The Strange Success of Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter is a better man than his worst enemy would portray him as. And his worst enemy, it turns out, is himself. At least, I cannot imagine a more damaging blow to his reputation than he delivers in White House Diary. It confirms the portrait drawn of him in 1979 by his former speechwriter, James Fallows, in a devastating Atlantic Monthly article that presented him as immersed in petty details like scheduling who could play on the White House tennis court or typing up the list of classical music selections piped everywhere in the living and working quarters of the executive mansion. Carter now gives us exhaustive records of just such preoccupations. Sometimes the attention to detail can be rather endearing. When Vladimir Horowitz was scheduled to play a recital in the White House, he came the day before to tune the piano and test the room’s acoustics. Carter went down to hear him rehearse and learned that the room was too “live”; the sound needed muffling. At this Carter got down on his hands and knees to help spread rugs around.

Other details get mind-numbing as Carter records them at merciless length. The diary itself is an indictment of the man’s pettiness. He wanted a record of his actions not only day by day but almost minute by minute. He did not simply keep this diary at the end of a day, he says, but dictated it “several times each day.” Long as this book is, it includes only about a quarter of the twenty-one large volumes of the diary he is depositing in the Carter Library. And this is the diary for just his four years as president. He assures us that he limits himself to what “I consider to be most revealing and interesting…general themes that are still pertinent.” One wonders, after this description of his project, why he thinks we should know about each recurrence of his hemorrhoids, how he disciplined his daughter for “a dirty word,” how many arrowheads he and Rosalynn turned up in their frequent forays into the fields around Plains, Georgia, and what flies he tied for his fishing catches.

In the heat of the moment he sets down for all time his reaction to people who peeved him—Scoop Jackson (“acted like an ass”), Harrison Schmitt (“one of the biggest jerks in the Senate”), Russell Long (“a complete waste of time”), Ellie Smeal of NOW (“crazy women’s organization”), Frank Church (an “ass…who ought not be in the Senate”), and Helmut Schmidt (“a paranoid child”).

Carter had personally run everything concerning the governor’s office in Georgia, and he thought at first he could do the same thing in the White House. Relying on a tight team of intimates personally devoted to him—his wife Rosalynn, Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordan, Bert Lance, Stuart Eizenstat, Charles Kirbo, Frank Moore, and Patrick Caddell—he did not think he needed the Washington insiders he had campaigned against. Fallows …

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