In 1975, when his ambitions for the presidency were taken seriously mainly by his family and his staff, Jimmy Carter wrote a book called Why Not the Best? It was a campaign biography, but it was quite different from the norm. To begin with, it was the candidate’s own work, the result of drafts scratched out on lined pads in Carter’s small, neat script. It also went far toward revealing the candidate’s personality.
During the period of his public life in which he was politically most successful—the first six months of 1976, when he came from nowhere to win the Democratic nomination—Carter’s appeal depended on his personality, rather than on any specific policy he endorsed. In his ten-a-day appearances during those primary campaigns, Carter would establish the fact of his formidable abilities by handling an audience’s questions or sitting down for discussions in small groups.
In his speeches, he ticked off the inventory of his experiences, implying that their cumulative effect would define his performance in office. He was a farmer, a manager, a veteran, a father, a reborn Christian, and a lover of the outdoors. He had run a state government, he had “met a payroll”; he had spent much of his adult life in a tiny, remote town; he was a Southerner who understood his region’s defeat, agony, and redemption. As time went on, Carter was forced, like other candidates, to explain his positions on nuclear-power generation and the constitutionality of school prayer. But from his point of view, and no doubt that of many voters, these were details; the hope that his election expressed was that he would prove to be a decent, competent man.
Why Not the Best? was more effective than any other document in nourishing that hope. Carter described listening on the radio to the second Louis-Schmeling fight, at a time when Schmeling’s victory in the first fight was being taken as confirmation of Aryan superiority. Through the window, Carter saw a group of black people listening outside, on a radio attached to a car battery. After Louis’s devastating win they said, “Thank you, Mr. Earl,” to Carter’s father, who had let them use the radio—and then, once they had moved a respectful distance from the white man’s house, erupted into cheers. Could a man who remembered that scene fail to understand the hopes and hidden injuries that created racial tensions?
Carter told of his bitter early days at Annapolis, in which he would submit to every other form of hazing but not be made to sing the hated “Marching Through Georgia.” Would a man with that determination fail to stick to his guns in office? In the effort to describe his personality, Carter took steps that political dignity usually rules out, such as recounting his fears that he would fail to qualify for Annapolis because of his “last clinging drop” of urine. If this was artifice, it was artifice so sweeping as to give the impression of utter guilelessness.
Keeping Faith is a very different book. It is no less clearly Jimmy Carter’s work than was Why Not the Best?—certain of Carter’s characteristic adjectives, such as “compatible,” “harmonious,” “competent,” “timid,” and “bold,” are an indication, along with Carter’s assurance that he composed the book himself, in Plains, on his word processor. But it is the voice of the would-be statesman that is heard in this book, not that of the candidate eager to explain himself to the electorate. Here Carter is concerned almost exclusively with his policies, rather than with his own personality and values. Of the emotional journey the last eight years must have been for Jimmy Carter, there is little hint in Keeping Faith. Of the moments that seem, from the outside, to have been most wrenching—his retreat to Camp David in the summer of 1979 to reconsider his stewardship, the minuet Edward Kennedy danced on the podium at the Democratic convention before deigning to shake Carter’s hand—Carter speaks only in clipped and unrevealing words.
So, too, of his victorious moments; he says of his walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day: “It was bitterly cold, but we felt warm inside.” Describing his rejection in 1980, he tries to comes across simply as the good citizen and the good loser. Only once in the book do we hear something like a cry of self-justification. In his final week in office, Carter held a dinner at the White House for supporters and friends, one of whom was the cellist and conductor MstislavRostropovich. Carter quotes from his diary that:
Slava Rostropovich gave an excellent little speech at our table, pointing out that the masses of people were often wrong…. He pointed out that the masses made a mistake on November the 4th, as they had when they rejected Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, rejected La Traviata, and in the first performance of Tosca the audience reacted against it so violently that they couldn’t even raise the curtain for the third act. He said history was going to treat my administration the same way they did Verdi, Puccini, and Beethoven. It was beautiful.
Carter undercuts this with a mild joke (“Now that is the kind of speech a defeated candidate likes to hear!”). Still, it sums up Carter’s implicit case: that history will value his work more highly than the voters did two years ago. He does not start from the premise that he has a failure, or at least a disappointment, to explain.1 Carter argues, instead, that the steps he took for the nation’s long-run good proved to be unpopular in the short run, and he was therefore the victim of the difficult times in which he served. In a diary entry from election day, 1980, when he had already been told by his pollsters that he was sure to lose, Carter explains his fate:
Most of the things we did that were difficult and controversial cost us votes in the long run. Camp David accords, opening up Africa, dealing with the Cuban refugees, Panama Canal treaties, the normalization with China, energy legislation, plus the hostages and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—particularly the hostages. Also, the Kennedy attacks for eight months hurt a lot.
Before going further, I should make it clear that I worked for several months in the Carter campaign and was, for the first two years of the administration, the head of the president’s speech-writing staff. After resigning, I wrote two articles for The Atlantic, explaining why I thought the president was squandering his possibilities.2 My place in the White House was far lower than that of speech writers in other administrations, and I had at most a tangential involvement in the events described in Keeping Faith. Still, the reader should understand that, to the Carter camp, my testimony is suspect, since it comes from a man who “cut and ran.”
Carter’s appeal to history’s verdict rests on five main subjects. In increasing order of emphasis in the book, they are: improving relations with China; enacting energy legislation; negotiating the second Strategic Arms Limitation treaty (SALT II); concluding the Panama Canal treaties; and convincing Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to reach agreement at Camp David. Carter also devotes more than a quarter of the book to the frustrations arising from the capture of hostages in Tehran, defending both the patience of his initial response and the attempt at a rescue mission.
The negotiations at Camp David, which themselves account for a quarter of the book’s contents, are the emotional and narrative peak of Keeping Faith. Carter says he took meticulous notes of his every move as go-between for the two mutually suspicious sides. From his notes, he presents an engrossing account of negotiations that verged time and again on collapse but finally were steered toward success.
Carter’s constant theme is the contrast between Sadat, who wasted no time on details and was flexible on all points except the fundamentals (returning Sinai territory to Egypt, agreeing on Palestinian rights to self-rule), and Begin, the least flexible member of his delegation, a man who saw his destiny as securing Israeli control over the West Bank territory he referred to as Judea and Samaria, a bargainer who took nothing on trust and with whom no agreement could be assumed until every last detail was nailed down.
At the beginning of the negotiations, Carter suggested that the three leaders issue a joint appeal for worldwide prayers that their efforts succeed. “Sadat agreed immediately. Begin liked the idea, but first he wanted to see the text. This characteristic response was a prelude to our relationship at Camp David.” Carter says plainly that he came to admire Sadat more than any other world leader. His judgment of Begin, less forthrightly stated but nonetheless quite clear, is that his stony intransigence made it nearly impossible to reach the agreements at Camp David—and may have since undercut them altogether.
The picture Carter presents of himself in these negotiations is heroic, but there is no reason to think it isnot fundamentally true. He took advantage of his “complete compatibility” with Sadat to keep pushing for further flexibility; while he studied a thesaurus and a map of the Sinai to find formulations that would satisfy Begin. After a first, exasperating round of meetings, Sadat and Begin had no further direct dealings with each other until the very end, after the deal was struck. (“There was no compatibility between the two men, and almost every discussion of any subject deteriorated into an unproductive argument, reopening the old wounds of past political or military battles.”)
All the intermediate arbitration was left to Carter. He admits that the agreements have not done all that he hoped. Much of the Arab world publicly opposed them; Begin’s government has proven unyielding, especially about Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Nonetheless, it is easy to understand why Carter might feel he deserves more appreciation. He went farther than any other intermediary toward reducing tension in the Middle East. His achievements were at least comparable with Theodore Roosevelt’s in ending the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, as were Sadat and Begin. Carter was left off the Nobel list and later turned out of office, an unredeemed “failure.”
In three other matters—the Panama Canal treaties, the opening to China, and the SALT II negotiations—Carter provides less detail but makes an equally reasonable case. Ronald Reagan and the Republicans opposed each of these efforts by Carter during the campaign; but in each instance, they have so far stood by the deals Carter struck—even the terms of SALT II, which Reagan condemned as “fataliy flawed” but has continued to observe, while his own unpromising arms negotiations continue.
As for the “national energy policy” to which he devoted much of his first year in office, Carter argues against the now-conventional wisdom that he brought to the subject a small-minded, antimarket, “limits to growth” mentality. As The Wall Street Journal predictably put it in a review of Carter’s book, “The president and Congress poured vast amounts of energy into this effort when a simple solution was readily at hand. All they really needed was to decontrol oil prices and the problem would have evaporated.” This complaint ignores how much reliance Carter’s plan put on the market—he opposed Senator Kennedy and much of the rest of the Democratic Party in gradually lifting price controls from gas and oil—and how much more costly it would have been, for business and everyone else, had this change taken place all at once. Most American car manufacturers, for example, grudgingly admitted that their survival in 1979 and 1980 depended on the high-mileage cars government regulations had forced them to build.
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.
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.
December 16, 1982
By contrast, Taking Care of the Law, by Carter’s former attorney general, Griffin Bell (With Ronald Ostrow [William Morrow, Inc., 1982]), starts from the assumption that the administration failed because Carter let it be hijacked by a Kennedy-McGovern-Nader-Mondale cabal of statists, who ignored the president’s desires to curb the powers of the central government. The decisive moment came, in Bell’s view, when Carter took these disloyal forces to his bosom by giving Vice-President Mondale an office in the White House itself, instead of keeping him at arm’s length in the Executive Office Building. ↩
“The Passion Presidency,” The Atlantic, May and June 1979. ↩
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. ↩