In the gospel according to James Fallows, President Carter stands guilty of being the sort of man he told us he never would be.
"Arrogance . . . the height of arrogance . . . willful ignorance . . . spite . . . complacency . . . insecurity."
Carter's recently resigned chief speechwriter uses these words in a magazine article to describe his former boss and explain what he sees as the shortcomings of the president he served for two years. Fallows has produced (for his new employer, The Atlantic Monthly magazine) a character analysis and leadership indictment of Jimmy Carter that is far stiffer than anything Carter that is far stiffer than anything Carter is likely to hear from those within the White House staff, including Fallows when he was there.
The message from one who was inside is that Carter thought himself above having to learn how to make Washington work for him in order to get things done as president. And that Carter thought himself above even learning how to communicate effectively with the public, which is to say, lead effectively.
It is a message that tells a good bit about the president and how he tries to lead. And it is a message that tells us a bit as well about the man who,, at age 27, became his chief speechwriter on Inauguration Day. For although the article is titled "The Passionless Presidency-The Trouble With Jimmy Carter's Administration," it could also be called "The Greening of James Fallows-How One Man Learns That There's More to Policymaking Than a Smile and a Nod."
Fallows' article stands as a chronicle of his frustration and disllusionment, beginning with the day in the summer of 1976 when he first met Carter.Fallows sat and listened as his friend and former employer, Ralph Nader, lectured Carter on how to be a good president and Carter nodded and occassionally spoke, leaving Fallows with the impression that he well understood.
"What Boswell must have felt when Burke and Johnson had their fine moments I thought I was feeling then," Fallows writes, with great classical mobility, "as Nader distilled into three hours the lessons of a dozen years."
The revelations in Fallows' article are deliberaetely spare: that Carter did not tell the truth on little things (his denial that he gave personal approval-disapproval for staff members to use the White House tennis court), that Carter was too proud to seek coaching in his pronunciation of a German couplet, thus causing him to mangle the thing beyond the recognition of his audience in Bonn.
The conclusions are carefully reasoned. A number of aides in the middle and upper echelons of the Carter White House have long been critical privately of the things Fallows now says publicly. Most notably, the criticism that Carter took care to engineer the right program policy, but that he never cared enough to determine just what things were necessary to get that program enacted.
In the files of a White House official there is a memo of advice unfollowed. Written last fall, it tells of pre-announcement steps Carter should take to win enactment of his anti-inflation program. The fact that the memo was not followed tells of the sort of thing that Fallows is writing about.
The memo was written to a Carter assistant by Jack Valenti, who served Lyndon B. Johnson as a presidential assistant and who justified him in a worshipful book, "A Very Human President." (The Valenti memo offered some sage advice; it was, in a sense, axiomatic of that Washington phenomenon of how people often are able to give good advice to any president but their own.)
Valenti wrote that Carter should consult-work with, not just inform-Capitol Hill powers like Senate Fiance Chairman Russell Long and House Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman, plus leaders of labor and industry. "No plan, however designed, will get off the ground unless the key congressional leaders are solidly with the president," the memo said. ". . . leaks will occur. Let them."
But Carter was infuriated by early leaks of parts of his anti-inflation plan. So he kept secret the center-piece, the proposal for real wage insurrance, hoping to assure that he could at least reveal something new in his nationally televised speech last October. And he did. But in the process he angered Long and Ullman and a number of others, and the proposal was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
One of the facts of life about the Carter White House is that there are outsiders who are in, and insiders who are out. So Atlanta attorney Charles Kirbo is a dominant Carter White House force from without. Yet others who are well titled and well placed inside the White House have little influence in how things actually get done.
Loyalty is the litmus and so the inner circle is made up of people like Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan and Frank Moore-people who have been with Carter since the early days in Georgia-and a few others who enjoy easy access to the inner circle because of unflinching loyalty to those within.
Fallows never operated on that plane and was never permitted to be a part of it. He once remarked in frustration to a reporter who had just interviewed Hamilton Jordan that the reporter surely knew more about what Jordan was planning and what was going on than he did.
Now he has vented his frustrations for all to see. "Like Marshal Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation," Fallows writes of Carter. "This is not an inconsiderable gift; his performance in office shows us why it's not enough."
What Fallows finds Carter guilty of most of all, is, ironically, the sin of pride.
Some of us first learned about the sin of pride from our preacher's sermons and reading the bible and others of us first learned about it from Jimmy Carter's interview statements in reading Playboy.
"What Christ taught most was pride, that one person should never think he was any better than anybody else," Carter said in his famous, richly nuggeted 1976 Playboy interview, in the same answer where he went on to talk about committing lust in his heart.
Dean Phil Wogaman of the Wesley Theological Seminary at American University says that in Protestant teachings, "pride is the fundamental generic sin from which most other sins are derived . . . where one tends to subordinate every other thing to oneself." That, Fallows said in a conversation the other day, is what he was writing about in his article on Carter.
Fallows' article praises Carter as being smart "in a College Board sense" and proclaims that Carter is the one politician worthy of standing sentry at the pearly gates on Judgment Day. But Fallows ends up being distinctly critical, managing, in a particularly impressive sentence deforce, to use most of the key words of his message in a single bite:
"Carter's willful ignorance, his blissful tabula rasa, could-to me-be explained only by a conbination of arrogance, complacency, and-dread thought-insecurity at the core of his mind and soul."
EPILOGUE: The Carter White House so far has had nothing to say on the Fallows article.It has not even granted it diplomatic recognition. But the president will likely take note of one statistical fact of life. He has had three chief speechwriters, going back into his campaign days, and he had not fared well from the post-employment writings of all three of them. Robert Shrum, who had a cup of coffee with the Carter campaign in 1976, quit and ripped Carter apart in a campaign-time magazine article. Patrick Anderson, who resigned after the campaign, wrote a novel which portrayed unflatteringly a White House and staff that looked a lot like Carter's.
And now comes Fallows, more thoughtful and praiseworthy than Shrum, more factual than fiction-writer Anderson, yet critical and even damaging in his own way. One mid-level official who has written for Carter says:
"I'm afraid it can't make Jimmy Carter more favorably disposed toward his speechwriters."