Americans scarcely know what to make of their new President. They elected him, but only about a third of those eligible voted for him, and now they wait with mingled hope and apprehension to see what he will do. He could be another Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the optimists keep telling themselves; he could be another Nixon, the pessimists reply. It will be months, perhaps years, before a verdict is in, but some projections can be made about the Carter presidency from what is known about the man and about the challenges he will face in his first months of office.
Carter is hardworking, intelligent, impatient, complex, difficult, stubborn, ambitious, tricky and tough. He radiates compassion, sounds sincere, and possesses an easy charm that persuades voters to identify with him; in this, he recalls a Roosevelt or a Kennedy. But, to date, his most dominant characteristic has been his ambition, and in this he stirs uneasy memories of Nixon.
His inconsistencies, waverings, reversals, shifts and hesitations are most easily explained in terms of his ambition for this job. When he first told his sister, Ruth, that he was running for President, she asked “President of what?” Carter knew of what, he has always known, just as he has always known he would get there by working
harder, smiling wider, moving faster than any rival. He cultivated self-confidence like a crop, and it only failed him once, when he was defeated in his first try for the governorship of Georgia in 1966. That defeat sent him into an emotional tailspin that ended with his renewed embrace of religion; he was bom again. He was no sooner out of his new womb than he began to scramble for power once more. He writes in his autobiography, “I remembered the admonition, ‘You show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’ I did not intend to lose again.” He might have added, “no matter what.”
Carter began a four-year drive for the governorship, and the way he won it, in 1970, was not reassuring. He portrayed himself as “basically a red-neck,” running against an incumbent liberal, Carl Sanders. He courted Alabama’s George Wallace, made a well-publicized preelection visit to a private school established as a haven from anti-discrimination laws, and collected the bigot vote. Once he was elected, he announced the time had come to end discrimination, moved to put more blacks in government and had Martin Luther King Jr.’s picture installed in the Capitol. The switch may be seen as a simple change of heart—perhaps another rebirth—but it is easier to explain as the ac-
tion of a man with his fingers curled cp around the next rung of the ladder.
Indeed, much of his record as governor of Georgia, the record he kept advancing in the Presidential race as the measure of how he would run the country, should be seen in the light of that ambition. He reorganized the state bureaucracy, establishing 22 new super-agencies, which he laid over the network of old departments, and that allowed him to crow later, “When I was elected governor, we had 300 state agencies. We abolished all but 22 of them, and set up a simple system that cut administrative costs by 50%.” In fact, the state payroll went up 30% during his tenure, and funding for the governor’s office rose 49%. Carter also claimed that he left the state with a budget surplus of $116 million, when in fact he inherited a surplus of $91 million and left one of $43 million.
As governor, Carter held a day of appreciation for Lieutenant William Calley, the mass murderer of My Lai, and he promised, shortly after the Kent State University killings, to send National Guards onto Georgia campuses with live ammunition to put down disorder “even before violence erupts.” Later, he reversed these stands, and emerged as a dove on Vietnam and a foe of heavy-handed government intervention—a category that presumably
includes shooting kids who carry placards. This flexibility again raises the spectre of a man whose highest principle is that he belongs in the White House. Perhaps Carter, unlike Nixon, the last President to feel that way, will ease up in office.
In any event, he will certainly be an activist President. There will be tremendous motion in Washington on a number of fronts. To start with, the President holds in his gift bag some 2,200 appointive offices whose occupants have been packing for weeks in readiness. The first clue to the workings of the new administration will come when these plums are distributed. Carter came to power, in part, because he attacked Washington, bureaucracy and the Democratic hierarchy. Then, as the polls began to slip, he found virtues in the party regulars that had slipped his notice before, and he made a number of pilgrimages to the power-brokers to round up votes. They came through, and we will soon see if the man who boasted that he was beholden to no one recognizes his debts. If he is thinking about the 1980 election, he will.
At the same time, there are a number of “good old boys” from down home to be satisfied. The “new South,” which looked suspiciously like the old South in its Democratic tilt on election day, put Carter in power and will want something in return. What is more, Carter feels most at home with fellow southerners; he has already established a coterie of advisers—dominated by campaign manager Hamilton Jordon and press secretary Jody Powell—that speaks in a drawl, and they will have a good deal to say about appointments.
Probably Carter will balance his priorities; there will be tremendous signs of activity in the nation’s capital, departments will merge and shift, titles will change, falling bodies will darken the sky and then, in a few months, we will see a Washington much like the old Washington, heavily laced with party-liners, whose major difference from the old party-liners will be that more of them have tans.
But there will be an abrupt change in the White House itself. Carter’s ambition, instinct and plans all point to a White House with its staff expanded, its powers extended and its administration sharpened. The election result has already begun to draw an inrush of new talent—much as the Kennedy election did in 1960—bent on remakingthe American society closer to their heart’s desire. The shambling, disorganized, but generally good-natured rabble presided over by Gerald Ford was content to get through each day with no catastrophes. Carter’s crew have higher goals, and his threats about cutting back on government were aimed at Congress and the bureaucracy; Carter has indicated from the first that he means to conduct a muscular presidency. And that will probably bring him into conflict with the press, the courts and Congress.
Carter tends, like Lyndon Johnson, to divide reporters into two groups, those
who are for him and those who are against (for Nixon, they were all against; Ford behaved as if they were all for). While he is too smart to have an “enemies list,” he made it clear during the campaign that media representatives who err—such as the TV crews who gave him what he thought were unflattering shots in a New York visit—will be quick to feel his displeasure. But far more serious than his brushes with the media—an occupational hazard for any active politician—will be his conflicts with Congress. As governor of Georgia, Carter was quick with his veto, equally quick to apply pressure for legislation he favored. He is not a patient man— he found that his one tour of duty as a legislator, when he served as a Georgia state senator, was frustrating because he couldn’t make things happen—and patience is essential in dealing with Congress.
This will, of course, be a heavily Democratic Congress, by a margin of two-to-one in the House, by 60:40 in the Senate. And it will be anxious to show its early approval of the new President. We are in for some months of the feast of reason and the flow of wit, but it does not follow that Congress will see eye-to-eye with a man who, after all, spent much of his primary race besmirching its name. Congress is still caught between entrapping rituals of its old fogies and the frustration of new reformer legislators who want things changed. Carter is likely to come into conflict with both groups, to step on the toes of Senatorial prerogatives and to anger those, particularly in the House of Representatives, who want to push ahead on such matters as national health insurance and a full employment bill faster than the new President seems inclined to go.
Carter has not known many frustrations, beyond those of the flesh touched on in his famous Playboy interview, and when frustrated he tends to lash out. When Julian Bond, a fellow Georgian, refused to support him for President, Carter snarled that
it was because Bond wanted to be vicepresident (by tradition, both jobs could not go to the same state). When Morris Udall refused to drop out of the primaries on Carter’s invitation, the Georgian said Udall was simply gathering publicity for his Senate race at Carter’s expense.
The Supreme Court will probably get the benefit of some of this temper, too. Carter had high praise for the Burger Court, dominated by Nixon appointees, because it was cracking down on crime. He may not feel so kindly when it begins to crack down on his shiny new legislation, which seems likely. In short, we are in for a busy, belligerent presidency once the official honeymoon is over next year.
The first problem Carter faces is the state of the American economy, whose mismanagement was one of his recurring themes. Unemployment is close to 8%, inflation is growing at an annual rate of 6%, and the federal government’s set of “key economic indicators” has been down for two months in a row. Stagflation lives again. To deal with it, Carter could call on the promises of the Democratic party, cut taxes,thrust through a full employment bill, lay out money on a national health insurance scheme and pay for it all by “eliminating waste” and closing tax loopholes. This is possible, but it is far more likely Carter will bring in some minor tax cuts, fiddle with interest rates and try to balance the budget before embarking on any new schemes, such as health insurance.
In foreign affairs, there will certainly be a change of style, if not of substance. Carter will not leave the conduct of foreign policy in the hands of a quasi-President such as Henry Kissinger. Although he will move slowly at first—his experience in the field is nonexistent (so was John Kennedy’s)—he will put his own stamp on U.S. relations abroad. Changes of substance are something else; he managed to disapprove of Ford’s stands from Angola to Israel without saying what he would have done differently, and, indeed, American options are limited, both by the emergence of new power blocs abroad and the preoccupation with old problems at home.
Finally, Carter must confront the problem he says he was elected to solve— America’s loss of confidence in herself. He made the decline of U.S. prestige abroad and self-esteem at home a major theme of his Presidential run, and now, thanks in part to his own conduct of the campaign, the mood here is at least as bitter as it was when he began two years ago. But the presidency is an office of enormous power and influence, FDR used his office to turn the country around in a few short years, and JFK made a good stab at it in 33 months. If Carter puts his considerable intelligence, energy and charm to work, he could accomplish much; but if he remains dominated by his ambition and turns his first term into the platform for his second, the world may soon wish him back on his peanut farm.
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