Let's give Jimmy Carter a break

Steven Stark

December 22, 1992|By Steven Stark

THE theme of the month appears to be that the president-elect is doing great, if only because he's already proved to be no Jimmy Carter.

"It isn't a Carter rerun," reads one trailer in the New York Times. "How not to be president -- Clinton hopes to learn from Carter's blunders," goes the headline of another recent Washington Post story. Mr. Carter made more than his share of mistakes, and it's to Bill Clinton's credit that he will try to avoid them. But it's important to remember just when and why the Carter administration went bad.

Despite the conventional D.C. wisdom, it wasn't because Jimmy Carter messed up his transition, failed to court the press, insulted too many members of Congress and ignored Washington insiders. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

I worked for Mr. Carter in the '76 campaign, so I remember those days well. No matter how much people trash the initial months of the Carter era now, they thought differently then. Mr. Carter was extraordinarily popular -- in large part for doing the very things he's being attacked for today. According to the Gallup Poll, his favorable-unfavorable rating in July 1977 was a very healthy 62 percent to 22 percent.

Boston Globe columnist Robert Healy began a piece that June by writing, "So House Speaker Thomas O'Neill has discovered that President Carter's popularity with the folks is so high that Congress had better not tangle with him."

In contrast to a certain governor from Arkansas, Mr. Carter didn't duck controversy and constantly challenged the status quo. He appointed a number of real "outsiders," such as Andy Young, Pat Derian and Sam Brown.

Blacks had a real voice in his administration. In his first months in office, he courted outrage by pardoning Vietnam draft resisters -- contrast that with the current waffling about gays in the military -- and he tried to take on a multitude of popular "special interests" to get his energy program passed. Yet evidently the people still liked him. The trouble came later, about the time he started compromising.

To hear Washington insiders tell it, Mr. Carter also failed because he couldn't get along with "official Washington" and Capitol Hill. It's true that Mr. Carter didn't spend a lot of time talking with Jim Wright, Pamela Harriman and the partners of Arnold & Porter. But if he had trouble with many members of Congress or their social acquaintances, it may have had something to do with what he represented, not whether he returned their phone calls.

Who were these great leaders in Congress Mr. Carter should have courted more heavily? Well, shortly before his election, news reports suggested that more than a few congressmen had received questionable contributions or favors from a South Korean lobbyist. (According to historian Peter Carroll, because of "intelligence restraints" on evidence, only three were even reprimanded.)

The Abscam scandal broke during Mr. Carter's administration, too. Presidential initiatives to liberalize voter registration and reform the process fell on deaf ears. "The intractability of Congress severely diminished the political power of Jimmy Carter," wrote historian Carroll in his history of the '70s, "It Seemed Like Nothing Happened."

Put another way, the Carter folks and Lloyd Bentsen were probably not on exactly the same wavelength.

The ironic thing is that they would be today. Mr. Carter reduced the White House staff by a third, ordered cabinet officials to drive their own cars and even tried to require government regulations to be written so ordinary people could understand them.

Sure, he failed for a lot of reasons. Though he was terribly smart, he may have been the most politically inexperienced president in history. He tried too much too soon. He stuck by Bert Lance far too long -- undermining the whole tenor of a presidency that was supposed to reverse the corruption of the Nixon years. Add to that a sinking economy with spiraling inflation -- caused primarily by events from abroad -- and it was only a matter of time before the Carter presidency became synonymous with failure.

No one would argue that Jimmy Carter was one of the great ones. But he had the right idea, and he surely had the right enemies. That's the lesson of the Carter years Bill Clinton should really remember.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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