Jimmy Carter was, to the end, a hostage in his own White House, captive to the fate of 52 Americans he has never met.
It fell to America's 39th president to spend his last hours trapped by events behind bars that had become his destiny, the bars of grandstand scaffolding erected outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to serve the celebrants of Ronald Reagan's inaugural parade.
He had hoped, at least, for a fitting finale to a presidency that had been marred by broken hopes and unfulfilled promises. He had hoped, at least for one last symbolic "grand tour": a race to Europe to welcome 52 Americans to their freedom, and a race back home to surrender the presidency that their ordeal had probably cost him.
But -- like so many other things in his four years in Washington -- this, too, was to be denied him, after seeming to be all but within his grasp. He had been up most of the night, conferring with advisers amid packing boxes and cartons, grabbing a couple of hours of sleep on a sofa in his office, but finally feeling it had all, somehow been worth it when word came from Algiers.
Drawn, weary, and careful mask the numbing elation welling inside, Carter had appeared in the White House press room at 4:58 a.m. to announce, at last, that at least this peace was at hand.
"We have now reached an agreement with Iran which will result, I believe, in the freedom of our hostages," the president said in a voice drained of everything but caution. ". . . We still have a few documents to sign before the money is actually transferred and the hostages are released. . . . We don't know exactly how fast this procedure will go."
But they thought, at least, that it would go well enough. They thought that there would be time for that trip to the U.S. Air Force Base in West Germany where the hostages first would stay. They thought, at least, that things would go well enough so that they allowed themselves a moment of quiet exultation, a champagne toast in the Oval Office in the pre-dawn darkness of Carter's last full day as president. Then, in the early morning, last burden seemingly lifted and his last wish seemingly fulfilled, Carter went out to the south lawn and jogged -- a solitary celebrant of a very personal victory, alone in the center of a city that is engaged in the celebration of his election defeat.
And then they waited.
They waited for the planes to take off from Tehran, waited through the morning and into the afternoon. But the detail work had become snarled in setting up an escrow account for the return of Iran's assets frozen in U.S. banks.
And as the hours passed and the planes remained grounded, it became clear to the president and his advisers that there were just not enough hours left to his term as president to allow him to make that roundtrip to Europe, that was to have been the bittersweet culmination of his years as president.
There would be no grand finale. And so it was that the fate of 52 Americans held hostage half a world away enveloped, and eventually consumed, Carter's presidency.
It was a crisis like none other in American history, and its impact was powerful and lasting. It was a crisis that had taken an American president and had carried him in almost Shakespearean progression through fateful twists and turns. It built up his stature as a leader in the beginning, when it seemed he needed that most, when he locked in what appeared to be the most formidable political challenge he would face: the challenge from the left from fellow Democrat Edward Kennedy.
But in the end it proved his undoing, cracking his leadership veneer and then shattering what was left of his political prospects on the eve of America's presidential election, as he could do nothing but sit helplessly by.
The Iranian hostage crisis did not, alone defeat Carter. But it came to symbolize all that did.
"It was a symbol of the frustration that the American people were feeling about everything, from high interest rates to gasoline prices to you name it," said Jody Powell in a moment of quiet reflection sandwiched into the hectic moments of his president's final days.
And Hamilton Jordan, waxing melodramatic but not necessarily inaccurate, wrote in Life magazine that "the president's chances for reelection probably died on the desert of Iran with the eight brave soldiers who gave their lives trying to free the American hostages."
The political fact of Carter's life is that there were many things about the Carter presidency that Americans had come to regret by Election Day, 1980 -- which, ironically, was the one-year annivesary of the taking of the hostages. And all of these frustrations were rolled into one and cast as ballots in the name of Ronald Reagan, the candidate who had ended his campaign with the question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
In the days immediately after the hostages were seized, neither the president nor any of his senior advisers had any notion that the crisis would be so long-lived or so politically pivotal. Indeed, at first it seemed as tough the crisis could be resolved merely by sending a few tough signals, both audio and visual.
So it was, on a November day 14 months ago, that Carter had dramatically helicoptered back from Camp David and emerged, striding across the White House lawn in front of the television cameas, showing all of the grim determination a president can muster -- head thrown back, jaw jutting skyward in a most unnatural posture for this normally slope-shouldered man. He had come back to issue a statement warning that the United States might use force as a last resort against Iran. And, in those early days, he had offered a declaration of national resolve:
"No act has so galvanized the American public toward unity in the last decade as the holding of our people as hostages in Tehran. We stand today as one people."
The first beneficiary of that unity proved to be Carter.
His standing in the polls showed a marked improvement, especially in measurements of his conduct as a leader. This was especially welcome at the time, for he was in the throes of what his advisers (and most other observers) believed was his crucial fight for political survival: his intra-party battle Kennedy.
Two days after the hostages were seized, Carter -- trailing Kennedy badly in the polls -- had agreed to debate his Democratic presidential opponents, an unprecedented act for an incumbent president but an act founded upon political necessity.
But by the end of December, Carter's political situation had changed and the international situation had intensified. Carter had pulled ahead of Kennedy in the polls. The Soviets, meanwhile, had invaded Afghanistan. Carter, citing the crises in Iran and Afghanistan, withdrew from the debate that had no longer become a political necessity.
He went on to score a string of early victories over Kennedy -- a string that proved just strong enough to pull him through to the Democratic nomination.
Throughout the fall, Reagan hammered away at the failures of Carter's economic policies, with some success. The hostage crisis had begun to settle into the nation's subconscious when, on the Sunday before Election Day, two events occurred: Iran's parliament approved new conditions for a settlement, and U.S. television networks carried first-year retrospectives commemorating the annivesary of the crisis.
"The stories were emotionally wrenching," Jordan wrote in Life," and the reports made viewers relive . . . all of the outrage, frustration and disappointment of the past year . . . the presentations added up to a subtle but powerful statement against us."
Richard Nixon had grown fond of telling Americans that their country should never become a pitiful, helpless giant. In Jimmy Carter's last year, the crisis in Iran had made too many Americans feel that their country had become just that.
EPILOGUE: In the end it came down to much the same small bond with whom Carter had begun his oddly lonely adventure in national leadership. About 1:30 this morning at the White House, Jody Powell returned to his office.
He told reporters that in these final 12 hours of his administration, the president, too, was up. Carter, Powell said, was in the Oval Office. With him were Vice President Mondale and two of the Georgians to whom Carter had always turned in times of need: Jordan and Atlanta lawyer Charles Kirbo.
Other Carter aides were meeting at Treasury, Powell said, from where they had sent to Algiers and Tehran several "proposed fixes" in the troublesome final paragraphs of the agreement to free the hostages. How serious were the remaining problems? Powell was asked. "It's an itty-bitty hang-up," he replied, "the same one we've had for the last few hours.
"It's not an insurmountable problem."