Hamilton Jordan, President Carter's chief of staff, talked about his four years in the White House the other day with Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor. Here are excerpts from that conversation .
Q. You're going to write a book?
A. Yes, I'm talking to some publishers. But I don't want it to be a traditional me-and-Jimmy Carter scrapbook. I've always wanted to write. I realize that the only natural interest anybody has in me as a writer now is this experience with the president, which, you know, I appreciate. But I want to use my writing as a kind of catharsis, and I want to write a book that kind of puts all this behind me and then look to the future. I don't want to live in the past the rest of my life.
I went up to see Ted Sorensen [on campaign business] in 1975. He is a decent human being, a really good guy. But his whole office is just full of Kennedy memorabilia, and probably because Kennedy was assassinated, he's more this way. I said to myself: my God, if we make it and if we ever get there, I want to be able to walk away from it all and do something different.
Q. Talk about Hamilton Jordan for a minute. There is the guy sitting in this office, among boxes, about to clear out, whom some of us knew during these four years, and then there is this figure. . .
A. Hannibal Jerkin.
Q. Hannibal Jerkin, right. How do you feel about that? What happened?
A. Well, I don't know. I suppose a couple of things happened. Somebody said that maybe I'd come to Washington with a chip on my shoulder and Washington knocked the chip off. And I said I didn't think I came to Washington with a chip on my shoulder, but, if I did, Washington had knocked my whole shoulder off. I didn't come here with a proper appreciation of the public responsibility of a person who serves in the White House. I didn't come here desirous of having a high public profile, and certainly never dreaming that I'd be so controversial a figure and, to a large extent, a figure of ridicule.
Maybe some of it was inevitable; maybe some of it was my fault. Maybe if I had it all to do over again, I'd become a socialite here in Washington, but I don't think so. I mean, it's just not my nature. I recognize that there are benefits to being part of the social scene, wining and dining; but I came here to work and to think. I'm just not like that, you know. Maybe that was a mistake. And then I got myself in a situation where -- your own publication as a matter of fact -- a couple of things were said about me that were just completely untrue. But once they were said, I was stuck with them.
After the drug stuff came up in the summer of '79, I just became a recluse. Some of it was probably my fault in terms of not appreciating the extent to which I had a public responsibility. Some of it was the fact that I became a very vulnerable target for the gossip columnists, and for other columnists. I think I tended to symbolize all the concerns that people had about Jimmy Carter. This guy's young, he's from Georgia, he doesn't understand Washington, unconventional, and I think it was a little bit of all, and then all these other crazy stories.
I realized it was an embarrassment to the president. So that's why, the last year or so, I've just really gone underground.
Q. People felt, I think, that you symbolized a kind of go-to-hell-Washington attitude. . .
A. We came up here kind of cocky, that's right.
Q. Another thing was that when you were made chief of staff, that was said to be the first time you really got with the congressional leaders. How come for two years there had been so little contact with the Hill?
A. Well, the initial reason was that we thought and I don't think incorrectly -- that if everybody on the Hill thought they could call me and Jody Powell -- you know people test you at first -- to get something out of the department or get an appointment with the president, it was going to undermine our congressional liaison. So, particularly the first six or eight months, we'd say: well, you'll need to talk to Frank Moore.
This stuff about my never returning telephone calls to members of Congress is just not true. I'm sure there were some I missed, but I've got a goodly number of people there I'm friendly with. During the campaign, I had six or eight meetings over at Jim Free's [congressional liaison office] house for 20 or 30 members of Congress. But I never saw that as my purpose or function, to be dealing with the Hill.
But if I had to do all over again, I would have from the outset defined better what I was going to do and not going to do, and not been perceived as disdainful of Congress. I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses, but the thing of my not returning calls and not having relationships with people, I feel it's exaggerated. And a lot of it is like this stuff about Tip O'Neill -- not giving him inaugural seats and I supposedly called him and asked if he wanted him money back. I never had that kind of conversation with the speaker.
Q. But if you wanted to help Jimmy Carter succeed. . .
A. That was my purpose in coming here. I didn't expect Washington to changed and become like us, but neither did I think all of us had to change and be like Washington. There are a lot of things about this city that are interesting and attractive, but you won't find the answers to most of this nation's problems by gaining a concensus of what people think inside the Beltway. There's a very cautious attitude politically, there's a compromising attitude politically and there's a terrible tendency to procrastinate in terms of dealing with the country's problems. If you look at the things that I would say are the hallmarks of the Carter years, they are examples of where Carter has gone against the grain and gone against conventional wisdom.
If you'd asked 10 people on the Hill and 10 people in the political community and the media, when do you normalize relations with China, they'd say, well, you do that in the second term. If you asked them whether we consummate a Panama Canal treaty, everybody will say, hell, no, that's unpopular. If you ask them: to keep the Middle East peace thing from going down the tube, do you risk having the president dash off to Israel and Egypt to try to hold it together, they'd say, hell, no. If you'd asked the Democrats, do you deregulate natural gas and decontrol oil prices, they'd say no. They'd give you good political reasons not to do it.
To the extent we have been successful, and I think we have when measured against the country's problems, it's because Carter brought an unconventional attitude to Washington.
Q. Were you ever scared during this time? Did you ever look up and think, my God, what am I, Hamilton Jordan, doing here? y
A. When I was 23, 24 years old, I managed Carter's gubernatorial campaign. When I was 25 years old, I was the governor's chief of staff, and then I went from there to run his national campaign. So I developed, deserved or not, a confidence about myself and a knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses. When I got here, there were times when I pinched myself, but I was never intimidated by the responsibility or by being in the White House or by being the chief of staff. Of course, that related to this myth about all the power I have. Things in this city are exaggerated.
You know, I never presented myself as -- I am not -- a policy person. That's not to say I don't have things that I believe deeply in. I was qualified when I got here to do things I was called upon to do, which was to advise the president, coordinate and so forth.
The only time I ever was really scared was in the hostage affair, because you do things that affect people's lives. I had this feeling that there were maybe 52, 53 human beings' lives directly linked to how well we negotiated and whether we made the right decision. I felt the kind of human responsibility that I had never felt before in my life.
Q. Was that your greatest disappointment -- that Bani-Sadr never got the people out?
A. That was the worst day of my life. Well no, the worst day of my life was when the rescue mission failed -- both because it failed and those people were killed over there. It's a terrible feeling.
Q. What are you proudest of?
A. Of the fact that Carter came to the White House at a difficult time in our country's history and engaged issues that had been side-stepped or only partially dealt with by previous presidents.
Q. And you personally?
A. Well, it's hard to say. There are two or three things that meant a lot to me. When everybody else was advising against it, I strongly favored the president's following his instincts in going to Egypt and Israel to try to hold together the peace process that was falling apart. I think I probably played a fairly influential role in his decision to do that.
I was proud of my personal involvement in the ratification of the Panama Canal treaty. But I think my greatest disappointment is that, although we consummated the SALT treaty, we never had a chance to ratify it. It's the greatest substantive disappointment. The greatest emotional disappointment was the rescue mission.
Q. You get on pretty well with a number of people in the press. But you got a terrible press. Talk about that for a minute. . .
A. I hate to sound whiny, but you know when I had a damn convicted fellow like Vesco saying he had paid me off, and there was not a thread of evidence, and I had these two guys in the cocaine thing make these allegations against me -- and I realize that because I sit there down the hall from the president, allegations have to be covered -- still I never saw from my personal relationships with the people in the media any benefit in terms of my word or my denial being accepted over the word of people who were convicted and had obvious motivations.
You know, a week or so after the story about the coke, the Studio 54 thing, there was a picture of me in Newsweek with a Coca-Cola and there was a little line under it; it said, "Ham with Coke," or something like that. It was so tacky. I used to see people from the news mags regularly, and John Osborne. But when it came to a question of was I telling the truth or not, did I do something that was measured against the word of fairly scurrilous people, my relationship with these people in the press counted for nothing. Am I wrong? Am I exaggerating?I mean, if I was helped by the personal relationships I had with the people of the press, my God, I hate to think what they would have done to me if I hadn't had those relationships.
Q. What happened to the reelection campaign?
A. Well, from the beginning I saw two kinds of hurdles. One was ours and one was Reagan's. I saw us either getting into the ball game or not getting into the ball game. I never said that around, obviously, but there was a question in my mind whether we were going to get in striking distance. We seemed to have gotten over that hurdle two or three weeks [away from the election]. The other hurdle was whether Reagan would, as Pat Caddell said, begin to look plausible as a president and my judgment was he had not.
And then the debate happened, which helped him a lot, although I can't say that was a decisive factor, and then this thing that Pat told us the day of the election and it sounded like just a good excuse that we were concocting for ourselves, but the hostage thing hurt us a lot. It symbolized all of the feeling of helplessness, that we'd lost control of our destiny, of our lives. Everything wrapped into one symbolic incident.
Q. What did you guys, what did the president do wrong?
A. I cannot point to any one thing that cost us the election. It was almost like it was bigger than us.
Q. You don't think that making the attacks on Reagan boomeranged because he didn't look to be the kind of person that the president seemed to be attacking? And it got vicious. . .
A. That wasn't vicious. That was a bogus issue. Carter mean? Show me examples in his government when so-called meaness has affected his policy decision. He said some things on the stump that maybe he regretted and Reagan said some things I'm sure that he regretted. But that really was a bogus issue.
We were trying to make Reagan the issue. If the American people had voted on the differences, Carter would have won. I don't think they voted on the differences and, if they did, it's not conservatism; it's just that we've tried this Democratic stuff for a while, let's try something else.
Q. When did you know how bad it was going to be?
A. Well, we had a feeling after the debate over the weekend that we were in trouble, although the polls showed us still close. But then the Iranian thing just all broke against us.
Q. Do you have a feeling that the election system -- the length of the campaign and the costs and the financing, etc. -- is a mess and that needs to be changed?
A. There are a lot of changes that need to be made, but I don't see a practical way to make those changes.
There is this idea of a disposable president -- every four years we've got to get a new president. A lot of the problems that we face need eight years of continuity in focus to be successfully grappled with. But the election starts so early. And the federal election law is kind of a farce. I think.
This is one thing I was going to try to stay involved in. I wanted to see if we could -- as a second-term president -- change things.