Kalman (History/University of California at Santa Barbara; Yale Law School and the Sixties, 2009, etc.) picks up where Rick Perlstein left off in Nixonland (2008), when Gerald Ford took office from his disgraced predecessor in August 1974.
As a self-identified “liberal Democrat” who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980, the author has a fascination with and healthy respect for the right, which enables her to approach the subject with Perlstein-like fairness and balance. Neither Ford nor Carter fares particularly well. Ford was the accidental president, the never-elected substitute for Nixon, selected for his popularity among Democrats and Republicans in Congress rather than for his skill or ambition. He never overcame the perception that his pardon of Nixon was a condition of his rise to power, nor did he understand until too late the political liability of nurturing Henry Kissinger and détente. Nevertheless, Kalman reminds us that Ford was smarter and more politically savvy than the popular caricature of him would suggest. But Carter’s apparent indecisiveness, writes the author, was very real, and cast his presidency adrift mostly until the Iranian hostage crisis finally gave him a reason for being president in the final year of his term. He projected a lack of confidence, even to the point of engaging in a weeklong, public navel-gazing session at midterm to figure out why his presidency seemed to be failing. The most insightful point Kalman makes about Carter is that his “centrist” tendencies played a key role in pushing American politics toward the right, especially in foreign policy, where, influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski, he took a hard tack against the Soviets in arms control and in proxy wars in the Third World, but also in racial and labor politics at home. The author’s recounting of Bakke v. University of California at Davis, which resulted in a major reversal in affirmative action and civil-rights law, is history at its best. She teases out truths from the record that the media myth-making machinery typically obscures.
Richly rewarding look back at an ambiguous age in American memory.