A critical look at Jimmy Carter's first year
The schoolteacher from Lansing, Michigan, was pleased and proud to be here in Plains, Georgia, happy to pay $2.50 for this town tour, to see the very building where Jimmy Carter’s mother studied nursing, the store where the President’s uncle sells antiques, the yard where Jimmy and brother Billy played baseball, once, with the press corps. It was fun to browse through the Y’All Come Novelty Store and The Peanut Gallery, and it was an honor to shell out $2.95 for a pound of Plains soil, one dollar for a can of boiled peanuts that sells in Americus, 12 miles away, for 28 cents, or $7.95 for a doll like the doll Jimmy gave his daughter Amy last Christmas. It was all marvelous, even the watertower painted with Stars and Stripes, and Billy’s gas station, with its junk and beer and monogrammed T-shirts. But did he think Carter was doing a good job as President? “Hell, no. He’s a mess.”
And so it goes, from coast to coast. The Presidency is a wonder; the man a disaster. The mythmaking and the bitching are simultaneous. In Lafayette, Louisiana, a restaurant owner grumbles: “That nigger in my kitchen got but two speeds, Slow and Stop. Now I have to pay him $2.65 an hour ’cause Jimmy Carter says so.” Then he adds: “But if he brings peace to the Middle East, that’ll be fine.” In San Mateo, California, a management consultant complains: “He’s too damn glib. I never have a feeling that you can trust what he says . . . but you got to respect the office.” In New York, a hotel doorman says: “He betrayed the blacks, he ducked out on unemployment, he screwed up on energy and I swear to God even the weather gets worse.”
It is not possible to be President of the United States.
Jimmy Carter, who wanted the job so badly he could taste it, is ending his first year of power on January 20 to a steady drumroll of criticism. The public opinion polls have turned sour on him, and the laudatory headlines of last winter have become snarls and queries: THE UNRAVELING
OF THE CARTER PRESIDENCY and ANOTHER BUMMER PRESIDENT?
We have been this way before, not once, but many times. Every President goes through a hone loon that ends in a screaming match. Gerald Ford, heaped with praise when he succeeded Richard Nixon, was soon set down as a stumblebum, and stumbled to defeat. Nixon in turn had gone from statesman to crook. Lyndon Johnson, who won the most overwhelming Presidential victory to date in
1964 (he was later eclipsed by Nixon), was, like Nixon, driven from office to the howls of his enemies. The last President to serve two full terms was Dwight Eisenhower, whose chief asset was a steady chip shot. The last President generally regarded as a success was Harry Truman, who retired a quarter of a century ago. (John Kennedy has been deified not for what he did but for what he was expected to do, if he had not been assassinated. His actual record was highlighted by the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the beginnings of Vietnam.) Carter’s aides are openly talking about “screw-ups” and speculating that their man will not last a second term.
During his inauguration, he got out and walked. His mediocre speech was forgotten when Carter, with wife Rosalynn and daughter Amy, hopped out of the Presidential limousine as it moved majestically down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue and walked along, smiling and chatting and shaking hands. It was a triumph of public relations; it made one of my Washington neighbors exclaim: “Almost makes me wish I had voted for the s.o.b.” After that, it was all downhill.
During his feverish, two-year campaign
for the Presidency, Carter sold off so many pieces of himself to various lobbies that he arrived in Washington committed to a whole series of impossible tasks. In fact, he made 612 promises during the campaign, many of them contradictory.
He would balance the budget, to satisfy his conservative clientele, and promote full employment, for the liberals. He would introduce national health insurance, while promoting the private sector. He would bail out New York, while restoring rationality to urban policies. He would give the blacks their due, while resisting special interest groups. To satisfy the AFLCIO, he would get tough with Russia and speak out for human rights while, to satisfy the defense lobby, there would be no harsh words for the approved dictatorships in Chile and South Korea. He would clean up patronage, cut the White House staff, make Congress efficient, instill moral lead-' ership while, at the same time, providing jobs for his backers, making peace with Congress and restoring confidence in the economy. He would cut defense spending
and bury the memory of Vietnam. He would give everyone a $50 tax rebate and, most of all, he would clear all the deadwood out of Washington and bring new life to the capital.
It couldn’t be done, and it wasn’t.
Carter’s human rights campaign began noisily and died quickly and quietly, leaving nothing behind but the corpse of the SALT lí agreement. His cabinet was composed mainly of the leavings of previous Democratic administrations.Congress was soon at war with the President and that, in turn, spelled the demise of most of his ambitious legislative program. New York, seduced, was abandoned. The White House staff grew by more than 30% during the first three months of the new administration and, while calling on others to cut back, he slipped his boys a secret 25% pay hike. The Humphrey-Hawkins unemployment bill, centrepiece of the Democratic platform, was emasculated. Blacks were given more posts within the administration, but lowly ones—and they still can’t join Carter’s church in Plains. The tax rebate and health insurance sank without a trace, but in their place Americans got a record defense budget and the neutron bomb. Carter spoke of the energy crisis as “the moral equivalent of war,” and, in fireside chats, unrolled a series of plans to deal with it. But now the tattered remnants of his reforms are still struggling through Congress and may never make it.
Then there was the Lance affair. Bert Lance, a good old boy from Georgia, like many of Carter’s inner circle, was given one of the nation’s most prestigious and powerful jobs, as budget director. Then investigation revealed that, in his own banking business, Lance had practised favoritism and either sloppy bookkeeping or. chicanery. Even after his Washington appointment, he was busy kiting cheques, and he was forced from office with the echo of Carter’s praises still ringing in his ears. Born-again Jimmy was apparently bringing the Bible to Washington for real:
“Unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.”
In the middle of the Lance affair, White House press secretary Jody Powell tried to take some of the heat off Carter’s pal by leaking rumors—apparently unfounded— of misbehavior concerning Senator Charles Percy, ranking Republican on the committee investigating Lance. And when Carter’s office announced that he had volunteered for an audit of his 1975 taxes, it turned out to be a “misstatement”; the audit was compulsory, not voluntary. We were almost back to the dirty tricks of Richard Nixon, and a White House that “misspoke” itself.
By the end of the year, many Americans were convinced that they had bought, instead of the promised Georgia peach, another Washington lemon. Carter was seen as uncertain, incompetent and untrustworthy. His rating in the Harris poll went from 59% in favor in July to 52% against in November. The main difference between
Carter and previous administrations seemed to be a switch from Pepsi to Coke in the pop machines around the White House.
It is easy to blame Carter because his first year has produced so little, hard to think of anyone who could handle the job better—and get elected. The Presidency as it now functions has little to do with the job as it was designed. Carter, after all, was not the first President to walk on Inaugural Day. Thomas Jefferson did so, in 1801, after delivering one of the memorable speeches of all time, and when he walked home to his boardinghouse, he was “permitted to take his usual seat far from the fire, at the coldest end of the table.”
Jefferson was a thinker and speaker whose words ring through history. He gave us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Carter’s memorable words to date have been “lots of things in life are unfair”—to explain why rich women can have abortions, but not the poor—and “I’m proud of you, Bert”—to defend Lance. Jefferson was suspicious of the panoply of office; Carter, through no fault of his own, is buried in it. The earlier age demanded and produced excellence in the chief executive; ours does not.
When the American republic was designed, to curb the excesses of monarchy, government was divided into three branches, the legislative, executive and judicial, which would check and balance each other. It was a fine idea, and it worked well in an age in which a President could promise, as Jefferson did at his inaugural, “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits.” In such a simple world, diligence and honesty, and little more, were the requirements for high office. But, as life grew more complicated and government necessarily more obtrusive, it became obvious that checks and balances produced, more than anything else, inertia. One of the three branches would have to take the initiative. The obvious choice was the Presidency. Increasingly, powers were welded onto the executive until what had begun as a small, symbolic office became a swollen bureaucracy. Jefferson’s staff consisted of five people; today’s White House employs more than 600, and the Executive Branch, which includes all departments and agencies, is described by the U.S. Information Service with grand vagueness as “a vast organization numbering several million people.”
Today, the President has powers that encompass all three of the original branches. He can propose his own laws, or veto those of Congress. He can appoint officials, in-
eluding judges, and grant pardons for criminal offenses (as Ford pardoned Nixon). His officers decide whom to prosecute, and whom to leave alone. He runs the civil service, the armed forces, foreign affairs, the national budget and, despite changes made in the War Powers Resolution since Nixon’s day, he can wage war on his own (a power that belonged exclusively to Congress) for 90 days, by which time, in any modern war, the world could be brought to an end.
In short, as historian Arthur Schlesinger has noted, the President’s leadership role has produced in modern government “a concept of Presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity. Presidential primacy has turned into Presidential supremacy. The constitutional Presidency . . . has become the imperial Presidency.”
But, while a President may bring the world to an end, he cannot command the support of his own party. He may launch a nuclear strike, but he often cannot get his proposals through Congress. He is seen as a Colossus who can do anything from regulating wages to sorting out the Arabs and Israelis, but he can’t defy the oil lobby. The White House is seen as a palace of power by those who have never worked there, but to those who have, like George Reedy, it is a “barnyard ... Below the President is a mass of intrigue, posturing, strutting, cringing and pious ‘commitment’ to irrelevant windbaggery.”
Except for matters within his immediate executive powers—such as bringing the world to an end—the President is still subject to the ancient theory of checks and balances. In that theory, responsibility and accountability are purposely divided; in fact, it is authority that is divided; responsibility is shattered. The budget is the President’s, but it also belongs to Congress; no one
must answer for all of it, and no one even knows what goes into all of it. Foreign affairs are conducted by the State Department, but also by the Senate. Policies in energy, health, transportation, welfare and education are set by dozens of agencies and neither the President nor anyone else has central control. The House of Representatives once passed a tobacco subsidy, promoted by southern Republicans, because the Democrats’ man in charge of blocking it had stepped out for a moment. There is even a name for the legislative technique of slipping past secret legislation—“mumbling it through.”
Carter restored Harry Truman’s old desk plaque THE BUCK STOPS HERE, but, like most of his public actions, this was a gesture, nothing more. He cannot force nor even persuade Congress to implement the promises on which he was elected. For four years, he is untouchable; but, for four years, his legislative powers depend on public relations. Not surprisingly, what the American system tends to produce is superior PR men, not superior leaders.
The paradox of American politics is that a large nation of brilliant, innovative, energetic people so often pits two bums against each other for the highest elective office in the world. In 1976, it set a peanut farmer against the man who freed Poland, with his mouth. In 1972, a scheming paranoid fought it out with a babbling lightweight. It is an ancient pattern. H. F. Mencken, who voted for Warren Harding, wrote of him: “No other such complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history.” Perhaps not, but the competition is fierce.
The electoral system that produced Jimmy Carter eliminated along the way such excellent men as Terry Sanford, Walter Mondale, Morris Udall and Fred Harris. It militates against principle, and for
deals; it penalizes intelligence and rewards imagery. Adlai Stevenson, an intellectual and experienced politician, was thrashed by Dwight Eisenhower, a general and golfer. Inside his own party, Stevenson was dumped for John F. Kennedy, the opportunist who made deals with Joseph McCarthy. Nixon rose to the top of the Republican Party not like cream but like a noxious gas. What Carter did best on his way up was to project warm thoughts and
make quick deals, deals with everyone from Chicago’s Richard Daley to New York’s Abe Beame. By the time he got the job, he wasn’t worthy of it.
As political commentator Ellen Goodman has noted: “The profiles of a successful politician and a successful person have become mutually exclusive.”
The problem is universal, but it is exacerbated by the American system, which demands a superman on a white charger and then elects a louse on a mouse.
In part, the fault lies with the party system that flows from the division of powers. Because Congress is not responsible to the leader, laws are passed by a coalition of interest groups. Indeed, the entire nation is run, is expected to be run, by special interests. The parties are not groupings of likeminded people devoted to similar goals, but collections of lobbies. The only way to office is to enlist the support of enough lobbies to capture the nomination. This is accomplished by selling off bits of the candidate in return for support.
Once in office, however, the new President finds himself under fierce and contending pressures. On the one hand is the mythology of office, the process that produced George Washington’s cherry tree and is making a tourist trap of Plains. On the other hand are contradictory commitments which he can’t keep anyway, because he has little hold over the power brokers who run Congress, and who have, in
turn, made their own deals with special interest groups. It is hard to persuade a man of high principle to enter such a maelstrom, harder still for him to survive. Occasionally a mediocre man is transformed by the office, as Harry Truman was; more often, ordinary men are broken by it, the process that appears to be under way today.
The excessive expectations that are laid on a President lead, in turn, to excessive
denunciations when it develops that he can’t handle the job. The process of disintegration begins before the orchestra strikes up the first notes for the Inaugural Ball.
There is much to admire in American politics—its vigor, its openness, the independence and effectiveness of the committee system—just as there is much to deplore in Canadian politics—its secrecy, elitism and hypocrisy. But it seems clear, as Carter wallows in the quicksands of his anniversary, that our system has one advantage over theirs: it can be made to work. A Canadian prime minister who loses the confidence of his colleagues is out of office, but the responsibility works both ways; he can, in turn, legislate his program. He is accountable, not once every four years, but every day. The relationship is a challenge, not a suicide pact.
That is why, every time a Canadian prime minister seeks to shuffle off the principle of responsibility, as Pierre Trudeau seems to be shuffling off the RCMP, Canadians react. When he tells us that governments are not to blame for the actions of their servants, he is asking us to accept the division of powers and the whole bag of tricks that Jimmy Carter is finding at the centre of the Presidency. It is a system beyond the power of mortal man to operate; it is not something Canada wants to copy.