This is excerpted from an article by the former assistant secretary of state for public affairs in Playboy magazine.
The president had whipped both the old liberal left, represented by Morris Udall, and the Cold Warriors, represented by Henry Jackson, during the 1976 primaries, and he had done it with a minimum of grace in victory. He had then taken on the Republicans, Henry Kissinger no less than President Ford, with promises to bring morality back into foreign policy (in implicit contrast to a presumed Nixon-Ford-Kissinger immorality), and had won.
He came to Washington with a coterie that announced itself both unawed by and contemptuous of that town's most treasured conceit, which is that its permanent population of press, lobbyists and former notables is the corporate repository of the country's wisdom and vision. And he, through his chief lieutenants and through his own actions, all but stated publicly that he neither needed nor valued the views of Congress.
Too many who might have helped were shunned, the coldness of the deep freeze often seming to be in direct proportion to years spent in Washington. Too few were brought in close. None was ever allowed as close as Hamilton Jordan, Carter's political strategist, or Jody Powell, his press secretary. Both were men of real ability. Both were stretched too thin to fill too many roles. Both suffered initially from knowing too little about the new arena and from not bothering to tolerate fools, real or imagined, gladly.
For reasons that escaped the more combative of us, the president and Secretary of State Vance decided to play ball with Kissinger. From the beginning, we were told to treat him as a distinguished senior statesman, as though he could be counted on to accept our systematic repudiation of his foreign-policy assumptions in passive silence. They apparently believed that Kissinger's first interest was the well-being of the nation rather than the redemption of his reputation. He was brought in for regular briefings and consultations by Vance. He was needed by the administration, or so the word went, for the Panama Canal fight, the ratification of SALT II and as a dike of sorts against a potential right-wing flood.
The result was that Kissinger, while being treated with kid gloves, poisoned the well, privately at first and quite publicly over the last 18 months. His salon remarks, his "extemporaneous" questioning of Carter policies in overseas meetings, were met with pained restraint. We had adequate access to enough material, in official memorandums, to keep him silent or at least defensive from beginning to end. He must have been surprised at first, then thankful and finally amused about our failure to use it.
The circle around the president was tight when he came to Washington; it was virtually as tight four years later. Having no built-in Washington constituency accumulated over years of public life, having nothing like the permanent nucleus of faithful supporters claimed by a Hubert Humphrey, a Richard Nixon or a Teddy Kennedy, he and his inner circle never seemed to see the need to build one. Thus, when the time came to circle the wagons, there weren't enough wagons, and there were always too many observers remaining passive who should have been shoulder to shoulder with their president, firing away at the hostiles.
There were many who wished it were different, who were prepared to offer their full commitment. The problem was that what seemed to be required -- all that seemed to be tolerable to the president and to his handful of lieutenants -- was adherence to policy, no back talk and no sense of intimacy.
Mean, but not tough. That was the famous remark about Carter. Its truth was brought out in a particularly unpleasant fashion during a private meeting Carter held in February 1979 to excoriate many of us at the State Department for alleged leaks opposing his Iranian policy of the moment. The president threatened to fire the next person from whose bureau a significant leak seemed to have come. It was a stupid thing to say; it was even more stupid not to make good on the threat once it had been uttered. But no second shoe ever dropped. And whatever he might have thought of each of us individually, the way he addressed us collectively at that meeting was as if we were an opposition in hiding.
He gave credit to Vance, who was present, as the "greatest secretary of state in history," then went into an increasing torrent of bitterness.
"I have a problem," he said. "You're the problem." We talked too much, he said, probably at those famous cocktail parties he was too busy to attend. It was time to work harder and talk less.
And then, suddenly, he pushed back his chair and stalked out. Jordan and Powell behind him. No chance for a response or a mea culpa; no chance for the establishment of a dialogue with his appointees at State, almost half of whom had worked hard in his campaign.
Some of the older generation of diplomats openly didn't and don't believe in the efficacy or wisdom of such notions as campaigns for human rights or restraints in arms sales abroad. They have used arms as the sweetener with recalcitrant client states for so long that they see them as irreplaceable tools of the diplomatic trade. As for human rights concerns, there are those at State who believe that torture is not something that gentlemen discuss publicly or privately. They fully expected that most of the new initiatives would soon be dropped, and they did everything they could to see that the day of abandonment came sooner rather than later.
They weren't disciplined for their reluctance, mainly because the White House, in the spirit of the candidate's pledge to keep politics out of appointments, never got control of the machinery of the government the candidate had been elected to run. At State, and everywhere else as well, the theory and practice of merit appointments beyond the crass world of politics has resulted in too few ties betwen office holder, political or bureaucratic, and president. Indeed, the career Foreign Service obstructors of the new policies often made more converts among the appointees than the newcomers were able to convert to the president's policies. Too many voices were heard simultaneously, and too few were told to shut up.
Particularly troublesome was the ambition of the national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to become a major factor in the formulation and, more particularly, the articulation of the administration's foreign policy. He apparently saw himself as another Kissinger. While he had neither Kissinger's intellect nor his political savvy, he did share one all-important asset: immediate access to the president. He used it in what became a single-minded pursuit of dominance in the foreign policy arena.
Brzezinski's main competitor was Vance, and here I must confess to little objectivity. I came to regard Cy Vance as one of the most decent, courageous and humane men American public life has seen. He knows the ins and outs of power in Washington, having served off and on in a variety of Defense Department and special diplomatic posts over two decades, but he wouldn't fight dirty if his life depended on it. In many ways, his effectiveness in the Carter administration's infighting was severely hampered precisely because he was instinctively so straight.
The president never publicly chose between Vance and Brzezinski, though he repeatedly asserted that he would or had made it clear that the secretary of state was the chief foreign policy spokesman for the administration. More times than his close associates could remember, Vance would come back from a White House showdown buoyed by the president's assurance that he, Cy Vance, was the principal foreign policy adviser.
Brzezinski, however, never accepted a defeat as final or a policy as decided if it did not please him. Like a rat terrier, he would shake himself off after losing encounter and begin nipping at Vance's ankles, using his press spokesman and chief deputies as well as himself to tell the world that he had won or that only he, Zbigniew Brzezinski, hung tough in the national security game as a foreign policy realist.
Vance would refuse to engage and would order his aides not to reply. Let a refutation of Brzezinski's view appear in the press, and loud, piercing shrieks emanated from the White House. Four, five and six times a day, Brzezinski would be on the phone to Vance, demanding that he find and fire the leakers who dared malign the president's adviser; the State Department cabal must be crushed and silenced; an attack on Brzezinski was the same as an attack on the president.
The secretary would pound the table in the next staff meeting and once again insist that whoever was leaking must cease and desist.
It was difficult to know from afar why and how the president placed so much value on Brzezinski. A second-rate thinker in a field infested with poseurs and careerists, he has never let consistency get in the way of self promotion or old theories impede new policy acrobatics.
If there was the deadly serious business of the Brzezinski-Vance rivalry to confuse the American public, as well as overseas onlookers, there was also the additional factor of Andy Young. He could be, and usually was, a convincing advocate of the administration's policy. He could be, and more than occasionally was, a public promoter of his own version of what that foreign policy should be.
Thus, there were the policies officially pronounced by Vance on behalf of the administration, the ones improvised by Young from time to time and the ones pushed hard through backgrounder and leak by Brzezinski and his courtiers. If, early on, the president had made it clear -- by deed as well as word -- that dissent had to stop once policy decisions were made, he could have avoided the public perception that the administration was hopelessly incapable of making up its mind.
Ultimately, what was the most harmful to the administration's standing at home and abroad was the president's almost willful inconsistency. He made policy decisions one by one and put them forth as though they had no relationship one to the other. He would choose the Vance position one month and the Brzezinski position the next. He could send State Department officials out to sell the neutron bomb to our European allies, then publicly decide against its production while they were still out selling. Much the same thing happened with the Olympic-boycott decision, announced shortly after our allies had been told it wasn't in the cards.
Coupled with that was a tendency to overstate and oversell. Three examples come to mind: In his inaugural address, Carter spoke of a day when there would be no nuclear weapons; he termed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the "most serious threat to world peace" since World War II; in between, he could hail dictators and democrats alike as "my good friends." Sometimes he was on both sides of the same issue in one speech.
Certainly, there were difficult issues and changing conditions to which the president had to react on a continuous basis. There was also the reality that the old foreign policy consensus had long since vanished in America, the victim of Watergate and Vietnam. The president had to construct a different majority coalition for each initiative and issue. Those who believe we should be activist in our involvement in the Middle East looked with suspicion on similar involvement in South Africa. One-issue groups plagued the foreign-policy process no less than the domestic. Each tinhorn despot had his defenders on Capitol Hill.
But those were conditions that candidate Carter had recognized and capitalized upon and that President Carter knew he had to face. To describe them is not to excuse the failure to deal with them in a way that would produce clarity and understanding.
And so the president came to the great political test of 1980 with a dissipated mandate and a widespread image as a bumbler at home and abroad. Many of the brave initiatives of 1977 had run one by one to dust. The political enemies he thought he had routed in 1976 were in the ascendancy in Washington and in the country.
All of us were advised to beware of instant history, of overnight analysis of recent events. But there is one clear point that can be made. The duck does stop in the Oval Office. The dysfunctional discord between the State Department and the National Security Council, the confusion of Americans and foreigners about our policies, was finally the responsibility of the president. He is the one person in the executive branch who can adopt and present an integrated world view to which he can demand allegiance from his appointees and summon support from the people. A responsive, responsible system is possible only when the president offers comprehensible, consistent leadership. Despite good intentions and good ideas, that is what was lacking for much of the period between 1977 and 1980.