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The Best?

The President Who Failed: Carter Out of Control

by Clark R. Mollenhoff
Macmillan, 264 pp., $10.95

Jimmy Carter: A Character Portrait

by Bruce Mazlish, by Edwin Diamond
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $11.95

Both of these books were out of date before they were published. This misfortune is attributable not so much to the shortcomings of their authors as to the hazards of the race they entered, the familiar race of the presses and the journalists to keep pace with events. The inevitability of losing the race rarely discourages the runners—nor should it. It is a smug historian who would advise them to wait until the subject of biography cools in the grave. If they rush to judgment on this particular subject, so of necessity must the American electorate. And the events with which the runners failed to keep pace suggest that the judgment required of the electorate may be more momentous than the runners had any reason to suspect. Light on the Enigma from Georgia in the White House—refracted, colored, outdated, or distorted though it may be—can be of importance.

The nature of the events that outpaced these two books is indicated by the absence in either of any mention of American hostages in Teheran or Russian tanks in Kabul, of prophets in Qum or confrontation at the Khyber Pass. As a consequence, certain assumptions no doubt appeared more plausible at the time they were made than they now seem in cold print. Clark R. Mollenhoff, for example, assumes for the President in the forthcoming political contests “a shattering and humiliating defeat at the hands of Senator Kennedy or one of the Republican contenders for the presidency.” With the forthrightness for which the “investigative” school of journalism is so well known, Mollenhoff pronounces President Carter “a political klutz” who has “acted like a wooden clown or a caricature of a clumsy ward heeler politician.” He reports that the “eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with a fierce and aggressive swimming rabbit,” presumably at the time of writing, had evoked comment “that Jimmy Carter was finally fighting in his own class.”

Professor Bruce Mazlish, the psychohistorian of MIT, and his collaborator Edwin Diamond, a television commentator and a lecturer on political science at the same institution, offer a biographical study of the President. Although they are overtaken by the same unforeseen turn of events as Mollenhoff, they arrive at a strikingly contrasting assessment. Stating their conclusions separately, both collaborators enter certain reservations but come to quite similar conclusions. According to Mazlish, “Given any realistic expectations as to what any President could have done from 1976 on, I believe that he has ‘measured up’ so far surprisingly well.” And Diamond, with a few more reservations, concludes that “Carter was probably the most we could get in 1976—and probably will be in 1980 as well.” But a major theme of their book is the predominance of contradictions, ambiguities, and paradoxes in Carter’s life. Caught short by events, they are deprived of important illustrations and spared significant tests of their theme.

In a foreword to Mollenhoff’s The President Who Failed, the columnist Jack Anderson characterizes the book as “an investigative reporter’s view of Jimmy Carter: a stark, black-and-white portrait of a President who had great promise but, sadly, failed in his first term.” Stark it surely is. Concentrating on “malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance,” the book is in effect a bill of indictment and would seem to qualify for membership in the hammer-and-tongs school with which Anderson identifies it. With ample material at hand, however, the author confines himself mainly to assembling and narrating the known instead of investigating and revealing the unknown. He adds details and suggests intriguing possibilities, but the substance of his scandals is already fairly familiar.

Mention of some of the subjects will suggest the riches that Mollenhoff mines. One of the richest veins is that of Bert Lance and his friends, because of Lance’s closeness to Carter and the President’s dogged loyalty to him. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell was not only close to the President but his department was responsible for enforcing the law against administrative miscreants. To mention other instances, there was the unexplained dropping of the extradition of Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier; the firing of David W. Marston, the US attorney prosecuting Democratic congressmen; the removal of Jay Solomon during exposure of corruption in the Government Services Administration; and the disappointment of efforts of A. Ernest Fitzgerald against Air Force procurement scandals. Closer to home were the Carter companies’ income tax case and the charges against the President’s brother Billy and the President’s administrative chief, Hamilton Jordan. Since some of these charges are still under investigation and could lead to indictments; since Lance is still under trial; and since the Secretary of Treasury G. William Miller is facing serious charges—we have probably not heard the last, and possibly not the worst, of all this.

Behind the investigative reporter’s bill of indictment, however, lie implications—some of them explicit—that require scrutiny. Among these are the assumption that “an imperial presidency” still holds sway in Washington, arrogant in its contempt of other branches of the government and using “executive privilege” to effect a “cover up” of scandals “in nearly every department of the federal government.” So much is spelled out on the book’s jacket, presumably by the publisher, suggesting that we are reliving Watergate. Probably more important is the author’s apparent impression that he is revealing a story of executive perfidy that sets some sort of record or is outstanding in the history of the American presidency. This assumption involves a judgment in comparative history and the records of thirty-eight presidents.

The only comprehensive study of presidential misconduct is one for which the present writer is chiefly responsible.1 Written in 1974 at the request of John Doar, special counsel of the Impeachment Inquiry Staff investigating charges against Richard M. Nixon for the House Committee on the Judiciary, the book covers all presidents up to but not including Nixon. None of the thirty-five presidents up to that point, and of course none of those since then, has escaped charges of misconduct or corruption.2 The first two presidents retired under a torrent of abuse, and the next three, Jefferson to Monroe, fared little better. Typically presidents were victims rather than perpetrators or beneficiaries of misconduct. Misplaced loyalty to subordinates—Grant’s to Babcock, Coolidge’s to Slemp, Truman’s to Vaughn, Eisenhower’s to Adams—has tripped many. Allegations of corruption bear uncertain relationship to presidential conduct: Harding had few critics, Washington many. Efforts to establish correlations between shifts in White House ethics and such variables as wars, business cycles, political reform, party identification, or social malaise do not seem to work.

Just where to place Jimmy Carter among his rivals for perfidy in presidential conduct would be hard to determine and probably premature now to attempt. Given his performance so far, however, he could hardly be expected to finish among such front runners as Buchanan, Grant, and Harding. Nixon was in a class by himself. Before his time White House embarrassments were of a “traditional” kind, largely the consequence of personal, corporate, or bureaucratic greed and self-aggrandizement. Within the tradition, no president was chief coordinator or chief beneficiary of crime and misdemeanor charged to his administration, nor had misconduct any ideological purpose or constitutionally subversive ends. The Carter record would seem to fall into “traditional” lines and so far does not promise to be remembered as especially distinctive in misconduct. Worse records have been rewarded by reelection.

Unlike Mollenhoff’s book, Jimmy Carter by Mazlish and Diamond is not an indictment, a trial, or a conviction. The authors describe their biographical study as “interpretive” or analytical and their attitude as disinterested or neutral. One reader gains the impression that it is rather more friendly than that. It would not be misleading to call their book an American success story. Small boy from backward and remote province, slow start, hard times, sustained by “the myth of good against evil, little guy against big guy.” His credo is that “ambition, hard work, true grit, persistence, and a near-religious commitment will win out.” And on the whole they did. He makes good grades, responds to the call of duty, marries the right girl, does well in the navy, returns home to save the family farm, rises in politics, and by June 1979, “his net worth was just over $1,000,000.” With a few exceptions, the story is upbeat, cheerful, and edifying.

The qualifications of the authors as biographers have certain limits, and when they venture into the Deep South they quickly get beyond their depth. Southerners will be startled to read a quotation from “the English traveler Francis Butler Simkins,” who was about as native a Southerner as they come and a widely known historian. Readers of William Faulkner will have trouble recalling “the Southern white aristocratic lady in Light in August who defends a black man” (she was a Yankee abolitionist). And the political history of the region is not clarified by news that “with the election of Cleveland, the populist movement faded” (nor did he run in 1896).

But Professor Mazlish, the historian in this collaborative team, is not known primarily as a regional, political, or literary specialist but as a “psychohistorian.” He is the author of several “psychobiographies,” among them studies of Nixon and Kissinger. He brings some of his psychology to bear on the analysis of Carter, but it is lower keyed, less reductive and denigratory, more friendly than it was as applied to Nixon. The clinical jargon is minimized and the animus is missing, but the psychohistorian is still at work: “Freud observed—and our own eyes confirm—that….” We learn that Carter’s “born-again” experience overcame his “narcissism,” that his “crisis of generativity” was perfectly “exemplified in Erik Erikson’s biography of Martin Luther” and fits Carter “as naturally as his work shirt.” In fact it represents “a salvation in the classic pattern of psychohistory,” and “Jimmy Carter was in good company,” for “Luther and Gandhi, the Eriksonian heroes, had made their quest for salvation political acts.”

Brief psychoportraits of parents James Earl and Lillian Carter and siblings Gloria, Ruth, and Billy are included, and Sister Ruth Carter Stapleton proved a congenial if not kindred spirit. In her inner-healing workshops, incorporated as Behold, Inc., “she does make use of well-known principles of psychology and of religion, even combining the vocabulary of the two: for example, she has described her technique as probing ‘the subconscious depths with the scalpel of the Holy Spirit.”’ It seems that her “successful conversion, of herself and others, has paid off handsomely. Her efforts have been rewarded financially.”

There follows a good deal of psychologizing about Jimmy Carter himself, but it is not easy to say just what all this adds to our understanding of the man. Perhaps it serves a purpose in reminding us that beneath the public personality lies a complex emotional private life, though the President has not been backward in suggesting something of the sort himself. It does not help very much for the authors to observe that “most of us, of course, are complex; Jimmy Carter, however, is more complex….” Most of us, for that matter, also had mothers and fathers, siblings, families, and in-laws with infinite capacity for complexities. Millions of Southerners have passed through the regional ordeals of race, religion, and poverty, reconciling as they might being Southern and American or being black and Southern. Surely the resources of psychology should be brought to bear on such complexities. But as applied to the understanding of Jimmy Carter in this instance, the results fall somewhat short of what might be expected.

Whether through the science of psychology or that of politics, Mazlish and Diamond have performed one useful service in pointing out Carter’s remarkable propensity—gift, flair—for fusing contradictions and reconciling opposites. The political consequences have been an unusual assortment of unified ambiguities and ambiguous unities. He once described himself as “a populist in the tradition of Richard Russell.” Which is rather like conjuring up “an anarchist in the tradition of Grover Cleveland,” or “a socialist in the tradition of Herbert Hoover.” Yet it is likely that Carter was perfectly serious in his political self-characterization. Critics and opponents are inclined to be more skeptical and to see in the Carterian proclivity for accommodation the art of the trimmer, if not the demagogue. The most charitable of them would be justified in using the word “expedient” to describe his successful tactics in the race for governor of Georgia in 1970. In that contest he courted the Wallace vote, ran as the white man’s candidate, cultivated a redneck image, and called himself “a conservative.” Yet he sought black and liberal votes and won national attention by declaring in his inaugural address in 1971 that “the time for racial discrimination is past.” Black and white, rural and urban, conservative and liberal, hawk and dove—he courted them all and always wanted it both ways.

The art of fusing contradictions and reconciling opposites has not been confined to the uses of provincial politics. The pyramids have rarely looked down on stranger sights, or the walls of Jerusalem either, than that of the Georgia politician reconciling Hebrew and Egyptian and gathering them in his embrace. In triumph, President Carter quoted President Anwar Sadat as saying, “I believe that you have a sensitivity about our problems because the South is the only people of the United States that really know what it means to suffer the tortures of the aftermath of war in an occupation government…and a struggle for overcoming prejudice and hatred between one race and another.” The Egyptian potentate may have had a point there. To be sure, Mr. Carter says that being a Southerner explains more about him than anything else. He can touch off yells below the Potomac by declaring, “I am proud being an American, but I’m even more proud being a Southerner.” In fusing those two warring identities within himself, however, Carter has unquestionably reversed the priority implied in the declaration. What is still probably the best book on the man, the one by William Lee Miller, is appropriately entitled Yankee From Georgia.3

Miller makes much of the influence that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has had on Carter. Carter’s acknowledgment of that affinity has been greeted by a skepticism that is not surprising. How is one, after all, to reconcile the smiling Christianity of this born-again, Bible-class Baptist with the dark and somber irony of the great theologian? Could there be any more anti-Niebuhrean sentiment than Carter’s reiterated theme of a people “who deserve a government as good as themselves”? Of course, there is more than one way of reading that slogan. But it is as difficult to square with the theologian as with the Southern novelists Carter is said to have read (all of Faulkner, he says, not just samples).

Then there is the priestly role he assumed in the post-Watergate campaign. The absolution he offered seemed to confirm rather than expose the old American (but not Southern) heresies of exceptionalism. These included the dream of a special destiny, a faith in collective innocence, and immunities from the evils of history and from the guilt of wielding power. After fusing the contradictions between the myth of American innocence and the vision of Reinhold Niebuhr—or for that matter his native heritage—the reconciliation of Egypt and Israel and the kiss that sealed the pact with Brezhnev must have presented no daunting challenges.

Unresolved contradictions of long standing continue, of course, to haunt the Carter administration and to defy all pretensions of fusion. The glaring conflicts between soaring inflation and bankrupt energy policies, between the urgent need for breaking national dependence on foreign oil and deepening dependence on vulnerable sources, between the goal of arms limitation and the appeasement of opposition by increasing the military budget and stimulating the arms race—none of these suggests triumphs for a Carterian fusion of opposites. What political success the President has enjoyed with these contradictions has come very recently and lies largely in obscuring them or diverting attention elsewhere. In these maneuvers he has been aided inestimably by the waves of American nationalism and war fever brought on by the crises with Iran and the Soviet Union. The uses that Carter has made of these events do little to enhance his reputation as a philosopher-statesman.

Yet due respect must be paid to the conclusions of William Lee Miller, who does know his Niebuhr very well and who has pursued his investigation of this strange connection into the personal library of the President, to the books he has read and marked. “I believe,” writes Miller, “that the affinity between Carter and Niebuhr is authentic and important.” A president of the United States who has read Niebuhr and Faulkner does not turn up with any regularity. This one bears watching. Appearances can be misleading. If he is complicated, so was his mentor. It was one of Niebuhr’s doctrines that political controversies are never between the righteous and the sinners. They are all between sinners. So it behooves the Children of Light to borrow wisdom from the Children of Darkness. The evidence about Carter has been very confusing and grows more so, but it is possible that a subtler morality underlies the surface moralizing. As sobering a thought as it is, it may just be that Americans have a government as good as themselves. It may also be “the best”—the best we are able to do.

  1. 1

    C. Vann Woodward, ed., Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct (Delacorte, 1974).

  2. 2

    The only exception was President William Henry Harrison who only served a month in office.

  3. 3

    William Lee Miller, Yankee from Georgia: The Emergence of Jimmy Carter (Times Books, 1978).

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