Postmodern America Didn’t Deserve Jimmy Carter

A new biography paints a portrait of a president who made vast progress on policy—and failed at smoke-and-mirrors PR.

By , the author of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s.
Portrait taken on May 12, 1982 of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Portrait taken on May 12, 1982 of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP via Getty Images

In November 1972, the Democratic Party was devastated. Richard Nixon had just romped to reelection, his standing buoyed by his dramatic turn on the world stage. Footage of Nixon athwart the Great Wall and images of Nixon chinking glasses in the Kremlin showcased the Cold War presidency in all its splendor. Watergate was still just a high-rise on the Potomac, not yet a cloud on Nixon’s horizon. To think differently in the nadir of defeat took audacity.

In November 1972, the Democratic Party was devastated. Richard Nixon had just romped to reelection, his standing buoyed by his dramatic turn on the world stage. Footage of Nixon athwart the Great Wall and images of Nixon chinking glasses in the Kremlin showcased the Cold War presidency in all its splendor. Watergate was still just a high-rise on the Potomac, not yet a cloud on Nixon’s horizon. To think differently in the nadir of defeat took audacity.

Hamilton Jordan was as audacious as he was perceptive. As the pundits chewed over George McGovern’s landslide defeat, Jordan concocted a strategy to retake the White House.

Americans, Jordan opined in a secret memorandum, “are no longer looking for a man to lead the Free World in its fight against international Communism.” Chastened by Vietnam, voters might be ready to elect a different president: one who would prioritize practical and domestic priorities: problems like transportation, drug abuse, and inflation. A president like Jimmy Carter, the recently elected Georgia governor whom Jordan served as a senior aide.

In the summer of 1980, Jordan drafted another memorandum to Carter. Now president, Carter was mired in a bruising reelection struggle. The problem, Jordan explained, was not the paucity of Carter’s record. The president had accomplished much in four years: energy conservation, the Panama Canal Treaties, the Camp David accords, the SALT II agreement with Brezhnev, and the normalization of U.S. relations with China. The problem was that Carter’s achievements, situated for the most part in the foreign policy arena, were “political losers.”

Separated by eight years, Jordan’s memoranda evoke an ironic narrative arc. An outsider president, Jimmy Carter dug deep, worked hard, and built a record of achievement in both domestic and foreign affairs that few two-term presidents have rivaled. He suffered setbacks too, including the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis that followed. And his reward for this record of success? Electoral humiliation.

Carter’s achievement has for decades been difficult to fathom. His defeat in 1980 has clouded judgments, and too much of the disdain that the press corps heaped upon him in his own times has stuck. But with the passage of time, the acquisition of perspective, and the opening of the archival record, Carter’s standing in presidential history can be reassessed.

Kai Bird is not the first historian to upgrade Carter’s standing in the pantheon of presidents. But The Outlier is a landmark. A penetrating treatment focused on the White House years (a framing that complements Jonathan Alter’s recent study of Carter’s entire life), Bird’s treatment gives Carter’s presidency the deep analysis it deserves. The Outlier falsifies old canards, reevaluates signal achievements, and, best of all, deepens readers’ understanding of Carter.

Bird’s crucial insight is that we should comprehend Carter as a moral and historical realist. In this, as in so much else, Carter contrasts with his successor, whose horizon-gazing rhetoric reflected both the seriousness of his engagement with utopian thinkers like Paine and Emerson and his own formative experience in Hollywood, America’s original fantasyland. Carter was a Georgian, not a Californian, and his sensibility set him apart as a president who preferred tough realities and granular detail to vagaries, generalities, and pablum. Bird’s book raises the uncomfortable question of whether Americans rejected Carter then—and still would today—for precisely that reason.

Raised in the history-drenched soils of a conquered land, Carter knew that history envelops us and impresses upon us, an insight that his immersion in the South’s literature, especially Faulkner, corroborated. Somehow, he escaped racism’s cold grip, an escape that Bird attributes to his iconoclastic mother, Miss Lillian. From Reinhold Niebuhr, another touchstone, Carter learned the omnipresence of sin. He was, Bird writes, “a Niebuhrian southern Baptist,” the deacon of “a rather singular church of one.”

Carter, we might surmise, was the last modern president: although he did what political circumstances required, he favored evidence-based policy whenever possible and loathed the politics of spin. His example rebukes the contortions of the post-modern presidency whose ascent has heralded the American republic’s imperial decay: Reagan’s habitual blurring of what is and what might be; Clinton’s machinations with language and truth; George W. Bush’s invention of his own reality; and Donald Trump, the avatar of the post-modern presidency.

Carter, in contrast, was suspicious of grand schema, including the mantra of American exceptionalism. From history, he sought information, not vindication. Fortified with exertion, in which this tireless but often fatigued president excelled, the results sometimes startled.

Having concluded from his immersion in the facts that the Panama Canal was misbegotten at the outset, Carter committed to return the territory to Panama. To this end, he led a bipartisan crusade whose success, recalling Lyndon Johnson’s mastery of the Senate, belies the false and facile idea of Jimmy Carter as a president incapable of bending Congress to his will.

Confronted with a breakdown in communications between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, the Egyptian and Israeli leaders whom he had invited to Camp David to broker peace, Carter undertook to write the terms of an Egyptian-Israeli agreement himself. His immersion in the region’s history and geography, his command of detail, his tireless exertion, and his political courage (or disregard for the political risks) enabled him to accomplish what no president before or since has achieved: a binding treaty between Israel and one of Israel’s adversaries.

Evidence-based pragmatism also animated Carter’s domestic agenda. An early priority, energy policy showcased the style. Convinced that federal price controls encouraged unnecessary consumption, Carter favored reality-based pricing that would permit energy prices to rise—and nudge Americans to conserve. He pushed to decontrol natural gas prices and later allowed controls on oil prices to lapse. Coincident with a major oil crisis in the spring of 1979, Carter’s decision on oil prices angered consumers. But Carter’s choice was an act of policy realism and political bravery that helped to stem American demand for imported oil over the longer term.

Another brave decision in the summer of 1979 was the selection of Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve Board. An inflation hawk, Volcker would ratchet up interest rates, engineering a short-term recession to tame inflation. None of this bolstered the president’s political interests, but Carter tolerated the downside political costs of Volcker’s policy choices because doing so served what he believed to be the American national interest.

And if motorists resented the decontrol of oil prices, much of Carter’s domestic policy aimed to serve consumer interests. Influenced by Ralph Nader, an early political ally, Carter advocated regulation to protect consumer safety and the environment. But when it came to the interests of businesses, he favored deregulation. The loosening of regulations that protected incumbent firms reduced the costs of airline travel and road haulage and even broke the dominance of the big brewers, Kai Bird notes, sparking an unexpected renaissance for American craft beer.

If Carter’s domestic achievements recalled Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting, Carter soon found himself outflanked by fantasy peddlers who resisted his invocations of limits.

On the nostalgic left, Ted Kennedy first despoiled Carter’s pragmatic efforts to enact universal health insurance, and then launched a quixotic challenge for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Echoing the complaints of Congressional progressives, Kennedy proposed to restore the big-government progressivism of the JFK-LBJ years, as if the stagflation of the 1970s could be wished away. He did not prevail, but he did Carter real damage.

From a right that was challenging established definitions of the word “conservative” even more improbable notions, including the theory that reducing tax rates would increase tax revenues. Carter’s advisers at first adjudged Ronald Reagan too extreme to win election, but they underestimated the popular appeal of Reagan’s nostalgic rhetoric and alchemic policy proposals. Thrust against gauzy fantasy, Carter’s gritty realism struggled, then lost.

Setbacks in foreign policy contributed to the Carter’s administration’s political implosion in 1979/80. For these, Kai Bird foists special responsibility upon Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Columbia University political scientist who tutored Carter in world affairs during the 1976 campaign and joined the administration as national security adviser to the president.

Depicting Brzezinski as a Cold War hawk, Bird argues that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 “unleashed” the national security adviser to impose a dogmatic anti-Soviet agenda. Brzezinski also played an unhelpful role in Iran, Bird argues, first urging the flailing Shah to get tough and then aligning with Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller’s efforts to persuade Carter, against his better instincts, to admit the ousted Shah to the United States. To build his case against Brzezinski, Bird mines to good effect the grievances of insiders. (These include a startling line, mined from George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke, in which Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, months after his resignation, calls Brzezinski “evil, a liar, dangerous.”)

Some of this goes too far. Susceptible to caricature, Brzezinski makes for an easy villain. He was a Cold Warrior, for sure, but he was also an integrative conceptual thinker who sought to nurture a durable, effective, and even progressive international order. Brzezinski’s work with the Trilateral Commission inspired much of the Carter’s early foreign policy agenda, as did his enthusiasm for human rights. An early member of Amnesty International, Brzezinski embraced human rights as an anti-Soviet cudgel, but he also espoused human rights as a suitably universal standard for a world in the throes of accelerating globalization, or interdependence.

The differences between Brzezinski and Carter were, to some degree, the differences between the hedgehog and the fox, as Isiah Berlin’s famous riff on Archilochus would have it. Carter was a classic fox: he knew many things, and contradiction left him unruffled. His foreign policy was sometimes inconsistent, even contradictory. He assailed the Soviet Union over human rights, for example, even as he bid to collaborate with the men in the Kremlin to enact sweeping cuts in nuclear arsenals. But progress in foreign policy, for Carter, always involved tangible progress on various issues, not the advancement of some grand and unifying purpose.

Brzezinski, conversely, was a more intuitive strategist, who intended to impart to American foreign policy an overarching rationale that would guide the handling of subordinate issues. Brzezinski’s outlook was anti-Soviet, but he also insisted, like George Kennan before him, on the necessity of cultivating a strong West. Which style is better suited to guiding the foreign policy of a superpower remains debatable; Carter put the issues first and solved intractable riddles, but Brzezinski pulled the threads together into a pattern that remade America’s containment strategy for the 1980s. For this, Bird arguably gives Brzezinski too little credit.

Set aside Brzezinski, though, and what remains is an analysis that is admirable for its fair-minded and judicious assessments. Kai Bird’s achievement in The Outlier corrects decades of underestimation, to which Kai Bird himself one contributed. In a 1990 cover story for The Nation, Bird, like many others, described Carter as a superlative former president and failed president. Bird now retracts that overhasty judgment in a most revealing reassessment.

One of Bird’s many feats in The Outlier is to help readers to understand why Americans, including perhaps the earlier version of Bird himself, have so badly underestimated Jimmy Carter. He points to the news media, which heaped upon Carter and his aides an unreasonable dose of ridicule and derision. Carter could have been more instrumental in his cultivation of the Washington establishment, including the capital’s press corp. But the hostility was palpable: from the outset: for the media outlets of the Northeast, the characterization of the Carter team as a clutch of yokels from the Georgia backwoods was so cheap as to be irresistible.

The mistreatment sometimes strayed beyond mere prejudice, Bird shows, and into the realm of deceit. Older readers may recall the incident when Hamilton Jordan groped at the bosom of the Egyptian ambassador’s wife, declaring “I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids.” Or the time when Jordan snorted cocaine at Studio 54, a New York nightclub. Both “episodes” became infamous, despite the media having fabricated both out of whole cloth.

Dishonest reportage dogged Carter throughout his presidency and has weighed, Bird suggests, upon his historical reputation. One influential perpetrator, to whom Bird devotes a chapter, has been the journalist Jim Fallows, who served Carter as a speechwriter until November 1978. Shortly thereafter, Fallows published in The Atlantic a “devastating” insider account, as Bird calls it, of the Carter administration. One of Fallows most infamous claims had Jimmy Carter personally reviewing “all requests to use the White House tennis court”—evidence of the president’s chronic propensity to micromanage, or so Fallows had it. The anecdote stuck, but it too was fictive. The reality was that Susan Clough, the president’s secretary, managed the use of the White House court; Fallows’ impression was rooted in his own misunderstanding.

The minor imbroglio reveals a larger predicament. Carter became president in a time of historical tumult. The bipolar, Cold War order was fragmenting in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and American foreign policy was grasping for purpose in a postcolonial world. The postwar economic order, which subjected capitalism to rigid regulatory controls, was imploding, and a new order of market-oriented, or neoliberal, globalization was emerging. And the formerly cozy relationship between the American presidency and a Washington press corps that had declined to probe too deep into Franklin Roosevelt’s disability, John F. Kennedy’s philandering, or Lyndon Johnson’s furtive escalation of the Vietnam War was changing fast after Watergate. “Gossip journalism masked as investigative reporting,” Bird writes, “became a major phenomenon during the Carter presidency.” Since then, the ascent has only continued.

An engineer and craftsman grounded in practical realities, Carter worked with integrity, honor, and purpose to resolve a variety of challenges arising from the transitional 1970s. He consulted the relevant experts, he listened, he read (and read some more), and he made up his own mind. Essentially indifferent to ideology, his method as president was not so different from that of Franklin Roosevelt, another man of practical instincts who knew many things. But the world had changed since the 1930s, and Jimmy Carter, for all his mastery of policy, could not command the smoke-and-mirrors of the nation’s political circus as Roosevelt had once done.

An exemplary modern president, it was Jimmy Carter’s misfortune to govern in an increasingly postmodern age. But in Kai Bird’s latest masterpiece, a book that models the virtues of the biographer’s craft, Jimmy Carter receives his due. Deeply empirical and exquisitely sculpted, The Outlier, we might conclude, is a book worthy of its subject. Bird’s positive reassessment may propel Carter upwards in the historical rankings of American presidents, for whatever such trivial accolades are worth. But the book might be read, in our times, not only as a reassessment of an underrated president but also as a penetrating assessment of the presidency itself, of how it works, and how it has changed—and not necessarily for the better.

Daniel Sargent is the author of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

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