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Time Heals All Malaise

By: Claude R. Marx
June 5, 2018

immy Carter is today more highly regarded for his post-presidential humanitarian and diplomatic work than for his four years in the White House. On a comparative scale of presidential greatness, Carter’s administration often does poorly: his success handling foreign and domestic tumult was mixed and his communication skills were lacking when compared to his successor Ronald Reagan. But Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter’s top domestic adviser, wants to rehabilitate his former boss’s reputation. His effort is the part memoir and part historical reassessment President Carter: The White House Years. Eizenstat admires Carter and is proud of the administration’s achievements, but the book never glosses over Carter’s leadership or policy shortcomings. The picture Eizenstat paints is balanced and at times makes readers nostalgic for a president who was also a moral exemplar.

Eizenstat writes that Carter

was not a great president, but he was a good and productive one. He delivered results, many of which were realized only after he left office. He was a man of almost unyielding principle. He could break before he would bend his principles or abandon his personal loyalties.

History harshly judges one-term presidents, especially those who lose reelection. But a more nuanced examination of their records often produces more favorable evaluations. Recent biographies of John Quincy Adams, George H.W. Bush, and William McKinley, for example, have done much to rehabilitate our memories of these men, even though it is unlikely that other one-term non-wonders, such as James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren G. Harding, warrant the same treatment.

Carter’s rhetorical style was at best uninspiring and he didn’t have a savvy political mind, which lead him to disregard important political considerations in his policies. This, combined with his self-righteous demeanor and his tendency to try to upstage his successors—even those in his own party—unnecessarily angered people and caused many to disregard his administration’s accomplishments.

But if you read Eizenstat’s book, you will be reminded, often in excruciating detail, about his policy highlights, such as a comprehensive energy plan and widespread deregulation. His achievements in foreign affairs, such as the Camp David Accords and establishment of diplomatic relations with China, are impressive.

Eizenstat, who also held senior positions under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, offers political and policy buffs an almost a blow-by-blow account of many of the key moments in the Carter administration and describes many of the events and personalities in almost granular detail. While at one level this is helpful, at times it bogs down the narrative and might tempt less devoted readers to skim. One of the book’s best parts is the detailed account of a 1979 staff meeting wherein Vice President Walter Mondale and political adviser and pollster Pat Caddell argued over the cause of Carter’s unpopularity and about how much of the blame for it should be put on the public. The outcome was one of Carter’s most controversial speeches—the “malaise” speech, though Carter never used that word—in which he talked about the decline of the American spirit.

That meeting was “the most ferocious, almost violent” of the administration. Caddell used so much new age, psychobabble language that Eizenstat felt “he was at a séance, not a serious meeting with the leader of the free world.” Mondale’s anger toward Caddell was so great that many feared there might be a physical altercation. Carter calmed down his VP by taking him on a private walk around Camp David.

One of Carter’s signature domestic achievements was his push to deregulate key industries, such as airlines, railroads and trucking, as part of his efforts to clear “regulatory underbrush” that had imposed costs, inflation and inefficiencies. This resulted in a nuanced set of policies that made Carter both supportive of business and a consumer populist. This centrist approach, which in some ways was followed by Bill Clinton, caused liberals to see Carter as too conservative and conservatives as too liberal. He also persuaded Congress to increase spending on defense at the expense of domestic expenditures, accumulating enough sins against liberalism to pave the way for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s primary challenge in 1980. The Massachusetts Democrat’s efforts fell short, but he made Carter work so hard just to be renominated that he was weakened going into the general election.

But Carter’s bigger problems stemmed from the recession. Though in the long run the administration’s and Federal Reserve’s policies for fighting stagflation worked, there was considerable short-term pain that tried the public’s patience. That, combined with Carter’s stern and sometimes soulless way of communicating with the public, was a recipe for political trouble.

The Iran hostage crisis also damaged Carter’s reputation. Although the hostages were eventually freed unharmed, the 444-day ordeal, capped by an unsuccessful military rescue attempt, made the United States seem powerless and Carter was criticized as being insufficiently tough. But the Middle East also provided one of Carter’s greatest successes: the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that he brokered during negotiations at Camp David. Eizenstat is justifiably proud of that and devotes four chapters to recounting what happened.

When the accounts were tallied, Carter’s administration didn’t completely satisfy anyone, but it proved that you shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Eizenstat recounts how Carter’s attention to detail—which at times hurt his effectiveness—helped him be an honest broker, especially in the case of the Camp David Accords. He also talks about how Carter’s strained relations with the Jewish community made the negotiations harder.

Carter’s post-presidency has been exemplary, but Eizenstat talks about it only in passing. His work as an election monitor, public health advocate and diplomatic troubleshooter has won him considerable acclaim, including the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. While Carter is proud of his accomplishments, he is not particularly arrogant. On most Sundays, he teaches Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. During one such session last December, he paced for 45 minutes without notes and alternated smoothly between references to the Bible and current events. He recounted his own record as a Navy officer to support his belief that one shouldn’t be reflexively against military action, but that it should only be used as a last resort. After the class, he posed for photographs for all who wanted and in a brief discussion with me he spoke nostalgically about his improbable win in the 1976 presidential election.

Eizenstat makes a strong case for why his old boss deserves a reassessment. While at times he might have remembered that less is more, those willing to read the book will be richly rewarded. Carter has lived a remarkably full and meaningful life. While his presidency won’t net him a place on Mt. Rushmore, it was more substantial than is often remembered, and he deserves the credit.