The first time I visited Jimmy Carter in the White House, I suggested that the nation had gone through enough news shocks for one decade. "I am looking for stories that would restore faith in the system, faith in the Oval Office," I said.
This brought a diffident smile to the face of the new president, who had come to power preaching morality to post-Watergate America. He deplored "the sordid occurrences of the past." He agreed that the American people looked to him to bring a new sense of integrity and idealism to Washington. "So I think I do have, in spite of partisan divisions, the good wishes of the American people," he told me.
The tragedy of the Carter presidency is that he has foolishly squandered those good wishes. Jimmy Carter has let down a people who wanted to believe in him, who wished for his success. He promised he would never lie, yet his administration has been caught in one awkward lie after another. He promised strong leadership. Yet he has withdrawn into long periods of indecision, passivity and paralysis.
Like Richard Nixon before him, Carter has tended to insulate himself from the Washington whirl and to use his staff as a buffer. He has a desire for solitude and a craving for an orderly environment, undisturbed by trivial interruptions of internecine discord.
"I value solitude," he once told me. "I kind of hunger after loneliness." So Carter has tried to isolate himself from unnecessary turmoil, dealing regularly only with those trusted, select few.
America cannot be led from a glass bubble. Subordinates suddenly catapulted from the backwaters of, say, Georgia to the peaks of power in Washington will succumb to the heady atmosphere. But as outsiders, they will distrust the insiders who know their way around the marble maze. They will find true security only in the good-ol'-boy ties with their own limited group.
The clique at the center will also feel threatened by the professionals who will press closely around. Suspicion and hostility at the center will eventually permeate the organization. Then professionals who are blocked from access to the president will begin to connive.
Most Americans probably have more sympathy for the harassed but human Jimmy Carter than they showed Richard Nixon. They don't see in Carter's faltering and fumbling the cold calculation that characterized the Nixon administration. The Carter team comes across more as the Bad News Bears.
It's hard not to like that jovial carouser, Hamilton Jordan, for instance. He may have seemed a curious choice to handle sensitive diplomatic assignments. But you can't help cheering good ol' Ham as he charges for first base.
And who can stay angry at Billy Carter, despite the stretch of red neck showing above the collar? He may knock nothing but foul balls, but he always has a retort for the crowd. Sure, he may have tried to get a few petrodollars from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, but this merely would have left Qaddafi with less money to hand out to world terrorists.
Those who know Jimmy Carter say he is a deeply private person, a decent, shy, sensitive man, who desperately wanted to be a good president. It's sad for Carter, sadder for the nation, that he failed.