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.