Jonathan Yardley

Engineer of his own defeat: Jimmy Carter's "White House Diary"

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 26, 2010

WHITE HOUSE DIARY

By Jimmy Carter

Farrar Straus Giroux. 570 pp. $30

JIMMY CARTER

By Julian E. Zelizer

Times. 183 pp. $23

Precisely whom we must thank for this sudden outpouring of books by and about Jimmy Carter -- in addition to the two here under review, there is also "Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years 1924-1974," by E. Stanly Godbold Jr. (Oxford Univ., $29.95) -- but an outpouring it most certainly is, though how many readers actually will welcome it is uncertain. This is because the principal effect of Carter's diary of his four White House years and Julian E. Zelizer's brief assessment of them is to remind us that it was a difficult time for the country and that Carter, for all his strengths, was not the right man for the time.

It has been three decades since American voters decided, by a thumping margin, that they'd rather take their chances with Ronald Reagan than give another term to Carter, and during those years Carter has done much to refurbish his reputation. Inspired by what appears to be a combination of genuine altruism and calculated public relations, at the age of 85 he has transformed himself into one of the world's elder statesmen, won widespread respect for his efforts on behalf of various certifiably worthy causes, and been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps it is for these three decades, not for his four years in the presidency, that history will remember him. He and his admirers can only hope so.

Little of the blame for what happened between Carter's inauguration in 1977 and his involuntary return to Georgia in January 1981 can be laid directly at his feet. Much of any president's time is spent reacting to events caused by others rather than initiating ones on his own -- viz., the first two years of the Obama Administration -- and Carter was no exception. Though he did establish the Department of Energy, push through ratification of the treaties turning over the Panama Canal to Panama, and preside over the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, he was bedeviled over and over again by such matters as the effects at home (gas lines, inflation) of the OPEC decision to raise oil prices, the taking of American hostages in Iran, and the predictable run of scandals and contretemps among his appointees and associates.

Zelizer, who teaches at Princeton and seems to publish almost as often as his fellow Princetonian Joyce Carol Oates, acknowledges in this latest volume in "The American Presidents" series of mini-biographies that Carter suffers under a reputation as "incompetent, weak, and unable to lead" while in the White House, but says in rebuttal that he "was an exceptionally smart man" who "was unafraid to innovate, willing to take risks by experimenting with new policy ideas and challenging the orthodoxies of both political parties." This is true, as is also Zelizer's argument that Carter's training "as an engineer helped to shape [his] approach to tackling issues." He "developed a technical and managerial, as well as a nonideological, mind-set to problem solving that would inform him throughout his career."

But as the presidency of Herbert Hoover nearly a half-century earlier had demonstrated, the engineer's "mind-set" is not necessarily ideally suited to the challenges the presidency poses. Carter was exceptionally skilled at analyzing issues and proposing solutions, as his essential role in the Camp David negotiations made clear, but his overweening confidence in his own brilliance and rectitude made him impatient with those he considered his inferiors -- i.e., just about all of us -- and did nothing to improve his relations with Congress. In an afterword to his diaries, he admits that "sometimes I was not adequately concerned with how my proposals affected the views of the voters on whom [Congress] relied for reelection" and that "a somewhat less rigid approach to these sensitive issues could have paid rich dividends."

The key word there is "rigid." As Zelizer puts it, "Through most of his presidency, Carter was unable to nurture strong relations with congressional Democrats or core Democratic constituencies, as too often he was unwilling to engage in the kind of deal making and compromises that were expected from the White House." Stubborn and willful, he was more comfortable being holier than thou than with the back-slapping and horse-trading that are so important in executive-legislative relationships. The irony is that he occupied the White House at a time when bipartisanship was still in flower, and he was able to work closely with congressional Republicans, especially the Senate minority leader -- "I met with Howard Baker, which is always a pleasant experience and constructive," he says in one diary entry -- yet he couldn't work with his own party. Early in 1978 he told his diary, "I feel more at home with the conservative Democratic and Republican members of Congress than I do the others, although the liberals vote with me more often." Mostly, though, they did so holding their noses, and as Edward Kennedy began to move toward his unsuccessful campaign for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, the split between Carter and the left wing of his party became so wide, and feelings so acrimonious, that his presidency effectively fell apart.

He had run in 1976 as an outsider, capitalizing with great skill on public reaction to Watergate and the suspicions about Washington it had engendered, but in office he proved unable to strike a balance between his maverick image and the need to work with the Washington establishment. The trouble with running against Washington is that although it may play well out there on the hustings, it ignores the reality that any successful candidate will have to deal with Washington as it is rather than as others wish it were. Carter was simply too rigid and self-righteous to accept this unfortunate reality and work with it, and he paid the price.

Still, by comparison with his relations with the news media, Carter and Congress had a four-year love-in. From one of his first diary entries on the subject ("as always, the reporters are searching for some signs of discord or disharmony, and when a slight incident does occur and is quickly resolved, it's greatly exaggerated in the news media") to one of the last ("The irresponsibility of the news media is almost nauseating"), Carter rarely rises above a self-pitying whine. As one who has spent half-a-century in newspaper work, I think I know a good deal more about the press than Carter does and some of my judgments of it are considerably harsher than his. But his endless rants in these diaries strike me as having more to do with his own psychology than with the business itself, the positive aspects of which completely escape his notice as he zeroes in on its vanity, shallowness and stupidity.

Interestingly, these are among the few moments in these stupendously dull diaries when Carter permits his emotions to rise to the surface. For the most part he is dry, mechanical, literal-minded, petulant and utterly humorless. What, exactly, are we to say about the mind and heart of a man who can write (and then choose to publish for all to read) a passage such as this: "So far I don't feel isolated from the rest of the country since I've been in the White House. Reverend James Baker from South Carolina, immediately after he talked to me, called his sister-in-law and was so excited that he died, unfortunately. I called his wife to express my regrets." That must have made her day.


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