The Problem with Jimmy Carter

“The Passionless Presidency”
James Fallows

The Atlantic
May 1979

James Fallows was a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter for most of Carter’s single term in the White House. More than just a technically adept writer, Fallows came to his job in January 1977 a true believer, someone who saw in the clearly intelligent Georgian a leader who could lead the nation into the future.

Fallows’ disillusionment was gradual, apparently without rancor, but was utter. After citing a long list of Carter’s political, intellectual, and managerial failings, Fallows offers a telling comment that gives illuminating background both to Carters character and to his recent activities.

These 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.

The arrogance of willful ignorance, according to Fallows, led Carter to treat history as Henry Ford did – as so much bunk. Even in the White House, Carter felt that the lessons of history beyond those of Watergate and Vietnam were irrelevant. At best, this led him to repeat the mistakes that others had made before him, in energy, in tax reform, in his hollowing of the U.S. military, and in his fateful mishandling of his Cabinet.

That same arrogance lies at the root of Carter’s misunderstandings about Israel and the Palestinians. Whatever the virtues or vices of his views, they were based less on a full apprehension of the facts than on opinions. Given Carter’s history in and with the region, the ignorance can only be willful.

All of this is important not because it is necessary to pull Jimmy down a peg, but because in the story of Carter’s failure as president lie lessons that are essential for the entire American electorate. While we may debate whether it is correct to judge a presidential candidate by his extracurricular behavior, we must recognize that good character alone is insufficient qualification for the highest office of the land.

Fallows’ review Carter shows us that we need a president who is a great manager as well as a great leader; who can work with the Beltway establishment without being subsumed by it; and above all who is prepared to learn from history to avoid the mistakes of those who have gone before.

Cicero once said “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.” Fallows’ retrospective of Carter, published even before the Iranian hostage crisis and the election of 1980, suggests a slight modification of that. “To be ignorant of what happened before you came to Washington is to be forever a failure.”

It is a harsh verdict, but it serves every voter to heed it.


3 thoughts on “The Problem with Jimmy Carter

Add yours

  1. Poor Jimmy. Everybody picks on him. He certainly has his weaknesses, but consider this: He left the budget in good order and kept us out of wars for four years, both of which are rare accomplishments. And no other president has accomplished nearly as much after leaving office. As for his position on Israel and its relentless torture of the Palestinian people whose land they continue to illegally appropriate, he is right on the money. Frankly, I seriously doubt that Carter is any more ignorant than W, with his two long, fruitless, and vastly expensive unnecessary wars, and St. Reagan’s presidency gave us a lot of lies and clearly illegal activity, followed by four years of increasing senility. Carter’s weaknesses don’t look so bad in that light.

    1. I’ll dodge the potential comment quagmire that is the issue of Carter’s stand on Israel/Palestine, as it deserves a separate, detailed debate, and dive into the core issue.

      The Carter administration was not a total failure, and I have great admiration for Carter’s post-presidential accomplishments in diplomacy and in relieving the suffering of the poor. I also think people forget that his great service to the nation was in restoring a degree of confidence in the Presidency after it had taken its worst beating in at least a half century. But by holding him up against Dubya you are measuring him against a low bar indeed. That’s like saying Millard Fillmore was a great president because he was better than U.S. Grant.

      Let us not forget, though, that it was his not inconsiderable failings that drove the majority of the American electorate into the arms of Ronald Reagan’s GOP a mere four years after the last dregs of the Nixon administration left the West Wing. The economy was a mess, the White House was on awful terms with both Congress and the Washington establishment it needed to get things done, American industry was in deep decline, the armed forces had become suffused with rot and too many self-dealing leaders, and apart from Camp David, foreign policy was badly broken. A fair argument can be made that Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election more than Reagan won it.

      The American left has had outstanding leaders, and leaping to the defense of the Carter presidency for any other reason than personal nostalgia seems ill-advised. If you want to serve your cause, hold Carter to a higher standard. Measure him against Clinton, Truman, and FDR, and even distinguished Solons like Sam Rayburn, Daniel Moynihan, George McGovern, and William Jennings Bryan.

      I try to direct my barbs at my own party – the GOP – in order to make it better. I think part of our problem is that we have deified a former leader, allowed his legacy to be twisted and highjacked, and unquestioningly placed his policies at the center of the party’s platform. Even if you take the most positive possible spin on the Reagan years, you have to acknowledge that if you apply his thinking and approaches today they are as anachronistic and inappropriate as reviving the New Deal would have been in 1972. The Left cannot stop coddling its failures if it seeks to draw valuable lessons from its heritage.

      1. Nicely said, David. I didn’t mean to imply that Carter was one of our stronger presidents, only that he is called bad names by nearly everyone, and he did have his strengths.

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