The Many Successes of Jimmy Carter — and His Ultimate Failure

Yet four decades after leaving office, Jimmy Carter has lived to see a more positive reappraisal of his presidency. A decade ago, Julian E. Zelizer provided a thought-provoking primer on Carter for the American Presidents series; while accepting that Carter’s White House years were “a symbol of failed leadership,” Zelizer anchored some of that failure in the tumult of the 1970s and noted Carter’s achievements. More recently, Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter’s White House domestic affairs adviser, added a detailed, if wonky, memoir-study that makes a case for a consequential presidency. Last year Jonathan Alter produced a nimble and insightful account, the first cradle-to-old-age biography (surprisingly) ever written of the man. Meanwhile, Bird, with his focus primarily on the presidency, has benefited from some fresh sources, like the records of Carter’s longtime adviser Charles Kirbo. With Bird noting that about 80 percent of Carter’s White House diary is still closed and all of the diary of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, currently unavailable, there is likely even more to be learned about this pivotal presidency.

Still, Bird is able to build a persuasive case that the Carter presidency deserves this new look. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Carter tried to lead a transitional and corrective presidency. His business experience gave him an intuitive feel for the importance of the marketplace. It was Carter, and not Ronald Reagan, who began the process of opening up the Great Society economy. Carter oversaw the deregulation of oil and gas prices, the airline industry and the trucking industry. Instead of instituting wage and price controls to dampen inflation, as Richard Nixon had done, Carter brought in Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve, knowing he might push for higher interest rates to drain rising prices out of the system. Carter also went after waste, fraud and abuse in government. Concerned that most federal water projects were not only “pork barrel” but a threat to the environment, Carter zeroed 19 of them out (worth $5 billion) in his first budget. And he made clear to congressional liberals like Ted Kennedy that the country didn’t support and couldn’t afford single-payer health care.

But Carter was no proto-Reaganite. This fiscal conservative believed that government could also be part of the solution to social problems. He supported the idea of a comprehensive health care bill and backed, as a first step, a federal program to ensure catastrophic health care for all. With the Social Security system facing imminent collapse — because of Nixon and Congress’s election year decision in 1972 to index benefits — Carter backed the higher taxes that saved it. He imaginatively deployed the dusty 1906 Antiquities Act to keep 56 million acres of Alaska wild. Finally, inspired by the revelations of Ralph Nader’s first generation of consumer advocates, Carter strengthened safety and environmental regulations. It was his administration that required both seatbelts and airbags in cars, measures that saved countless lives but angered many libertarian motorists.

Curiously, Bird’s story of these farsighted domestic decisions does not create an overwhelming sense of Carter as a tragic, misunderstood president. Instead, his narrative engenders as much impatience with Carter as respect. Carter stubbornly, almost reflexively, gored a lot of oxen in the pursuit of what he assumed were the right policies. When you do that as a leader, enduring success depends on either building your own governing coalition or inspiring a hard-core base outside Washington. Carter’s idiosyncratic leadership style achieved neither. Bird shows how Carter’s efforts to deal with the energy crisis and high inflation, for example, undermined his support from traditional Democratic constituencies. Deregulating trucking brought down the cost of delivering goods, but also led to the growth of independent trucking, which weakened unions and depressed truckers’ wages. At the same time, Carter seemed oblivious to ambitious rivals, namely Ted Kennedy, who were ready to pounce.

Indeed, Carter brushed off criticisms that he was too insensitive to the political consequences of what he was doing. “There is not a person” in the administration “who is preoccupied exclusively with the political dimensions of the decision,” Carter’s top aide Hamilton Jordan lamented in December 1977. Without that person, Jordan added, “the high quality of your foreign policy decisions will be undermined unnecessarily by domestic political considerations.” In most administrations it is the president himself who is supposed to balance politics and policy. Not in Carter’s.

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