In­side the Carter White House

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - ti­mothy.rut­ten

A new diary of­fers a uniquely un­fil­tered look at what oc­cu­py­ing the Oval Of­fice means.

Pres­i­dents Jimmy Carter and Her­bert Hoover might be brack­eted to­gether for a num­ber of rea­sons.

Both were en­gi­neers by train­ing, shared an al­most the­o­log­i­cal faith in the chimera of gov­ern­men­tal ef­fi­ciency, be­lieved ef­fec­tive man­age­ment grew from close at­ten­tion to de­tail and were pow­er­fully in­flu­enced by their re­li­gious up­bring­ings — in Carter’s case that meant the Bap­tist church, in Hoover’s Quak­erism. Most im­por­tant, both left of­fice as wretch­edly un­pop­u­lar, oneterm chief ex­ec­u­tives, but then went on to be­come widely ad­mired (and gen­er­ally ad­mirable) ex-pres­i­dents.

Both also turned out to be gen­uinely in­ter­est­ing writ­ers: Hoover and his wife trans­lated a Re­nais­sance Latin tract on min­ing, and he penned the only study of one pres­i­dent writ­ten by an­other, “The Or­deal of Woodrow Wil­son.” Carter has writ­ten more than 20 books since leav­ing Washington; “White House Diary” stands out as a sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tory of the pres­i­dency. This vol­ume con­sists of his edited ver­sion of the diary he wrote and dic­tated dur­ing his ten­ure. (The un­ex­pur­gated manuscripts are in the Carter Li­brary and open to schol­arly ex­am­i­na­tion.) At var­i­ous points, Carter has in­ter­jected ital­i­cized af­ter­thoughts in which he re­vis­its his ap­praisals of events and the peo­ple in­volved. It all makes for a uniquely un­fil­tered look at what oc­cu­py­ing the Oval Of­fice day to day means, as well as a bit of sec­ond think­ing and score-set­tling.

One of the things that jumps out with par­tic­u­lar force is the way in which un­fore­seen events come to com­pete with a pres­i­dent’s

own agenda for the fi­nite amount of time and at­ten­tion avail­able to the chief ex­ec­u­tive and his team. Carter’s fi­nal years in of­fice, for ex­am­ple, are dom­i­nated by the crises over the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan and the Ira­nian Is­lamists’ seizure of Amer­i­can di­plo­mats as hostages. (Carter’s ac­count of his at­ti­tude to­ward the failed mil­i­tary res­cue at­tempt and his im­plicit ex­pla­na­tions for the rea­sons it oc­curred may sur­prise some.)

Per­sonal pol­i­tics

Po­lit­i­cally speak­ing, Carter was a le­gendary grudge holder, and his com­ments aren’t sur­pris­ing re­gard­ing Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), whom he par­tic­u­larly loathed; Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jack­son (D-Wash.); and, of course, Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whom he re­garded as a son of priv­i­lege with an over­ac­tive sense of en­ti­tle­ment. The same is true in his ap­praisals of those in­volved in what Carter rightly re­gards as his great­est for­eign pol­icy achieve­ment, the Camp David Ac­cords. Here, too, you also see the seeds of Carter’s re­cent shrill an­tipa­thy to Is­rael and its in­ter­ests. He found Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat a man of broad vi­sion and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Me­nachem Be­gin nar­row and de­ceit­ful. Carter char­ac­ter­izes the Pales­tini­ans as peo­ple with “rights” and the Is­raelis as peo­ple with “de­mands.” Over and over, he fails to evince any sym­pa­thy for the ex­is­ten­tial con­di­tion of Is­raeli lead­ers for whom ev­ery as­pect of the peace process is a ne­go­ti­a­tion over their coun­try’s sur­vival. In sev­eral in­stances, he also im­plic­itly taxes Amer­i­can Jews, par­tic­u­larly those in govern­ment, with the old dual-loy­alty slan­der. It’s ugly, small-minded stuff.

At other mo­ments, Carter is gen­er­ously fair-minded. He ad­mired Repub­li­can Howard Baker’s bi­par­ti­san­ship, and he calls War­ren Christo­pher, who served as his deputy sec­re­tary of State, “the best pub­lic ser­vant I had ever known.” Few fa­mil­iar with Christo­pher’s ca­reer would dis­agree.

Press re­la­tions

Carter’s de­scrip­tion of his press cov­er­age is an in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple of the way those who op­posed him, dis­ap­pointed him or — in his view — let him down are han­dled in this vol­ume. In his afterword, he cites among the fail­ings that brought his pres­i­dency to grief “my in­abil­ity to form a mu­tu­ally re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship with key news me­dia. Be­cause of the United States’ de­feat in Viet­nam and Nixon’s Water­gate de­ba­cle, I in­her­ited a sus­pi­cious, al­most cyn­i­cal at­ti­tude among the press to­ward the pres­i­dency.” That odd mix­ture of selfdep­re­ca­tion and his­tor­i­cally in­evitable cir­cum­stances be­yondis sup­posed to re­move the sting of the crit­i­cism that fol­lows: In the Carter schema, ev­ery­body is at fault, but the other guy is more at fault. Thus, in sev­eral diary en­tries, the pres­i­dent and his staff de­cry the sav­agery of their press cov­er­age.

Look a bit closer, though, and the ev­i­dence of these pages sug­gests that what’s be­ing de­nounced is the fact that all the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cov­er­age wasn’t pos­i­tive. In an en­try on who in the press could be trusted, for ex­am­ple, Carter notes his White House had good re­la­tions with Phil Geyelin and the peo­ple who ran the Washington Post’s ed­i­to­rial page, and ter­ri­ble ones with Ben Bradlee and the paper’s news staff. New York Times colum­nist James Re­ston, then his paper’s émi­nence

grise, wins the high­est Carter rat­ing for trust­wor­thi­ness.

As far as a re­flex­ively cyn­i­cal, sus­pi­cious press corps goes, there’s this en­try from Sept. 28, 1977: Press Sec­re­tary “Jody [Pow­ell] and [chief of staff] Hamil­ton [Jor­dan] dis­cov­ered a sweep­ing news me­dia premise claim­ing that Vice Pres­i­dent [Wal­ter] Mon­dale had lost in­flu­ence within the White House. It was ridicu­lous, so I called Jack Nel­son with the Los An­ge­les Times and Hedrick Smith with the New York Times, and suc­ceeded be­yond my ex­pec­ta­tions. The fol­low­ing day su­perb ar­ti­cles came out telling how in­flu­en­tial the vice pres­i­dent was.”

Maybe the press in Ge­or­gia, where Carter made his po­lit­i­cal bones, is more ac­com­mo­dat­ing, but when you can call two of the tough­est, most in­flu­en­tial re­porters of their gen­er­a­tion and get that sort of re­sult, it’s hard to imag­ine what a “re­spect­ful” re­la­tion­ship might have looked like.

Mes­sage for Obama

Viewed through one prism, Carter’s pres­i­den­tial record in­volved re­mark­able achieve­ments — cre­ation of the de­part­ments of en­ergy and ed­u­ca­tion, the Camp David Ac­cords, set­tle­ment of the Panama Canal is­sue, reg­u­la­tory over­haul and a record of leg­isla­tive suc­cess sur­passed only by Lyndon B. John­son in the post­war era. Still, his ad­min­is­tra­tion ended in fail­ure. In the afterword, Carter ex­plores some of what he be­lieves are the rea­sons for that and of­fers Pres­i­dent Obama some cau­tion­ary ad­vice on push­ing too am­bi­tious an agenda, ask­ing Congress to take too many po­lit­i­cally costly votes and get­ting too far out in front of the elec­torate.

There’s lit­tle in this diary about stagfla­tion or the econ­omy — and the fact that lit­tle else mat­ters to the Amer­i­can peo­ple when they’re out of work and fi­nan­cially in­se­cure. It’s that ab­sence and its con­se­quences that Obama ought to heed.


Manuel Balce Ceneta

In his “White House Diary,” Jimmy Carter re­counts his of­ten-try­ing term.

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