very core of what has long concerned people about Carter’s use of symbols. The question we keep coming back to, Mr. Secretary, is what essentially is the difference between your broad, comprehensive program of symbolism and a simple case of overheated public relations?

DD: I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.

TNR: Let me restate it. What I...

DD: You know, I’d hate to think you hadn’t been listening all this time, New Republic. I’m sorry to leave you unsatisfied as to the legitimacy of our symbol package, but I know no better words to describe what we have been trying to do. But then, what are words themselves if not…

TNR: Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

This article appeared in the May 20, 1978 issue of the magazine.