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For Old Times’ Sake

Carter heatedly defends his record on “human rights.” His Republican successors have asserted that the Carter policy worked against American interests by overlooking the crucial difference between the human rights offenses of “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes. In criticizing the Shah, Carter opened the door to the Ayatollah. In putting pressure on Somoza, he invited totalitarian forces into Central America. Carter’s rebuttal is that his approach worked, in both kinds of regimes:

Some of the hundreds of desaparecidos in Argentina—those who had vanished in the night—began to reappear, and the fear of death and torture was alleviated at least to some degree as the attention of the world was focused on the human wrongs of this once free and prosperous land. Thousands of political prisoners were released, from Cuba to Indonesia—sometimes secretly and at times with great fanfare….

I was often criticized, here and abroad, for aggravating other government leaders and straining international relations…. I was never criticized by the people who were imprisoned or tortured or otherwise deprived of basic rights. When they were able to make a public statement or to smuggle out a private message, they sent compliments and encouragement, pointing out repeatedly that the worst thing for them was to be ignored or forgotten. That was particularly true among political prisoners behind the Iron Curtain.

Carter notes that 110,000 Jews were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union during the four years his policy was in effect. In the first year of the Reagan administration, the number fell to less than 10,000.

Beyond these specifics, Carter also conveys how the world seemed to fall in on his head during his last year in office. The final round of energy legislation was still loitering in the Congress; he was bogged down in frustrating negotiations with the Iranians.3 He made a highlyrisky trip to Israel and Egypt, in hopes of holding the Camp David agreements together. At the same time, he was attempting to coordinate a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—arguing that other nations should boycott the Olympics, that American farmers should forgo their sales of grain to Russia, that young men should register for the draft. He ran up against his NATO “allies” over the question of placing medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe; he watched the prime rate climb above 20 percent. And all this happened while he was running for president. Some have contended that Carter’s “indecisiveness” provoked the Soviet invasion and the Iranian revolution, a simplistic charge that can neither be proven nor flatly dismissed. But it is hard not to view many of these developments as the result of bad timing and bad luck—nothing seemed to go right for Carter during the last year of his term.

In the preface to his book, Carter mentions that he will leave much unsaid. His omissions, he says, “may even be helpful to the reader in giving a more accurate picture of the kind of person I am.” He is right. The selective focus with which he views his record makes Keeping Faith almost as revealing as Why Not the Best?, especially in explaining the gulf between fine intention and imperfect execution that is the central frustration and mystery of the Carter years.

Several consequential decisions are missing from the book, for example Carter’s decision to build the MX missile and base it on “race tracks” in Nevada and Utah and his administration’s efforts to end the nationwide coal strike in 1978. About other big projects—his attempts to reform the tax and welfare systems, or the drive for “civil-service reform,” Carter has only a few cursory remarks to make.

The larger pattern of omission is to overlook domestic policies in general, and economics in particular. In the daily business of the White House, Stuart Eizenstat, the domestic policy adviser, took as much of the president’s time and energy as anybody else. In Keeping Faith, he makes brief appearances, in a drama dominated by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, and Walter Mondale, with support from Vance’s deputy, Warren Christopher, and the secretary of defense, Harold Brown. Many other members of the Cabinet appear only once in the book, in the lists of Carter’s initial appointments. Not counting the section on energy legislation, Carter’s discussion of all domestic issues takes up no more than fifty pages of a 600-page book.

Carter seems most uneasy when writing about economics, a subject he hardly even mentions. Paul Volcker’s name appears once in the book, in a minor connection. There is no mention whatsoever of the Federal Reserve’s decision in October, 1979, to begin basing its actions on changes in the money supply, a step that had more to do with the high interest rates of Carter’s last year than any other single event. When it comes to the geography of the Middle East or the complexities of a SALT agreement, Carter is a careful, patient teacher, trying to make sure that the reader understands the issues he was attempting to resolve. About economics, he seemingly throws his hands up in despair, listing his assorted anti-inflation plans without attempting to explain them, and then rushing to get to another topic.

His attitude may be understandable, if we consider how few clear solutions to our economic problems were available to him. Still, from the historic perspective it seems likely that the most significant development of the late 1970s will not be an altered military balance between the US and the Soviet Union (as the current administration suggests) or a worldwide awakening of the desire for human rights (as Zbigniew Brzezinski often argued), but rather the erosion of America’s ability to pay its way. Carter’s own testimony suggests how little his administration was able to control this aspect of the nation’s fate.

There is also a pattern to the people Carter chooses to discuss and omit. He is admirably restrained about settling old scores, generally picking only on people his own size, such as Menachem Begin, Helmut Schmidt, and Henry Kissinger. His complaint against Schmidt and Kissinger is that they would compliment him in person and then denounce him behind his back. He also criticizes several other leaders, including Bani-Sadr and former President José López Portillo of Mexico, for being too “weak” to carry out promises they madeto him.

In only two instances does Carter slap back at people less powerful than he. He denounces Mayor Koch of New York, “who claimed to be my supporter [in 1980] but overlooked few opportunities to attack me and my administration…. I gave him hell for daily stabbing me in the back.” He goes to disproportionate lengths to condemn William Sullivan, the American ambassador in Iran at the time of the revolution, whom he accuses of disloyalty, insubordination, poor judgment, and other sins. Otherwise, Carter stands above the battle. He makes no mention of Patrick Lucey, his ambassador to Mexico who later ran for vice-president on John Anderson’s ticket. He has nothing to say about the staff members, such as myself, who broke with him and harmed his cause. He is mild about Edward Kennedy, although in recent interviews Carter has said that he considers Kennedy unqualified for the White House. Most remarkable of all for any president, he barely complains about the press.

All this might be taken as evidence of a tolerant, statesmanlike humor, were it not connected to another pattern. If Carter rarely stops to criticize, it may be because he rarely stops to say anything about anybody. A few members of the administration receive deserved praise, especially Bert Lance (whose resignation deprived Carter of his only confidante from his own, rather than his children’s, generation), Jody Powell, and Warren Christopher, whom Carter calls “the best public servant I ever knew.” But most others, including dozens who devoted every bit of their energy and loyalty to advancing Jimmy Carter’s ends, are missing. The government, as Jimmy Carter here describes it, was fundamentally a one-man job.

Carter is not the first president to look away from the people who worked under him, and his approach makes for a clearer narrative than would have been the case had the book been freighted, like an Academy Award speech, with comments on all the little people who made it possible. But I believe Carter’s choice reveals a more basic fact about the way he conceived of his job.

Like all other presidents, Carter brought an imbalance of talents to office. In one respect he was probably unexcelled among our recent leaders: his ability to understand the details of a problem and see his way to a rational solution. The clearest evidence is his success at Camp David, where we see Carter schooling himself in the Old Testament so as to argue about the significance of certain passages and placenames with Menachem Begin. Carter also appears to have immersed himself in the details of the hostage negotiations. During his last twenty-four hours in office, when he waited overnight in the Oval Office for word that the hostages had finally been released, Carter had a nagging feeling that he’d forgotten something, and looked over his own handwritten checklist of all the steps that must be taken before the transaction would be complete. “Finally I realized that the Bank Markazi, the central bank of Iran, had not sent in the technical instruction required for the transfer of deposits. I called Christopher, [Secrtary of the Treasury William] Miller, [White House Counsel Lloyd] Cutler, Powell and [Secretary of State Edmund] Muskie, in that order to tell them to check. I was right—it was indeed a problem.”

It is hard to imagine any other president with so precise a checklist. Indeed, it is hard to imagine President Reagan awake at that hour. Carter can barely conceal his astonishment that, when he invited the president-elect to the White House for a briefing on the most sensitive situations he would inherit when he came into office, including “management of our nuclear forces in time of attack,” Reagan took no notes. (When Carter had finished, Reagan asked him to direct all future reports to Richard Allen, of Reagan’s transition staff.) In many cases, of which the Camp David agreement is the clearest example, Carter’s dogged, clear-headed devotion to details was the key to accomplishments that might well have been beyond the grasp of other men.

Unfortunately, the job demanded other talents than this, and his account in Keeping Faith confirms the suspicion that Jimmy Carter had trouble rising above the details to offer a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve. In a weary tone, he denies the accusation that he did not have a philosophy:

When forced to answer [about whether he was a liberal or a conservative], I would say that I was a fiscal conservative but quite liberal on such issues as civil rights, environmental quality, and helping people overcome handicaps to lead fruitful lives. My reply did not satisfy [the reporters], and sometimes they accused me of being evasive, but it was the most accurate answer I could give in a few words.

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    Along the way, Carter conclusively refutes one of the most damaging accusations against his handling of the hostage situation—that he made a deliberately misleading announcement of a possible breakthrough on the morning of the Wisconsin primary. Carter describes secret negotiations that Hamilton Jordan conducted in the early months of 1980 through two foreign intermediaries, Christian Bourguet and Hector Villalon. In late March, it looked as if the negotiations were about to pay off. The US government was awaiting a pre-arranged signal from the Iranian president, Bani-Sadr, that the “students” were passing control of the hostages to the Iranian government. At 5 AM on the morning of April 1, Carter received a translation of Bani-Sadr’s statement, which appeared to include the longawaited promise. At 7:15 AM, as polls were about to open in Wisconsin, Carter announced the development on national TV. By the end of the day, this agreement, like so many others, had fallen apart; but Carter is understandably angry at the suggestion that he manipulated the news.

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