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.