The President Who Failed: Carter Out of Control
Jimmy Carter: A Character Portrait
Both of these books were out of date before they were published.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 Light on the Enigma from Georgia in the White House—refracted, colored, outdated, or distorted though it may be—can be of importance.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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.