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For Old Times’ Sake

Evasiveness, which was a common complaint against Carter, was an inaccurate one. On most of the specific issues he discusses in this book, Carter’s position is forthright and clear, as it was when he was in office. The problem was that the many specifics did not add up to a large conception; he believed fifty things, but no one thing. Once again, the contrast with Reagan could not be more complete. No one can be sure that the President understands the details of any specific issue, but everyone knows the general direction he intends to follow.

This trait of Carter’s was a positive virtue in situations such as Camp David—that is, in a one-man tour de force—because it enabled him to see through encrusted, ideological arguments and find room for agreement on specifics. But when he had to run an entire government, it became an insuperable handicap. One reason why presidents need to send clear, general signals is to resolve arguments within the administration itself. Without a general sense of the president’s preference, every fight can be carried to the president’s desk, as often was the case in the Carter years. On the basis of Carter’s “most accurate answer” about his philosophy, what tack would his administration take on requirements for ramps and special elevators to remove architectural barriers to the handicapped? A “fiscal conservative” would find this a new millstone for an overburdened economy. A man who was “quite liberal on…helping people overcome handicaps” would consider it an essential step. Carter was fully capable of resolving these contradictions, by himself, in each particular case, but not of giving others in the government a sense of where the balance should be struck.

Nor was he able to give that signal to the public, and thereby stimulate support for his policies except case by case. Carter makes clear in Keeping Faith that he understood the personal tensions between Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and was able, as a shrewd manager, to play the sobriety of the one against the impetuousness of the other. But because he seemed unaware of, or unconcerned about, the contradictory policies that the two men’s statements implied, he could never overcome the misleading appearance of changing course week by week.

In the summer of 1979, when the Shah had been driven from Iran but had not yet been admitted to the US for medical treatment, Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller were constantly entreating Carter to let America’s old ally come in. Carter turned them down cold, and confided to his diary that “I don’t have any feelings that the Shah or we would be better off with him playing tennis several hours a day in California instead of in Acapulco.”

This tone of moral judgment is notable in Keeping Faith, as it was in the Carter administration itself. It is easy to forget how important it was to Carter’s original appeal. He won the Democratic nomination less than two years after Richard Nixon’s resignation. His promise never to tell a lie was not simply a grandstanding way of attracting the press’s attention. It was also, in those days, something much of the public wanted to believe.

Yet Carter offers evidence in this book of the trouble his attitude caused him, most fundamentally in warping his view of how to make the government work. In his account of international negotiations, Carter seems to take for granted that there might be basic differences of outlook without a moral taint automatically attached to either side. If the Soviet Union and the United States disagreed on deployment of cruise missiles, if the governments in Washington and Peking had different interpretations of the phrase “one China,” these disputes could be resolved in a neutral, lawyerlike way that seemed to command Carter’s best efforts.

Yet in arguments over domestic policy, Carter seems to have had no such tolerance. Having invested so much effort himself in divining the “right” solution to the tax or energy quandaries, Carter seems inclined to consider other answers “wrong.” Thus the Congress is “disgusting” when it dawdles over certain energy bills, thus Senator Kennedy displays “unwillingness to cooperate” when he prefers his own health-care legislation to the administration’s; thus when Carter uses the word “interests,” he almost always means to suggest an unwholesome force.

Carter seems to have grown exasperated, rather than more determined, when he could not quickly convince others to rise above “interests” and join him on the plane of high reason, where the “right” answers, once agreed upon, would implement themselves. His exasperation may explain why Keeping Faith contains almost none of the lessons about leadership, bureaucracy, and governing that appear on every page of Henry Kissinger’s White House memoirs and throughout Richard Nixon’s books. There is much in Keeping Faith that would guide a future president on the substance of certain issues, especially foreign affairs. There is almost nothing about the tactics a leader should employ—unless he, too, has the opportunity to isolate the contending parties in a mountain retreat until they resolve their dispute.

This is the lasting enigma of the Carter administration, in my view; the president’s indifference to the machinery of government. During his campaign, he gave every sign of cunning about the subject, and of determination to make the machinery work. Yet once in office, he seemed to find it distasteful, compared to the pure and lonely search for “rational” answers.

If further evidence were needed on this point, it might be found in Hamilton Jordan’s Crisis, in many ways a more interesting book than Keeping Faith. Considered simply as narrative, it is impressive and skillful. Jordan confines himself to the administration’s last year, when he conducted the secret negotiations for the hostages’ release and then managed the president’s re-election campaign. He has an eye for telling detail, and gives the reader a much more vivid sense of the maneuvering between Vance and Brzezinski than anything Jimmy Carter permits himself to say. Jordan is pungent in all the places where Carter has forced himself to be polite. His bitterness toward Edward Kennedy leaps off the page. After the Democratic convention, Steven Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law and campaign manager, approached Jordan to say that Kennedy was eager to help Carter out against Ronald Reagan, but would be hard put to find much time until he could retire some of his campaign debt. Jordan writes,

You bastard, I thought, returning his grin. You’re blackmailing us. You’ll campaign for us if we help you eliminate your campaign debt. I wish we didn’t need Kennedy so badly. It would really feel nice to stand up, say go to hell, and walk out.

The Carter forces finally agreed to a fund-raising dinner for Kennedy. Jordan says,

I turned to the White House and campaign staffs to contribute. None of them took my plea very seriously, so I went to the bank, arranged a loan, and wrote a check for $1,000 to “The Kennedy Campaign,” copied it, and waved it around….

I accepted [Kennedy’s] words of appreciation, gritting my teeth as I shook hands with him. I deeply resented Ted Kennedy and his millions, coercing all of us to pay off his debt.

Notwithstanding his bilious view of Kennedy, Jordan displays in his book a good-humored decency that is at odds with his unsavory reputation but is consistent with my own dealings with him. Not since Walter Jenkins has a presidential assistant become famous in such an unfortunate and unfair way. But whatever good Crisis may eventually do for Jordan’s reputation, it does considerable, and unintended, damage to Carter’s, because it confirms many of the worst suspicions about how the president approached his task.

For one thing, Jordan’s book contains almost no discussion of “substance,” no indication of what, other than ending the hostage crisis and winning the election, he was trying to do. Every president needs a skillful political adviser, which Hamilton Jordan was. But most of them have had a greater interest in the aims of policy than Jordan displays here. At the Democratic convention, one delegate asked Jordan what he hoped Carter would be remembered for. Jordan answered, “Twenty years from now I’d like President Carter to be remembered as a two-term President.” A joke (I think), but one that sounds too true.

The more important damage comes through Jordan’s description of the hostage deliberations, especially the decision to launch the rescue mission. Every student of political “decision-making” has read the various accounts of how Kennedy and Johnson made their choices about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the escalation in Vietnam. I believe that Jordan’s report of the rescue mission, which is written with great skill, stands comparison with any of these. Unfortunately for the Carter administration, it will likely be used to demonstrate the danger of ignoring obvious bureaucratic principles.

In approving plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, John Kennedy was burned by relying on the assurances of the CIA and the Pentagon that nothing could go wrong. Ever afterward, he refused to trust the assessment of men at the top of such organizations; he tried to develop unofficial channels so as to ferret out the news that the generals and agency heads might not tell him. Cyrus Vance, who had been through these battles, said to Jordan, “Generals will rarely tell you they can’t do something.” Yet where did Jimmy Carter turn for judgment on whether the rescue plan would work? To the generals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Eventually the mission commander, Colonel Charles Beckwith, was brought in to explain the plan to the president, in the presence of his generals. It is no reflection on Beckwith’s character to suggest that this is the least likely way to get an honest view.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Adlai Stevenson’s arguments against forcing an “eyeball-to-eyeball” show-down were countered by accusations that he was a weak man, a pansy. After hearing Vance’s opposition to the rescue mission, Brzezinski tells Jordan that “Cy is the ultimate example of a good man who has been traumatized by his Vietnam experience.”

When he made decisions on Vietnam between 1965 and 1967, Lyndon Johnson would announce that he was confident about a certain course—and then would go around the room polling his advisers to see if there were any dissents. Several of the memoirs from that era are eloquent on this point: the man from the CIA would work himself up for his showdown with the president, would summon all his courage—but then would hear himself saying, when his name was called, “Yes, Mr. President, I agree.” Jordan says that Carter began several meetings with an indication that he was ready to move, and then would ask others what they thought. During the Johnson days, White House advisers sometimes felt under pressure to display a proper degree of enthusiasm. Jordan says that he was anxious after a crucial meeting on the mission, “beginning to regret that my support for it had sounded lukewarm.”

I raise these points not to condemn Hamilton Jordan, whose observant account makes criticism possible. Nor do I suggest that Jimmy Carter was necessarily wrong to consider a rescue mission. His book and Jordan’s persuasively contend that negotiations had come to a dead halt. In my view, the president was right to try something. His only sin was failure; but part of the reason for the failure is that all concerned seemed to ignore what the history of other administrations could have taught them about the need for skeptical and close understanding of the workings of government. Jimmy Carter may have neglected such study because he could not believe that logic as pure and penetrating as his had been exercised before. Hamilton Jordan and many others seemed simply not to care.

From the testimony in these books, a similar verdict applies to the administration as a whole. Its sin was failure. It meant to do well.

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