From the time of his Sunday televised speech to 60 million Americans, President Jimmy Carter dominated the news in the United States as never before in his 2½ years in office. He announced new programs, promised action on old promises, altered his White House staff and shook up his cabinet.
But there was much less than met the eye in the morning headlines or the evening newscasts. Instead, there was about the whole week the air of a crisis manufactured for a president whose standing in the polls was perilously low. For one historian, the events recalled the plaintive words of Henry Cabot Lodge to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, then president, during a 1902 coal strike: “Is there nothing we can appear to do?”
Carter’s television address, in which he diagnosed a “crisis of confidence” and accepted some of the blame for it, was, in the judgment of most observers, his most effective since becoming president. Washington sophisticates scoffed at Carter’s cornball appeals (“whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country”) and cringed at his criticism of the “isolated world” of the capital. Outside Washington, however, the message went over well. But the content was vague. Commented pollster Richard Scammon: “I would rate the Sunday speech an ‘A’ for style. It was one of the best speeches he’s ever made ... but I would give it an ‘incomplete’ for content.”
Carter did pledge to keep oil imports below the 1977 level. But that was a record year for imports in the U.S., with 8.6 million barrels a day brought into the country. The United States has not again approached that level (it is currently importing about 8.1 million barrels a day), and since it is now in a recession the 1977 level is out of reach for the forseeable future.
Carter also proposed establishing an Energy Security Corporation, a Petrocan-like agency that would invest
heavily in synthetic fuels, and an Energy Mobilization Board (EMB) to cut through regulatory red tape holding up pipelines and refineries. Both promises worried environmentalists. There was concern that intense development of messy synthetic fuels would increase the acid rain over Canada and that the EMB could pave the way for a project like the Eastport, Maine, refinery next door to New Brunswick. But both proposals were already in the legislative mill in Congress in one form or another before Carter spoke. Carter’s words will, at best, give those proposals a boost. But the president shrank away from tougher action such as the decontrol of gasoline prices.
The absence of sterner measures drew some criticism from business and other quarters. California Governor Jerry Brown, in his postmortem moments after Carter’s speech, also scored the president for failing to mention nuclear power, which Brown opposes, and a Canada-Mexico-U.S. common market, which he favors. Smarting at the criticism, but without mentioning Brown by name, Carter took up both subjects in a speech the next day in Kansas City.
Nuclear power, he said, “must play an important role in the U.S. to ensure our
energy future.” As for Canada and Mexico, Carter said the U.S. is “working very closely” with them on energy problems, but he stopped short of advocating a common market. (Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, in a private briefing, noted Canada’s “sensitivities in this area.”) Carter did, however, tell his audience that Alaskan and Canadian natural gas will displace almost 700,000 barrels of imported oil in the U.S. by 1985, a forecast that assumes Canada will approve more gas exports.
Carter also used the Kansas City speech to reiterate his support for the long delayed Alaska highway natural gas pipeline. He accused the petroleum companies that own the gas in Alaska— Exxon, Standard Oil of Ohio and Atlantic Richfield—of “dragging their feet in helping to finance a pipeline needed to bring that gas to market.” Schlesinger, he said, had been instructed to summon the companies to a meeting to get the project started. “I will insist personally that this gas pipeline be built without further delay,” Carter declared. But he has no obvious levers in law to force the companies to get started and did not propose any legislation in his remarks.
The speechmaking over, Carter returned to Washington to shake up his staff and cabinet. In a remarkable meeting, he chewed out his cabinet sec-
retaries and suggested they all offer their resignations. Those of Michael Blumenthal (treasury), Joseph Califano (health, education and welfare), Brock Adams (transportation), Schlesinger (energy) and Griffin Bell (justice) were accepted.
Schlesinger and Bell, both close to Carter, had long talked of leaving and their departures came as no surprise. But the other three were more or less fired, causing considerable bad feeling inside the administration and in Congress, where they were all popular. Their chief sin, it appears, was an inability to get along with the White House staff (see box). Califano was also under the gun for pressing an anti-smoking campaign (unpopular with tobacco-belt voters on whom Carter depends) and maintaining a friendship with Senator Edward Kennedy (Carter’s chief rival, see page 30) and opposing a separate department of education (a pet Carter project).
The resignations had the appearance of a major shakeup of the administration. But, like Carter’s speeches earlier
in the week, the change may be more in style than in substance. Most of the new cabinet secretaries are people who were already working in the administration and are unlikely to set off in new directions. Blumenthal’s replacement, for example, is Federal Reserve Chairman William Miller, a fiscal conservative, like his predecessor. Califano is to be replaced by Patricia Harris, formerly secretary of housing and urban development, a black, and, like Califano, a liberal. Bell is to be succeeded by his deputy, Benjamin Civiletti.
The main change may be further subordination of government to short-term political goals as the Carter administration concentrates on next year’s election campaign.
To ensure a solid election footing,
Carter named Hamilton Jordan, his rough-hewn, 34-year-old sidekick, as his chief of staff. The new title, along with the departure of independent-minded cabinet secretaries, confirmed Jordan’s position as the No. 2 man.
Until last week, Carter had shied away from using the title “chief of staff” because of its association with the White House of Richard Nixon, whose chief was the infamous Bob Haldeman. But the awarding of the title to Jordan was not Carter’s only Nixonesque gesture. The request for cabinet resignations en masse was reminiscent of a similar move by Nixon after the 1972 election. (After that was pointed out to Carter, he tried to make the resignations look voluntary and backed down from his initial demand that they
be put in writing, according to UPI.) There was even a “staff evaluation” form sent out by the White House to cabinet ministers with instructions to fill out one for each senior department official. While some of the questions seemed innocent enough (“on the average, when does this person arrive at work?”), others smacked of a loyalty test (“to what extent is this person focused on accomplishing the administration’s goals?”). There were also reports that Carter would hold no more press conferences in
the nation’s capital. Press Secretary Jody Powell denied that, but it remained a fact that Carter had not held a press conference in Washington for more than seven weeks. Commented Republican Senator Ted Stevens: “I thought we were looking at another Nixon. Now I know we’re looking at another Nixon.”
But few were willing to make that comparison. Indeed, unlike Nixon, Carter scores high in public opinion polls for his honesty and decency. His problem, besides a Congress that is very nearly out of control, has been a lack of direction and purpose. James Fallows, a former Carter speechwriter, has described this administration as a “passionless presidency” and the president as a man consumed with detail. At the outset, wrote Fallows in The Atlantic, Carter even took it upon himself to assign playing time on the White House tennis courts.
Last week’s moves were designed to free up Carter and to restore a sense of purpose to his presidency. Explained
Jordan: “He wants to spend more time talking and listening to the American people, trying to be a teaching president.” Whether the strategy will work remains to be seen. Initial polls showed an upswing of support, although the majority of Americans still don’t think he’s doing a good job. But those polls were almost certainly premature. Remarked pollster Scammon: “A hundred days will show a good
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