Jimmy Carter as failed President. Kaufman (History/Virginia Polytechnic Institute; The Oil Cartel Case, 1978) suggests that Carter's difficulties were less a consequence of the problems he faced (the demoralizing effects of Vietnam and Watergate and the rise of the PACs most obviously, the CIA time-bomb in Iran less so) than of a conceptual failure. It was the President's inability (or refusal) to grasp the rules of the game, the author says, that led to the impasse with Congress and the national sense of futility. Carter saw himself as a ``trustee of the public good,'' willing to do and say things that reduced him politically; he wasn't concerned enough with the process by which things get done, and squandered his unsure mandate. Kaufman makes his case well and clearly, offering a subtle appreciation of Carter as a wholesome, patient, plain-spoken technocrat who tried to do what he'd promised, starting with a more representative Cabinet. But the members of that Cabinet weren't ``original thinkers, grand strategists, or innovative planners,'' and one in particular, Attorney General Griffin Bell, was anathema to minority groups and was, simply, a bad choice. Carter's failure to prioritize his legislative agenda in light of real-world possibilities was similarly naive, says Kaufman—as was the idea that ``fiscal conservatism'' could go hand-in-hand with a costly and activist liberal agenda. Kaufman is anything but a Carter-basher, though, and while repeatedly detailing the President's awkwardness, he doesn't fault him for his goals. Why was Carter so unpopular despite a peaceful presidency and foreign-policy success in Panama and at Camp David? The question never dealt with here is whether Carter's traditional honesty and ethics simply were out of tune with a nation preferring to avoid energy reform, the legacy of Vietnam, and the implications of Watergate—a nation waiting for Ronald Reagan.
Read full book review >