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.

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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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