The Passionless Presidency

The trouble with Jimmy Carter's Administration

In the spring of 1978, as the primary election season drew near, Jimmy Carter began a long march across the country, ready to help off-year Democratic candidates who might later reciprocate by helping him. This was a tiring trip, which caught the President at a tired time.

Within the previous month, he had traveled halfway around the world and across the country many times. More of the same lay immediately ahead. On the first leg of this trip, in Chicago, Carter made an interminable appearance at a Cook County Democratic banquet speaking briefly to party members in six separate ballrooms, then launching into an hour-long address in the main hall.

Of the many things being demanded of him, Carter was tired most of all of giving speeches. He told Jody Powell, who passed the word to me as the presidential speechwriter, to change the plans for his appearance next day before the Illinois state legislature in Springfield. We should release the text of the speech that we had prepared—a sobersided discussion of the "iron triangle" of bureaucratic interests, congressional committees, and outside lobbying groups that kept things in the government from ever being reformed—but, Carter said, he did not intend to deliver it. Instead, he would stand before the legislators, endorse the sentiments expressed in the advance text, and then take questions from the floor.

In the Springfield capitol building the next morning, I sat among the reporters and watched the revised plan unfold. Carter announced his intentions and read introductory comments from his note cards—and then, unexpectedly, he began talking in a deeper register, a more heartfelt style; a graceful natural cadence replaced his familiar singsong. Carter was speaking once more as he had spoken during the campaign, not about a specific policy or the rationale behind his acts, but about himself, his values, the emotions he felt day by day. He had once referred to his job as "one big multiple choice exam," and he told the rapt crowd about the tests he would soon face. He told them of his difficulties—"It is not easy to negotiate with the Russians on a SALT agreement.... A Panama Canal treaty was not a popular thing." The Mideast arms sales were "almost impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of the American people. It took a lot of courage to make those decisions."

Carter told them of his faith in the American people, whose goodness he had seen in the small towns. Our people, he said, are "basically decent, basically honest, basically have great common sense." And he was determined to reflect those virtues. He had been a businessman, a farmer, in touch with the cells and organs of American life. As the American people would respond to hard questions, so would he. As they were hardworking and honest and brave, so too must he be.

Carter then began taking questions, but I stopped listening; so much that had puzzled me was becoming clear. Sixteen months into his Administration, there was a mystery to be explained about Jimmy Carter: the contrast between the promise and popularity of his first months in office and the disappointment so widely felt later on. Part of this had to do with the inevitable end of the presidential honeymoon, with the unenviable circumstances Carter inherited, with the fickleness of the press. But much more of it grew directly from the quality Carter displayed that morning in Illinois. He was speaking with gusto because he was speaking about the subject that most inspired him: not what he proposed to do, but who he was. Where Lyndon Johnson boasted of schools built and children fed, where Edward Kennedy holds out the promise of the energies he might mobilize and the ideas he might enact, Jimmy Carter tells us that he is a good man. His positions are correct, his values sound. Like Marshal Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation. This is not an inconsiderable gift; his performance in office shows us why it's not enough.

After two and a half years in Carter's service, I fully believe him to be a good man. With his moral virtues and his intellectual skills, he is perhaps as admirable a human being as has ever held the job. He is probably smarter, in the College Board sense, than any other President in this century. He grasps issues quickly. He made me feel confident that, except in economics, he would resolve technical questions lucidly, without distortions imposed by cant or imperfect comprehension.

He is a stable, personally confident man, whose quirks are few. He told the several Rhodes scholars on his staff that he had not won one of the scholarships, that this had been a great disappointment to him, but that he'd made out all right, heh, heh, hadn't he? He tends to exaggerate his background ("I am a nuclear physicist"; "I directed the Head Start program in Georgia") and to tamper with truth on small matters. As character flaws go, these are small change. Apart from occasional profanity, I saw him form no argument and strike no pose that would make him look a hypocrite if publicly revealed. I was not one of his confidants, and my intention to return to journalism was widely known; certain things were shielded from my view. But some things cannot be hidden, and in other administrations I know I would have seen more subterfuge and deception than I detected here.

Carter is usually patient, less vindictive than the political norm, blessed with a sense of perspective about the chanciness of life and the transience of its glories and pursuits. I left his service feeling that if moral choices faced him, he would resolve them fairly, that when questions of life and death, of nuclear war and human destruction were laid upon his desk, he would act on them calmly, with self-knowledge, free of interior demons that might tempt him to act rashly or to prove at terrible cost that he was a man. One factor in our choice of Presidents is their soundness in the ultimate moments of decision, when the finger is poised over the button and the future of the race is stake. Of all contenders on the horizon, none would be saner or surer than Carter in those moments. In his ability to do justice case by case, he would be the ideal non-lawyer for the Supreme Court; if I had to choose one politician to sit at the Pearly Gates and pass judgment on my soul, Jimmy Carter would be the one.

But if he has the gift of virtue, there are other gifts he lacks.

One is sophistication. It soon became clear, in ways I shall explain, that Carter and those closest to him to him took office in profound ignorance of their jobs. They were ignorant of the possibilities and the most likely pitfalls. They fell prey to predictable dangers and squandered precious time.

The second is the ability to explain his goals and thereby to offer an object for loyalty larger than himself.

The third, and most important, is the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job. Carter often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results. He seethed with frustration when plans were rejected, but felt no compulsion to do better next time. He did not devour history for its lessons, surround himself with people who could do what he could not, or learn from others that fire was painful before he plunged his hand into the flame.

I make these observations with sadness but without rancor, for I have no reason to feel bitter. Other politicians are notorious for browbeating or humiliating their speechwriters; Jimmy Carter was always decent to me. I wish that more of the impressions I took away were bright. My interest as a journalist is to report what I saw, and to explain why I think it happened.

became involved with Carter in the summer of 1976, when (so it seemed) the hardest electoral battles were behind him and the opportunists were climbing aboard. I had voted for him in the Texas primary, written with measured sympathy about his cause, and found myself rounded up in the general massing of troops once he clinched the nomination.

I worked for him enthusiastically and was proud to join his Administration, for I felt that he, alone among candidates, might look past the tired formulas of left and right and offer something new. These early hopes impose a special burden of explanation on people like me; before we find fault, we must explain why we thought things would be different. Carter had no experience in Washington or in foreign affairs; to blame him for that now seems somehow unfair. He had been unpopular as governor of Georgia; why should it be different in the White House? On paper, as a provincial businessman and one-term governor, Carter promised to perform just about the way he has.

But there were two factors that made many of us ignore these paper limitations. One was Carter's remarkable charm in face-to-face encounters. All politicians must be charming to some degree, but Carter's performance on first intimate meeting was something special. His intelligence and magnetism soon banished thoughts of the limits of his background. When working at the White House, I often felt persuaded by Carter's argument—and, even more, of his personal merit—while talking with him, although I knew, on reflection, that his argument was wrong. This was not simply the malleability of a young employee; I met very few people who, having sat and talked with Carter by themselves or in groups of two or three, did not come away feeling they had dealt with a formidable man.

He was fully aware of this power and used it whenever he could. Early in the campaign, when trying to convince people that his candidacy was not a joke, he placed high hopes on his meetings with newspaper editorial boards. After Gerald Rafshoon's arrival in the White House, Carter invited editors and publishers to dinner, usually to good effect. He always felt in foreign affairs that if he could only get his adversaries into the room with him, he could win them over. This he demonstrated most spectacularly with Sadat and Begin at Camp David and in his dramatic and courageous resuscitation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations this year. Lyndon Johnson had the same faith in his famous "treatment," but it was based on his intimate knowledge of the other party, which told him how to flatter, threaten, and cajole. Carter's faith was in himself, and in the impression he would create.

The other factor was a subtler thing, though clearly visible in retrospect. I always thought Carter awkward at the deliberate manipulation of symbols, but he was a genius at using a phrase, a gesture, a code word that his listeners assumed to be of greater significance than it was. He led call-and-response like a preacher in a black church; he talked with environmentalists about the sins of the Corps of Engineers; he told the American legion about his family's three centuries of military service; and he told everyone in back-room meetings that, while he could not promise a single appointment to a single person, "I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the choices I make," and "I think you'll agree with what I do 95 percent of the time." Espying these chunks in the water, each onlooker viewed them as tips of icebergs, indicating vast, hidden extensions below.

I realize now how people were led on by these hints; I was led on myself by the hope that Carter might make sense of the swirl of liberal and conservative sentiment then muddying the political orthodoxy. Never did I feel it more strongly than after my first meeting with Carter, in August 1976, when he was receiving petitioners in Plains. Shortly after I joined the campaign staff, I accompanied a friend and former employer, Ralph Nader, when he went to call on Carter. From 9 P.M. until long past midnight on a steamy summer night, I sat in the back of Carter's study while Nader delivered a lecture on the way the government works. What Boswell must have felt when Burke and Johnson had their fine moments I thought I was feeling then, as Nader distilled into three hours the lessons of a dozen years. They were not programmatic, or even "liberal," points, but practical warnings about the way administrations went wrong. Carter must do everything possible to eliminate third-party payment systems, Nader said; they always bust the budget. He must find ways around the unions' guild mentality if he wanted to put poor teenagers to work and to rebuild the cities. He must control, from his first moment on the job, the way he spent his time, so that when the crises came, as they inevitably would, his other efforts would go on. He must avoid the ancient seductions of foreign affairs, and must constantly search for ways to make the people in government feel that he was looking over their shoulders day after day, encouraging, inspecting, reproving, an ever-present focus for loyalty and healthy fear.

Nader did most of the talking that evening, but when Carter spoke it was to show that he understood. With his complementary examples, his nodded assents, Carter hinted that he might come to office not only with the usual freight of campaign promises but also with the kind of practical sophistication most people acquire only when it is time to retire and write their memoirs. That is the difference with state governors, I remember telling myself in my exhilaration that night. While senators are prancing about with new ideas and noble intentions, governors see what happens when the payroll is met, the program administered, the intention converted to result. The last governor to become President was Franklin Roosevelt, and I told my friends that summer that Carter had at least the same potential to leave the government forever changed by his presence: not by expanding federal responsibilities, as Roosevelt had done, or by continuing the trend of the Great Society, but by transforming the government, as in the 1930s, to reflect the needs of these different times. Franklin Roosevelt radiated confidence, or the illusion of confidence, to a nation ready and eager to be reassured. Jimmy Carter—so I thought—might be able to point out a new political direction to a nation all too ready to be led.

here were other promising signs. When Carter stressed that he had made this work in Georgia, I thought he had learned from hard experience about the perils of organizational life. I thought that, like his mentor Hyman Rickover, or Northrup Parkinson, he would stay one step ahead of staff jealousies, information blockages, monopolization of his time. When I heard him recommend, early in the campaign, junking the mortgage tax deductions I assumed that Carter must have thought deeply about the tax system, deeply enough to understand that the average man lost far more than he gained through this deduction, that he would come out far ahead if it and similar exemptions were removed and the general tax rates lowered. For what other reason would a candidate bring up this subject, knowing how difficult the point is to explain and the uproar it was sure to provoke, unless he envisioned a basic change in the tax system and was ready to teach the public about it?

When I read his famous Law Day speech of 1974 the upbraiding of lawyers that led Hunter S. Thompson to canonize Carter in Rolling Stone, I thought he must understand the excesses of a legal system that siphons off so much of the nation's talent. I thought he must be aware of the burdens that privilege bring that the nation's most comfortable and professionalized groups must look beyond their Mercedes and their Perrier.

When Hamilton Jordan was quoted as saying that "this government is going to be run by people you've never heard of," and that if Cyrus Vance should become secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski the national security adviser, the Administration could be considered a failure and he would quit, I thought those close to Carter had reflected on the permanence of the governing groups in Washington, the similarity of their backgrounds, and the success of their self-protection. I thought they understood the importance of bringing in other talented people—other Jimmy Carters, and other Jody Powells.

When Carter spoke about a strong defense, but promised to cut five billion dollars or more from the defense budget, I took it not as campaign hyperbole but as proof that he recognized the danger of setting military budgets by ideology or platitude and the need to base them on case-by-case judgments about threats to our security and ways to respond.

And when I heard Jimmy Carter reflect on his aims and ideas as he did with such refreshing intelligence during the TV interview with Bill Moyers in May 1976 in the less-publicized portions of the notorious Playboy interview, I thought he understood that people recognized frankness, that they would respond to a leader who respected their intelligence and did not talk down to them.

Perhaps this list is a testament to nothing more than my own naivete; but here and there among the items the reader may recognize a signal that he also picked up from listening to Carter, a feeling that he shared. Those memories may be refreshed by looking back to Carter's first "town meeting" in Clinton, Massachusetts where he demonstrated not only his poise under fire but his ability to make contact, to communicate, to lead. "In his first two months as President, Jimmy Carter has achieved a triumph of communications in the arena of public opinion," David Broder wrote in the Washington Post after that town meeting. "He has transformed himself from the very shaky winner of a campaign into a very popular President whose mastery of the mass media has given him real leverage with which to govern."

But by the time Bert Lance resigned as budget director in September 1977, most of the original hopes had departed as well. These weren't the tips of icebergs we seeing; they were pieces of ice.

he first jarring note was struck after two months in office, when large pay increases were allotted to the White House staff. Many people got a raise just by joining; Carter could have hired everyone for half the starting pay; except for a few lawyers such as Robert Lipshutz and Jack Watson, those entering public service were making no financial sacrifices. I was twenty-seven years old when I started working at the White House. The year before, I had made about $20,000 as a magazine writer. On Inauguration Day, my pay rose by 87.5 percent, to $37,500. Two months later, with the general pay increase, it went up another $5000, to $42,500. After two more unpublicized, automatic, "cost of living" raises, I was earning $47,500 when I resigned at the end of November 1978.

Of all complaints about Carter, overpayment is the most ironic, for he was the most notorious tightwad in town. But it was a sadly typical complaint, for it showed that Carter's inner values mattered less than his naivete about organizations and the effect of symbolic acts. By going along with the pay increases, Carter gave the clearest possible sign that it would be business as usual in his Administration. His later talk about inflation would be forever undermined by this demonstration that restraint did not start at home. When I traveled around the country speaking on the Administration's behalf, I knew what one of the first, and most venomous, questions would be: Why should the citizen making $20,000 be taxed to provide a raise for someone making $47,500?

The scene was set for the first raise by a pay increase the Congress had voted for itself and upper-level civil servants. Carter had the choice of accepting it for the White House, deferring or reducing it, or turning it down flat. For advice Carter looked to an "executive committee" made up of the nine top-ranking and highest-paid assistants (Jordan, Powell, Brzezinski, Lipshutz, Watson, Stuart Eizenstat, James Schlesinger, Midge Costanza, and Frank Moore). All nine were making $44,600 and were authorized by the bill to advance to $57,500. Their deliberations were awkward (or so we heard in office gossip), no one eager to be the first to ask for the raise, until Midge Costanza said that she, for one, could use the money. The committee first provided for its own, each member offering to sacrifice $1500 of the authorized $12,900 raise (bringing their salaries to $56,000), and then agreed that those further down the ladder should demonstrate greater restraint. The lower the pay to begin with, the more of the raise would be kicked back. Those who made $37,500, like me, gave up half of a $10,000 raise—and those who made less than $37,500 got no raise at all.

Carter could easily have bullied the executive committee and the rest of the staff into forgoing all the raises. During the primary campaign, when each day's spending depended on the previous day's take, Carter had made frugality seem stylish. Staff members boasted about staying in friends' houses rather than in hotels, and prided themselves on fueling fund-raising parties with peanuts and wine for a fraction of the usual cost. In the more luxurious setting of the White House, the task would be harder, but Carter could have argued the need for symbolic restraint, his own preference for moderation—or simply his discomfort at seeing those who make policy for the nation go from the 98th percentile of income to the 99th. Then he would have demonstrated that economy in government was more than talk; instead, he bred skepticism outside the government and greed within. I charged into Jody Powell's office when I found out about my $5000 kickback, outraged by this "gyp," until I realized just what I was saying. From that point on, people making $40,000 and $50,000 succumbed to self-pity because others were making more.

here came other signs that Carter was not alert to bureaucratic perils. If there is any constant in the literature of presidential performance, it is that the President must husband his time. If he is distracted from the big choices by the torrent of petty details, the big choices will not get made—or will be resolved by their own internal logic, not by the wishes of those who have been elected to lead. Carter came into office determined to set a rational plan for his time, but soon showed in practice that he was still the detail-man used to running his own warehouse, the perfectionist accustomed to thinking that to do a job right you must do it yourself. He would leave for a weekend at Camp David laden with thick briefing books, would pore over budget tables to check the arithmetic, and, during his first six months in office, would personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court. (Although he flatly denied to Bill Moyers in his November 1978 interview that he had ever stooped to such labors, the in-house tennis enthusiasts, of whom I was perhaps the most shameless, dispatched brief notes through his secretary asking to use the court on Tuesday afternoons while he was at a congressional briefing, or a Saturday morning, while he was away. I always provided spaces where he could check Yes or No; Carter would make his decision and send the note back, initialed J.)

After six months had passed, Carter learned that this was ridiculous, as he learned about other details he would have to pass by if he was to use his time well. But his preference was still to try to do it all—to complain that he was receiving too many memos and that they were too long, but to act nonetheless on everything that reached his desk. He believed in the clean-desk philosophy. During his first month, he said, "Unless there's a holocaust, I'll take care of everything the same day it comes in." When he moved toward the more usual presidential course—letting his aides worry about the details, and acting on their advice—he neglected the usual corollary, which is that the aide should live or die on the quality of his judgment. His counsel, Robert Lipshutz, examined the comptroller's report on Bert Lance in August 1977 and told Carter it presented a clean bill of health. At that, Carter flew down from Camp David to say, "Bert, I'm proud of you." In the lower reaches of the staff, the dismay at Lipshutz's interpretation was exceeded only by the incredulity that he suffered no visible sanction or remonstrance for his poor advice. Indeed, the criticism Lipshutz received in the press made Powell and Jordan all the more dogged in their defense of him. Lipshutz was one of THEM, one of the southern boys, being persecuted by a hostile northern press.

It often seemed to me that "history," for Carter and those closest to him, consisted of Vietnam and Watergate; if they could avoid the errors, as commonly understood, of those two episodes, they would score well. No military intervention, no dirty tricks, no tape recorders on the premises, and no "isolation" of the President. When it came to setting up the House, this meant avoiding a recreation of the "Berlin Wall," the Haldeman-Ehrlichman bulkhead that had blocked out Nixon's other assistants. Carter stressed that his nine main aides had equal access to him, and that another two dozen people (of whom I was one) had free access in memos, if not in the flesh.

This arrangement reflected not only Carter's reading of recent history but also his personal style. His affections were constant toward his retinue of loyal helpers: he did not scramble to hire someone with a talent that Powell, Eizenstadt, Jordan, or Rafshoon did not happen to possess. None of them would have made a good chief of staff, so that function simply did not enter into the organization chart. Carter would do it himself, as he would everything else, whether it be the Administration's long-range planning or improving the grammar in the proclamations we wrote for him. By the end of first year, this system had become more or less workable; everyone had learned whom to call to get a telegram sent, which congressmen to notify when news of a home-town project was released, what speeches were required when Carter took a trip. But a year was wasted as we blindly groped for answers and did for ourselves what a staff coordinator could have done.

The huzzahs that attended Gerald Rafshoon's arrival in mid-1978 as the man who was going to bring order into the process only highlighted the primitive state of affairs that had prevailed. I had no objections to Rafshoon's projects, because—contrary perhaps to public impression—they were so elementary and so dearly needed. Soon after Rafshoon arrived, for example, Carter decided to veto a defense bill because of its provision for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Rafshoon made sure that the speechwriters wrote up brief "tallking points" about the veto, and that these were distributed to every official who had a speech to make. Six months earlier, no one would have taken the responsibility for that obviously useful step.

A far graver managerial error was that of "Cabinet government," another outgrowth of Carter's truncated historical view. Like no other President since Eisenhower, Carter seemed to think that organizations would run in practice as they did on paper: people would perform their assigned functions and seek no orders; orders, once given, would be carried out; when people were asked to direct specific bureaus or departments their loyalties would still lie with the larger interests of the Administration. Recent history was taken by Carter to prove his point: one of Nixon's worst sins was his abuse of Cabinet departments—he stacked them with political flunkies and destroyed the secretaries' control over their own shops. With Watergate over and Nixon deposed, "Cabinet government" became a good-government rallying cry. Carter took up the cry, eagerly accepting a naive book by Stephen Hess which proposed that the secret of efficient government was to give Cabinet secretaries free rein.

The book—and the policy—were wrong because they omitted the necessary caveat: if a President wants to allow Cabinet secretaries full day-to-day control, he must make special, almost daily efforts to find out how that control is being used. Otherwise, when a President declares "hands off the departments," a depressingly predictable sequence will begin. The White House staff will defer to the departments—until the first big calamity happens. A secretary might play to the department's constituents rather than the President's—as Patricia Harris of Housing and Urban Development was suspected of doing with her truculent demands for more money for housing programs. A big scandal might arise—at the General Services Administration, for example, or at Labor or Health, Education and Welfare, where they seem to crop up regularly. A secretary might appear to be building his own empire—as Joseph Califano was suspected of doing at HEW, with his LBJ-like determination that everyone in his department work only for him. Deception, inefficiency, a dozen other ills infecting the various government departments, whatever the origin, will make a President angry. He will feel frustrated, as John Kennedy has been portrayed as feeling when he discovered, during the Cuban missile crisis, that his orders to remove our missiles from Turkey had been ignored. [See note below]. He will feel especially frustrated if, like Carter, he has put extra stress on governmental performance and results. If he cares about his policies and his political future, he will feel compelled to act. He will send in his own people, good loyal people, to "get the job done right." That is what Richard Nixon did, even after making claims more fulsome than Carter's about his Cabinet "with the extra dimension," and it is what Jimmy Carter began doing in 1978. At Camp David he held a session with Cabinet officers and told them to stop freewheeling and start following the White House lead. Hamilton Jordan began holding weekly meetings with Cabinet representatives, and took to dressing down those who had most offended against the company line. Tim Kraft, an old campaign hand, started controlling appointments to the second- and third-level jobs in the departments—appointments which, the first time around, had been left entirely in the secretaries' hands. The pendulum swung the White House way, as it had so often before.

Note from previous paragraph: This has become a piece of Kennedy-era mythology without solid basis in fact. President Kennedy may have suggested at some time well before the missile crisis that thought be given to removing the missiles from Turkey. It is almost certain, however, that no presidential order was given, and there is no available evidence that a plan for such removal was drawn up before those Six Days in October 1962. More than mere time was wasted; all the relationships were poisoned by the clumsy experiment of the first several months. Department officials began to think of the White House as the enemy, not as a source of patronage. In turn, those in the White House blamed their problems on evil people in the departments, not on foreseeable, preventable bureaucratic trends. Cabinet secretaries were judged more and more on their personal styles. The hot dogs, the show-offs—Califano, Harris, Blumenthal—came to be detested for those qualities. When preparing for a bill-signing ceremony involving HEW, I asked whether Califano would attend. "He never does anything for us," Rafshoon said. "Why should we do something for him?" The warmth was reserved for such men as Cyrus Vance and Harold Brown, whose departments were so inherently strong that they could afford to be modest, self-effacing gentlemen, tugging deferentially at their forelocks and seeming embarrassed when the spotlight fell on them.

here was one other indication that Carter had missed a familiar lesson about the management of his time. No matter what his original intentions, foreign problems were sure to preoccupy him deeply. Like every other President who has served since the United States became a world power, he would inevitably be drawn into the whirlpool of foreign affairs. Already on his desk when he arrived were the SALT negotiations, the Middle East tensions, accommodation with China, eruptions in Africa, and the chronic economic pressures imposed by the oil-producing nations and our ever-richer allies. Additional crises would make these more, not less, demanding as his term wore on.

There were also the familiar allurements of foreign affairs: the trips on fabulous Air Force One, the flourishes, twenty-one-gun salutes, and cheering multitudes along the motorcade routes. More important was the freedom to negotiate with foreign leaders without constant interference or nit-picking from congressmen and senators, the heady dips into worldly secrets in rooms lined with lead to protect against eavesdroppers—all the excitement and trappings that go with dealing in momentous global matters that can mean life or death for all mankind.

But Carter was not only preoccupied by the serious international problems that lay before him; he—and those around him—became virtually transfixed by them. The President seemed to foresee neither the temptations nor the demands of foreign policy, nor the ways to prevent them from stealing his concentration away from other pressing business of his office. As he grew more deeply involved in his international human rights campaign, the Panama Canal negotiations, the delicacy of detente with Russia, and especially his quest for peace in the Middle East, his efforts on the domestic front suffered from his inattention. Returning from a triumphal journey to Nigeria or Germany, his eyes would noticeably glaze as he forced himself to discuss such a matter as reorganization of the Commerce Department. The exhilaration that followed the Camp David agreement seemed to dull even further his appetite for home affairs. Next on his plate after Camp David was the most pressing domestic issue of all—inflation—but he appeared bored and impatient through high-level deliberations over what to do about it, unhappy with the half steps his advisers served up, and plainly eager to return to shaping international history.

uring the first year came other indications that Carter did not really know what he wanted to do in such crucial areas as taxes, welfare, energy, and the reorganization of the government. In each of these areas, Carter's passionate campaign commitments turned out to be commitments to generalities, not to specific programs or policies. After taking office, he commissioned panels of experts to tell him what to do, usually giving them instructions no more detailed than his repeated exhortation to "Be bold!"

Carter had said during the campaign that he would develop a national energy plan, and in his first fireside chat he said that James Schlesinger would come up with one within ninety days. Later, Carter came to understand that strict deadlines, while occasionally useful for prodding the bureaucracy, could also be destructive, in that they might force him to go ahead with half-baked ideas. He learned that through the example of the energy plan. Pleading urgency, Schlesinger obtained Carter's permission to work in total secrecy. Neither anyone else on the White House staff nor members of the Congress could pry information from him. For some matters, this approach made sense; there were technical answers to such questions as how much solar energy could be produced. But the major decisions about energy were political, not technical: who would bear what part of the burden, where the balance would be set between producer and consumer, the environment and fuel production. If Carter himself had no clear predisposition on questions, then any rush project should have been directed not by technicians but by politicians, who could balance the different interests, argue over deals, see just where the compromises must be made. Instead, Schlesinger developed his technically plausible energy plan in a political vacuum, submitting it to the scrutiny of Carter's other advisers and the members of Congress only after all the basic choices had been made. To Carter and Schlesinger, solving the energy problem must originally have seemed like solving a cube root. Once they had the right answer, they thought their work would be done.

I reserved my highest hopes for tax reform; in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Carter said that all his life he had heard about tax reform, but somehow it never happened. This time it was going to happen—and we could depend on it.

As the plan took shape, Carter gave firm instructions to the Treasury; he had learned his lesson about dangers of deadlines and the need for political consultation. The deadline was delayed time and again as Carter sent the Treasury back to the drawing board. Secretary Blumenthal sent out feelers to the tax committees in Congress as Carter prepared to make final choices. But when the plan was unveiled and suffered immediate shelling from the likes of Senator Russell Long and Representative Al Ullman, Carter reacted as if this were an inexplicable development, rather than one that could have been foreseen, and prepared for, from the very start. In his talk with Nader, Carter had said that he could never sell a tax reform or a governmental reorganization if he tried to do it piecemeal, since the 5 percent of the people who would suffer from each change would be more dogged in their opposition than the 95 percent who might benefit. He seemed to forget all that when the time came to explain his tax plan to the public or sell it on Capitol Hill.

Carter, who was able to learn from experience in a once-burned, twice-shy way, showed no inclination to prevent the burns by seeking associates who had been there before. Nowhere was he surer to need help than in his dealings with the Congress. His experience there was minimal, his campaign tone had been hostile, his skin crawled at the thought of the time-consuming consultations and persuasion that might be required to bring a legislator around. He did not know how congressmen talked, worked, and thought, how to pressure them without being a bully or flatter them without seeming a fool. He needed help from someone who knew all those things, who had spent time absorbing that culture. But for his congressional liaison, he chose a Georgian named Frank Moore, a man whose general aptitude was difficult for anyone outside the first circle to detect, and who had barely laid eyes upon the Capitol before Inauguration Day.

lthough Carter himself wakes up each morning popping with ideas, very few others in the Administration have been induced by him or by themselves to feel any passion to do. Most of the "Georgians," those who have been with Carter long enough to feel a personal commitment to his success, owe their first loyalty to the welfare and advancement of Jimmy Carter. In that they are little different from JFK's Irish Mafia, or LBJ's Texas Rangers, or any other group that has ever served a President. What makes them different is that they seem to have nothing in second place, no axes they are particularly eager to grind in their years in government. If there has been little abuse of power, it may be because they have so little sense of what power is and how it might be exercised. For at least two years, there was virtually no interest in using the power of patronage to create a network of loyalty toward or service to the President throughout the executive branch. On the contrary, the intimate Carter hands looked on such networks as the DAR might look, less eager to make new friends than to enjoy the honor of having been there at the start.

In other administrations, there have been assistants whose interest in policy was faint—Dave Powers for Kennedy, Pa Watson for Roosevelt, Marvin Watson for LBJ—but this time there is almost no one at the upper level (apart from Eizenstat and Brzezinski, the designated hitters for policy) with a serious interest in how the public's business is performed. It is as if the entire staff consisted of Pa or Marvin Watsons, devoted to nothing more than what their boss has decided to do. In the White House mess, on the airplane rides, around the halls, there might be desultory talk about the importance of the Panama Canal vote or how much The Boss wanted welfare reform, but it was mainly talk about personalities, gossip, items of substance that were interesting only because Carter had said they interested him. In two years in the government, I had not one serious or impassioned discussion with a member of the senior staff about what all those countless government programs meant, which of them, if any, really worked, how the government might be changed. I think it must have been different in other days.

I do not particularly admire people who can say, as Jack Valenti did in his silly book A Very Human President, that "working on the White House staff is the ultimate seduction," but I came to think that emotion of that sort might be a necessary ingredient for getting the job done. There was so little of that glimmer and drive in this White House that I began to realize that the absence of passion was as serious a weakness as the lack of sophistication.

I started to wonder about the difference between a good man and an inspiring one; about why Jimmy Carter, who would surely outshine most other leaders in the judgment of the Lord, had such trouble generating excitement, not only in the nation but even among the members of his own staff. One explanation is that Carter has not given us an idea to follow. The central idea of the Carter Administration is Jimmy Carter himself, his own mixture of traits, since the only thing that finally gives coherence to the items of his creed is that he happens to believe them all. Hubert Humphrey might have carried out Lyndon Johnson's domestic policies; Gerald Ford, the foreign policies of Richard Nixon. But no one could carry out the Carter program, because Carter has resisted providing the overall guidelines that might explain what his program is.

I came to think that Carter believes fifty things, but no one thing. He holds explicit, thorough positions on every issue under the sun, but he has no large view of the relations between them, no line indicating which goals (reducing unemployment? human rights?) will take precedence over which (inflation control? a SALT treaty?) when the goals conflict. Spelling out these choices makes the difference between a position and a philosophy, but it is an act foreign to Carter's mind. He is a smart man but not an intellectual in the sense of liking the play of ideas, of pushing concepts to their limits to examine their implications. Values that others would find contradictory complement one another in his mind. During the campaign, he used to say that our nation was the first to provide "complete compatability" between liberty and equality. This pained me more than anything else he said. I sent him notes and told him in person that these two terms were like city and country, heaven and hell: the tensions between them shape much of American society. But Carter continued to make the same statement, and I realized it was not because he was vulgarizing his ideas for the crowd, but because he genuinely believed what he said.

Carter thinks in lists, not arguments; as long as items are there, their order does not matter, nor does the hierarchy among them. Whenever he gave us an outline for a speech, it would consist of six or seven subjects ("inflation," "need to fight waste") rather than a theme or tone. His Inaugural address, which he wrote almost entirely by himself, is an illustration of this approach and a prime example of his style. Whenever he edited a speech, he did so to cut out the explanatory portions and add "meat" in the form of a list of topics. One speech, before a hostile crowd in Houston was first conceived as a defense of his energy policy. At the last moment, Carter sent in two lists, from which we were to restructure the speech. The first was entitled "What We Will Do," and included: "1) defense capability second to none: 2) cut down govern regulation—write in plain English—make authors sign. 3) fight inflation—protect budget from waste spending—working with Congress but veto if necessary! 4) balance budget 5) cut taxes 6) reform welfare system 7) civil service reform—veterans preference 8) Turkey arms embargo, NATO southern flank 9) SALT-CTB-NATO 10) improve cities, education, agriculture (exports)."

The second list was entitled "What We've Done" "1) cut unemployment— +5 1/2 million jobs since 1/77 2) Dept. of Energy 3) begun reorganization 4) NATO strengthened 5) human rights 6) agriculture bill."

or certain aspects of his job—the analyst and manager parts—Carter's method serve him well. He makes decisions about solar power installations and the B-1 on the basis of output, payload, facts, not abstract considerations. But for the part of his job that involves leadership, Carter's style of thought cripples him. He thinks he "leads" by choosing the correct policy; but he fails to project a vision larger than the problem he is tackling at the moment.

In domestic policy, this caused frustration, since it thwarted all attempts to explain a domestic philosophy. In foreign policy, it opened the door to genuine tragedy, for it left Carter unable to defend the course he had taken. Carter did not choose the circumstances in which he operates: our dependence on foreign oil, our economic vulnerability to our allies, the resistance to military intervention left over from Vietnam. Under these difficult circumstances, he has tried to set a steady, prudent policy, keeping his eye on our real national interest, not acting out of bluff or bravado, steadfastly pursuing the things that we need and ignoring those that we don't or that we can't control. The policy should win him respect: but because Carter cannot explain what he is doing, he is an easy mark for a Moynihan or a Reagan or a Connally who can speak with passion about the decline of American power. Jimmy Carter's oratorical failures could come to discredit a "restrained" foreign policy as thoroughly as (and more tragically than) George McGovern's "demogrant" proposal discredited further inquiry into the guaranteed annual income.

The clearest example of this difficulty was Carter's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1978. The speech was intended to set the record straight on U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, which was then very muddied because of the varied comments coming from Brzezinski and Vance. It was widely, and correctly, assumed that there were two different outlooks within Government, Vance's emphasis on a SALT treaty and Brzezinsky's habitual pugnaciousness in the face of the Soviet Union. Vance had sent a memo to Carter arguing the need for a presidential speech to explain Policy; Carter agreed and asked Brzezinski, Vance, Andrew Young, Stansfield Turner, and several other advisers to submit memos suggesting the tone and content of the speech.

Carter then assembled the speech essentially by stapling Vance's memo to Brzezinski's, without examining the tensions between them. When he finished rewording the memos, the speech was done. It had an obvious break in the middle, like the splice in a film; as one newsman who had read the advance text said, after hearing Carter come to the end of the conciliatory material and move into the Brzezinski section, "And now—War!" The Washington Post's story the next morning was titled "Two Different Speeches," an accurate and obvious interpretation, but one that galled Carter and those around him. Hadn't he laid it all out for them, all the elements of his thought, all his views? What more could they want?

Carter's problems as an explainer were compounded by his tendency to talk down to his audience. He didn't do this when speaking extemporaneously—at those times he used words from the engineering books and Brzezinski's fanciest theories—but he couldn't avoid it in his prepared speeches. While working on the first fireside chat, I received a lecture from the President. I should not use words such as "cynical," because average people wouldn't understand them. Carter said that whenever he worked on a speech he thought of a man at a certain gas station in Georgia (not his brother). If that man couldn't understand it, it should be changed. Instead of "cynical," I should use the word "callous." "Working people understand callouses. They see their hands get hard."

The sentiment was admirable but too broad. When simplifying words Carter too often simplified ideas as well. I always thought the public could tell the difference between a clear, simple image—such as Franklin Roosevelt's garden hose to symbolize Lend-Lease—and a deceptively simple thought. When they heard Carter's constant talk of harmony, respect among nations, happy times at home, the men at the gas stations knew they were hearing less than the full truth.

Nor did he distinguish among the audiences he had to address. For some—but only a few—of his televised appeals, it was important that a speech be understood by every hearer. In most other cases, that was a false goal. In a television interview in 1960, Walter Lippmann said that an effective President "must be articulate. He must be able to talk in language which is not the lowest common denominator, but the best. What you must lead in the country are the best of the country and they will carry it on down. There's no use of the President trying to talk down to a fellow who can just about read and write. Let somebody else do that. He must talk to the people who teach the man to read and write." I came to believe very deeply in a hierarchy of information and attitudes. Once an idea took hold in the serious magazines and the editorial pages, it would make its way down through the news columns, the reports in Time and Newsweek, and eventually to the television commentators, who shape most people's view of public affairs. In many cases, the real audience for a speech should be not the 5000 people who are present for the occasion but the editors, academics, politicians, and columnists who will read the text and adjust their view of the President accordingly. Such speeches are the best, sometimes the only, way a President can show that he understands the complications in his policies, the problems ahead, the hard questions that have been raised about his course. Except for one or two speeches on foreign policy—where he was more willing in general to buy the conventional wisdom than he was in domestic affairs—Carter never consented to such speeches.

ll these oratorical problems were made worse by his refusal to learn how to speak. By his natural gifts, Carter is a good off-the-cuff speaker and a poor formal orator, and he never bestirred himself to improve in either way. It seemed to me the height of arrogance that Carter refused oral practice before his campaign debates against Gerald Ford.

To the day I left the White House, he never really practiced a speech—not in the sense of subjecting his performance to the scrutiny of others and letting them say plainly how he must change. Before a big speech, Carter would read through the text once or twice—once into a little cassette tape recorder he could play back to himself, once with the TV lights on, after which Jerry Rafshoon would say, "That was good," or "Go a little slower." One of Carter's excuses for not practicing more was that his voice wore out, and three or four rehearsals would have left him unable to deliver the speech. The first lesson in any speech class is that hoarseness indicates a strained speaking style; barring illness, it is a sign all by itself that the style should be changed. The correction is easy, but not until you admit you might be doing it wrong. John Kennedy's hour of practice to get Ich bin ein Berliner down straight was embarrassing to him, revealing too clearly the limits of his linguistic gift. But Kennedy spent that hour, and while the practice is forgotten, the phrase lives on. When we prepared a German couplet ("Alle Menschen werden Brüder wo dein sanffter Flügel weilt," from Schiller's "Ode to Joy" ) for Carter's speech in Bonn, he had the interpreter, Harry Obst, read it into a cassette, which Carter could listen to by himself, in his cabin at the front of the plane, and practice without Obst there to tell him he was doing it wrong. As a result, the couplet, perhaps the most famous in all of German letters left the crowd looking around in puzzlement about what the American President was trying to say.

hrough most of my last year at the White House, I kept asking myself, Why should a man as well-meaning and intelligent as Carter blithely forgo the lessons of experience and insist on rediscovering fire, the lever, the wheel? Why not temper the fresh view he brought with the practiced knowledge of those who had passed this way before? Why, in a man whose language was peppered with "bold" and "competent" and "superb," was there so little passion to learn how to do the job?

The first clue to the solution of these questions was Carter's cast of mind: his view of problems as technical, not historical, his lack of curiosity about how the story turned out before. He wanted to analyze the "correct" answer, not to understand the intangible irrational forces that had skewed all previous answers. When he spoke of cleaning up the bureaucracy, he spoke like a Peace Corps volunteer explaining hygiene in Malaysia, imagining that such scientific insights had never occurred to the listeners before. When he said that, this time, tax reform was going to happen, it was not because he had carefully studied the tales of past failures and learned how to surmount them, but because he had ignored them so totally as to thinks his approach had never been tried. In two years the only historical allusions I heard Carter use with frequency were Harry Truman's rise from the depths of the polls and the effect of Roosevelt's New Deal on the southern farm. The rest of Roosevelt's record, especially his style of educating the public and getting the most out of his employees, was uncharted territory to the leaders of the Administration. Once, at dinner, Jody Powell was drawn into bitter argument with of my historically minded friends. As Powell fulminated against the sins and arrogance of reporters, my friend warned him that people would think of him as another Spiro Agnew if he went on that way. "We weren't here then," Powell replied—and Powell, who was a graduate student in history and who prides himself on his Civil War scholarship, is the most sensitive to history of all those around the President.

Carter occasionally read history—he loved David McCullough's book on the Panama Canal—but history had not become a part of him. Shortly before I left, I was startled to see, in Carter's private study, shelves crammed with books on American history. Later I read that he had decided history was important, and that he needed a better background for his job. This realization came at the same time as did many others—about Cabinet government, the need for staff coordination, the value of Washington's old hands. Half of one term had been wasted before Carter absorbed what I had thought he knew on the first day.

There was a second clue, more obvious during the first year, when Carter's southernness was still novel. Beneath the jokes about peanuts and grits lurked the notion of the southerner as moron; Carter was determined to prove that he and his associates had not stepped straight out of Dogpatch. During the campaign, he had enjoyed receiving the busloads of eastern experts, wrinkled and cranky after the three-hour ride from Atlanta to Plains—knowing that they'd tell their friends at Brookings and Harvard about the brilliance of the simple country boy, knowing also that they'd call him a dumb southern redneck when he made his first mistake.

The Georgians saw this prejudice behind every fight—in the use of the phrase "the Georgians," brother Billy's rise as the stereotypical idiot from the south, and, most of all, in the savagery visited upon Bert Lance. Between the two levels of the Administration, there was very little discussion of Lance. Those on the lower tier—non-southerners, mainly, careerists who would be in Washington when Carter was long gone—gossiped among themselves about how many days Lance had left. Those on the upper tier—Georgians, Lance's friends—grumbled among themselves about how unfair it all was. Bert was being destroyed, they knew, because he was an outsider who had not changed his southern ways. Jody Powell immediately, and intelligently, apologized for his attempt to discredit Lance's accuser, Charles Percy, but he privately felt that he, like Lance, had been a victim of the insiders' game. His story about Percy accepting rides on a corporate aircraft was wrong, but just a little wrong, Powell felt; he had only missed a few of the details. But because Percy was an insider while Powell and Lance were not as yet, the press ate the southerners alive. Frank Moore's problems, too, were written off to anti-southern snobbery. Although it was hard to deny the evidence of Moore's repeated missteps, this was an officially unmentionable topic at the White House, like Hamilton Jordan's early comments about Vance and Brzezinski, and Carter's promise to cut the defense budget. Powell and Jordan defended him with angry, knee-jerk loyalty, for Moore, unlike his critics, and unlike the sneering members of the junior staff, was one of them. His survival was part of the South's survival; together, all who had come from Georgia would prove they could do it their way.

Like this southern defensiveness, Carter's notion of populism and privilege gave him a reason to resist learning things in the usual way. His "populism" was no straightforward sentiment. He was more comfortable with businessmen and bankers than with the community organizers who protested against them; when he vacationed on St. Simons Island at the home of Smith Bagley, the Reynolds tobacco heir, he felt completely at ease. His "populism" was reflected in his pride, even arrogance, about having seen all sides of life close-up in his small town, and in his disdain for the elite, "socially prominent" (a favorite phrase) professionals whose privilege shielded them from such knowledge. At one meeting on welfare reform, he dressed down a team of experts from HEW who were lecturing him about the unemployability of the underclass. These were the people he had lived with, Carter said; they may not have been educated, some may have been lazy and drunk, but most of them understood the meaning of dignity, self-sufficiency, and work. No one could miss Carter's real message: unlike anyone else in the room, he was talking about people he had seen.

o group better exemplified what Carter despised than the Washington mandarins—the Cliffords, Califanos, Valentis, and Kissingers—who had come to do good and stayed to do well. Before joining Carter's Cabinet, Califano was making half a million dollars yearly as a lawyer, Valenti, nearly that much at the Motion Picture Association. They had their names in the society columns and their children in private schools; they protected each other with networks of mutual support. Joseph Alsop might be discredited in journalism, but not in Washington, because he was a charming guest at Katharine Graham's. The Iranian ambassador lost his job and his country, but he would never lack for friends in Washington because of the years of caviar and champagne.

These were the people Carter was talking about when he told the Democratic convention that "too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political and economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes or suffer from injustice." They happened also to be the people who knew how Washington worked.

Carter was right in railing against their insularity; I attributed much of his success in the primaries to the voters' suspicion that there was a conspiracy of self-protection at work in the capital. But the insiders were right to scoff at him, for they understood how much he did not know. His problem as he took office was like China's on the eve of modernization: how to get the technical know-how without accepting the cultural detritus, how to get the steel mills without the discos, the computers without Larry Flynt. Carter needed the insiders' wisdom about the power game if he was to succeed in office—but he needed to remember why he, instead of one of them, had been elected. maintaining this balance required a keen awareness of how much he needed to acquire, and an even keener sense of what he needed to avoid. The tragedy of Jimmy Carter was that he knew neither.

At the start of the Administration, as in the general election campaign, Carter and his captains felt omniscient; they had done what no one else had know how to do. Why should they take pains to listen to those who had designed the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society? The town was theirs for the taking; it would have required nothing more than allowing the old warriors a chance to help. But Powell and Jordan and Carter let these people know that they could go to hell. Where had they been, with all their sage advice, when the campaign was out of money and no one knew who Jimmy Carter was? What were they doing when Carter was drawing crowds of ten and twenty in tiny Iowa towns? Spite is an expensive luxury in government, but Carter thought he could afford it, not realizing then how badly his operating account would soon be overdrawn.

Carter paid the price for this arrogance with the blunders of the first year; then, burned enough, he began reaching out. Clark Clifford became Lance's champion; Anne Wexler and Robert Strauss joined the White House staff. There were informal brainstorming sessions with those who had been though all the cycles before. But Carter's people made the second mistake, forgetting what made them different at the start.

Ten days after I left the White House, I went to a Redskins game in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Across the field, in the box of Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams, sat a casual sampling of Washington's permanent ruling groups—the Post's editor, Benjamin Bradlee, Joe Califano, Senator Muskie, Art Buchwald, other friends. Next to Williams sat someone new to the scene: Hamilton Jordan, wearing a suit. If he had been there two years earlier, it would have been a cheering sign that the outsiders knew how to get what they needed. Coming when it did, it made me think that the earlier hostility had been more defensive reverse snobbery. Now that Carter's people were sure they'd be accepted, they were glad to join the club.

That same week, President Carter granted a second television interview to Bill Moyers. In the first, in May 1976, everything that was new and original in Carter's intelligence had come across like a fresh breeze. This time, Carter sounded like all the grizzled veterans he had defeated in 1976. Moyers asked him about inflation, and whether the fight against it wouldn't throw people out of work—the poor, the black, those most recently employed. The Carter of the first interview would have said, of course, that was true, that the agony of the job lay in choosing between such evils. This time, after two years in office, Carter answered "no"—fighting inflation would not cost people their jobs, the question was simply wrong. It was the sort of answer other politicians might have given, because, having now seen what they saw before, Carter had grown like them in basic ways. never again would he preach sweeping tax reform, scorn incrementalism, pretend that the government could be changed. Like Hamilton Jordan, he was ill prepared to maintain what was best in him while learning what he needed to know.

hese clues told me part of the answer, but there was one part missing, the most fundamental of them all. Carter's willful ignorance, his blissful tabula rasa, could—to me—be explained only by a combination of arrogance, complacency, and—dread thought—insecurity at the core of his mind and soul.

For a while, I thought the arrogance was the unfortunate by-product of life in a small town. If his secure position and effortless supremacy in Plains had made Carter calmer than Nixon or Kennedy, it seemed also to have given him too high an estimation of his own gifts. It would have helped him to have spent a little while in a law firm in Boston, or with a movie company in Los Angeles, or as a broker in New York, to acquire that edge of neurosis and compulsion to get the best ideas out of the people on his staff. That Jimmy Carter would have been a less pleasant person; a different background might have denied him the very traits that are now his greatest strength. But it might also have made new ideas seem crucial to him; it would not have left him satisfied, as the real Jimmy Carter too often is, with what burbles up in the usual bureaucratic fashion and with the people who happen to come to hand. In Plains, he had run the business himself, relied entirely upon himself. He did not need to search constantly for people to push and test him, because his unpushed abilities were good enough.

This characteristic could be called complacency—the last word one associates with the Jimmy Carter of the speed-reading lessons, the carefully timed jogs around the South Lawn, the typed-up list of the classical music he will be listening to during the day. But while Carter accepts challenges to his ideas and is pleased to improve his mind, he stubbornly, complacently resists attempts to challenge his natural style.

t some stage in our lives, we learn to depend on others for the challenges that will make us do our best—or we manage to resist those challenges while privately correcting our defects. I shrink before the prospect of pop psychology from a journalist, but it seemed to me that things were so ordered in Jimmy Carter's universe that he never faced such challenges.

Carter has virtually no one in the White House with the right combination of age, experience, and personal standing to challenge him seriously. Robert Lipshutz is gentle and unassertive; Robert Strauss knows the sources of his power and the limits of his role; Walter Mondale assents to Carter's preference for harmony above all other virtues; Zbigniew Brzezinski marvels to the President about his fresh and powerful insight into complicated foreign issues. That is why I thought it a tragedy that Bert Lance had to leave; in my one brush with footnote-history, playing tennis with Lance, Carter, and Jordan the day that Lance resigned, I could see that Lance behaved with Carter in a way that no one else could. They were friends, who jabbed and teased with as much equality as is possible when one of the friends is President. Carter's only peers now are his wife, Rosalynn, who has given no sign of thinking that anything her husband might do could be wrong, and Charles Kirbo, who stops by for a visit every few weeks.

Those who are close enough to Carter to speak to him frankly—Powell, Jordan, Rafshoon, perhaps Moore—either believe so totally in the rightness of his style, or are so convinced that it will never change, that they never bother to suggest that he spend his time differently, deal with people differently, think of his job in a different way. Even that handful speaks to him in tones more sincerely deferential than those the underlings use. No one outside this handful ever has an opportunity to shoot the breeze with Carter, to talk with no specific purpose and no firm limit on time.

If he persists in walling himself off from challenge and disorder, Jimmy Carter will ensure that great potential is all he'll ever have. Teaching himself by trial and error, refusing to look ahead, Carter stumbles toward achievements that might match his abilities and asks us to respect him because his intentions be been good. I grant him that respect, but know the root of my disappointment. I thought we were getting a finished work, not a handsome block of marble that the chisel never touched.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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