When it came to understanding the issues of the day, Jimmy Carter was the smartest public official I've ever known. The range and extent of his knowledge were astounding; he could speak with authority about energy, the nuclear issue, space travel, the Middle East, Latin America, human rights, American history, and just about any other topic that came up. Time after time, and without using notes, he would tick off the arguments on both sides of a question. His mind was exceptionally well developed, and it was open, too. He was always willing to listen and to learn. But, when it came to the politics of Washington, D.C., he never really understood how the system
MAN OF THE HOUSE
Last of Five Parts worked. And although this was out of character for Jimmy Carter, he didn't want to learn about it, either.
While Carter was not very popular by the end of his term in office, his image is already improving. Undoubtedly, future generations will look upon him more kindly than his contemporaries do. They will see that it was Jimmy Carter who forced us to respond to the energy crisis, and who raised a powerful voice on behalf of human rights around the world. They will remember that it was Jimmy Carter who arranged the Panama Canal Treaty, who established diplomatic relations with China, and who negotiated the historic Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. And although the Iran hostage crisis was ultimately his undoing, Americans are already starting to appreciate that he eventually brought the hostages home alive, without breaking any laws and without selling arms to the ayatollah.
But despite these and other accomplishments, Jimmy Carter was a victim of bad luck and bad timing. It wasn't his fault that oil prices tripled and wrecked our economy, or that a band of Iranians seized our hostages and held them for over a year. The critics howled, but nobody came up with a better plan than his -- other than bombing Tehran, which would have killed them all. Eventually, thanks to Carter's patience and persistence, the hostages made it home alive. But by then, Ronald Reagan was already being sworn in.
I first met Jimmy Carter on Jan. 10, 1975. He strode into my office, full of confidence and vigor. He immediately got to the point, which was that he was dead serious about becoming the nominee for president at the 1976 Democratic convention in New York. "At the moment," he acknowledged, "I'm only one-half of one percent in the polls. But by the time we get to Madison Square Garden, I'll have this thing wrapped up. I know you're boosting Ted Kennedy, but Kennedy won't be running because of Chappaquiddick. Neither will Humphrey. He's got his own problems, and he's still in debt from 1968. Scoop Jackson has the support of the Jews because of his positions on Israel and Soviet emigration, but his political base isn't broad enough, and he'll drop out after three or four primaries. Udall may run, but he doesn't have a chance. As I look at it, there's only one man who can beat me, and that's Walter Mondale. But he's not running."
After dismissing just about all his potential opponents in less than a minute, Carter made an astonishing prediction; "Mr. Majority Leader," he said, "I'm telling you right now that I'm going to be nominated on the first ballot, and that in November of next year I'll be elected President of the United States."
I thought that was impossible, but Jimmy Carter hit it right on the nose. He ran a great campaign, which was made easier by the fact that in 1976 there were no other strong Democratic candidates.
But luck was only part of Carter's winning formula, and luck alone can't explain his success. He won because he did everything right in pursuing the nomination. That's what impressed me so deeply about him -- that he set himself so high a goal and didn't stop working until he reached it. Although I barely knew him, I was terribly excited when Jimmy Carter was elected. Here, I thought, was a guy who knew how to get things done.
What I hadn't realized, and what almost nobody in Washington knew at the time, was that Carter's greatest political achievement was already behind him. He got himself elected as an outsider, but once he got to Washington, he had to deal with other national politicians.
That's why Carter's choice of Walter Mondale for vice president was so important, for only a veteran of Capitol Hill could compensate for Carter's lack of experience in Washington. But not even Mondale could help Carter with the political savvy he would need.
The first time my wife, Millie, and I visited the Carters in the White House, we had barely sat down to dinner when the President wanted to hear about the political leaders I have known. I told a few stories, including one about a frank exchange between President Jack Kennedy and Speaker Sam Rayburn. Kennedy had wanted to know the terrible things that members of Congress were saying about him, and Mr. Sam dutifully went down the list, starting with the complaint that Kennedy had forgotten his early supporters.
"They won't say that about me," said Jimmy Carter with a grin. "I've brought all of mine up here with me."
That was true enough, but it was nothing to laugh about. After eight years of Republican rule, Jimmy Carter rode into town like a knight on a white horse. But while the gentleman leading the charge was capable, too many of the troops he brought with him were amateurs. They didn't know much about Washington, but that didn't prevent them from being arrogant.
Too many of Carter's people -- especially Hamilton Jordan, the President's top aide -- came to Washington with a chip on their shoulder and never changed. They failed to understand that the presidency didn't operate in a vacuum, that Congress was fundamentally different from the Georgia legislature, and that we intended to be full partners in the legislative process.
Like some of Jack Kennedy's staff in 1961, Carter's people assumed that because they had succeeded in capturing the White House, they had Washington all figured out. I had my share of complaints about Kennedy's people, but at least they looked after the Democratic members of Congress. Their attitude was: We want you to be reelected and we're working to help you. But during the Carter years, congressional Democrats often had the feeling that the White House was actually working against us.
I started referring to the White House chief of staff as Hannibal Jerken. He was supposed to be the President's top man, but I remember seeing him only about three times in four years. To this day, I can't understand why the closest man to Jimmy Carter, the key staff guy at the White House, didn't even join us at the White House breakfast meetings where we discussed upcoming legislation with the President. This was unprecedented. People used to say that Jordan was the most brilliant guy around, but if that was true, you couldn't prove it by me.
To Jordan and his pals on the White House staff, Tip O'Neill represented the old way of doing things, which was precisely what their candidate had run against. I could live with that, because I took it for granted that their anti-Washington talk was merely campaign rhetoric that would fade away after the election. But I was wrong. They really believed these things.
Ultimately, a president is judged by the legislation he initiates, and this is where Carter's political problems came home to roost. The first legislative item on his agenda -- and by far the most important -- was energy.
The President in his address to the nation on April 18 referred to the energy crisis as "the moral equivalent of war" and "the greatest challenge our country will face in our lifetime."
After the speech, I went up to congratulate him. "That was a fine address, Mr. President," I said. "Now here's a list of members you should call to keep the pressure on, because we'll need their votes."
"No," he replied. "I described the problem to the American people in a rational way. I'm sure they'll realize that I'm right."
I could have slugged him. Did he still think he was dealing with the Georgia legislature?
"Look," I said, trying to control my frustration. "This is politics we're talking about here, not physics. We need you to push this bill through."
"It's not politics," he replied. "Not to me. It's simply the right thing, the rational thing. It's what needs to be done."
He was right in theory but wrong in practice. It was true that his energy plan was a rational response to a real crisis. But the President just didn't understand how to motivate Congress. The textbooks all say that Congress reflects the will of the people, and, over time, that's true. But it doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes the people are slow to catch on, and Congress has to take the lead.
The way the President goes to Congress is not always by going to the people. It's also by communicating directly with the members.
Jimmy Carter spent the final year of his Administration wrestling with the problem of our hostages in Iran. The President was perfectly willing to keep them on the front page, even though the nation's anger at their continued imprisonment was directed at him. Because of Iran, Jimmy Carter really aged in office. He came in young and vigorous, but he left a tired man.
People were frustrated at Carter's lack of action, but what could he do? I certainly didn't have any better ideas, and neither did anyone else. Once or twice, at the Tuesday morning leadership meetings, we talked briefly about a possible rescue mission, something along the lines of what the Israelis had accomplished in 1976 when their people were held at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. But our hostages were in the heart of Tehran, which made a rescue seem impossible.
When the failed mission took place on April 24, 1980, I was as surprised as anyone. The disappointment of that day only deepened the sense that Jimmy Carter's presidency was a time of American failure both at home and abroad, which is the real reason he lost the election. From the book "Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill" by Tip O'Neill with William Novak. Copyright 1987 by Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Random House Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.