An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisers, and the Making of American Foreign Policy
By Betty Glad
(Cornell University Press, 404 pages, $29.95)
This is a whale of a book by a fine writer with an eye for social and psychological detail and an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that was thought and said and written by everyone involved in foreign policy formulation during every hour of the administration of a strange and idiosyncratic president, who some might call a crank. But not Ms. Glad, a fair-minded and non-judgmental historian, a scholar of the first rank. Her previous book on Carter, In Search of the Great White House, published in 1980, remains the only thorough study of this Ahab-like man and what makes him tick. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Cornell University Press has seen fit to pack this one -- plus appendices, notes, and index -- into 400 pages set in the tiniest type known to man -- type so teensy you suspect Cornell forgot the special micro-reader that should be included, along with a Carter decoding ring, as a premium.
Perhaps this is intentional, symbolic, like that old-school Annapolis exercise, described by Glad, that Carter excelled in -- jumping into your locker box, changing clothes, and emerging fully dressed --
a small, cramped man operating in a small, cramped space. But no matter. Despite considerable eyestrain from reading a book that with decent type and white space would occupy twice as much space, and despite learning more about Zbigniew Brzezinski than is good for the sanity (at least we're spared the discussions here from the earlier book of Carter's preoccupation with "urine retention"), we come away from An Outsider in the White House with a better understanding of why our foreign policy became such a hash and why it was such a relief to hear Ronald Reagan declare that it was, once again, morning in America.
In her earlier book, Glad examined the legends and stories surrounding Carter -- his earliest days, his education and Naval career, his campaign for the Georgia senate in 1962, his races for the governorship, and his race for the presidency. Much of the substance of these legends, she concluded, came from accounts carefully shaped and edited by Carter himself and his team of loyalists, with little or no reference to discordant material -- relations with George Wallace (for whom at various expedient times Carter expressed admiration) or Lester Maddox, citizen's councils, black people (with whom the Carters, says Glad, maintained a "genteel" relationship, which apparently meant no visiting in the front parlor), and other factoids potentially embarrassing to a candidate in need of northern liberal votes.
Some of the legends, Glad concluded, were relatively harmless -- boosting his class standing at the Naval Academy, for instance, or idealizing a Plains boyhood, and, occasionally, referring to the family "plantation," in the early days a modest home without indoor plumbing. Others, involving his Georgia campaigns and financing, his unprofitable stint as a peanut farmer, his relatively undistinguished Naval career and his misrepresentation of himself as "a nuclear engineer" -- these and more could easily have been explored by the national media, once Carter became a bona fide presidential candidate. But after several surprise primary victories, the media decided to make Carter their candidate. And as we saw again in 2008, once you're anointed by the national media, there's no more exploring allowed.
Nor, to be fair, was it just the liberal media. Some of us on the other side -- this writer included -- were, initially, sympathetic to the hype, willing to believe Carter might just be more conservative than Nixon or Ford. That was never the case, as far as I know, at TAS. But at National Review, both Bill Rusher and Jim Burnham, who rarely agreed on anything, entertained this view for a time -- as did, briefly, Bill Buckley. As a devout Christian, the reasoning went, Carter should by definition have been constitutionally anti-Communist; as an Annapolis graduate, solid on national defense; and as a successful Southern businessman, conservative on fiscal matters.
As Glad points out, a little digging would have shown that he'd borrowed to the hilt on the family farm and some dubious assets to bankroll his campaign. As for the religious factor (one consequence: his demonstrated ability to mobilize the Christian vote led directly to the growth of the Religious Right), his sincerity couldn't be questioned. But as a born-again believer who claimed he spoke directly with God, it might have been good to know which of his frequently contradictory foreign policy thrusts were dictated by God, and which by man (or Brzezinski).
He was, as it turned out, generally anti-Communist, but ineffectually so, as when it came to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) (Glad takes us through these frequently senseless talks in excruciating detail), or selectively so, as in the case of the morally repulsive president of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, lauded by Carter during a White House visit in 1978 as "a great leader of a great country." And beyond Communist tyrants, Carter's selective morality allowed support for some of the world's most brutal leaders. In 1979, the Carter administration supported a UN resolution calling for the Pol Pot regime -- as Glad puts it, "one of the most genocidal regimes of human history" -- to continue to represent Cambodia. Initially, the U.S. was joined in its support by only China and North Korea.
BUT THAT WAS YET to come. In 1976, the legends still prevailed. Carter was elected, if not with conservative support, then with a lack of such support for Gerald Ford, a strong and solid man, but badly undercut politically by his pardon of Richard Nixon -- absolutely the right thing to do -- and by the total disarray of Watergate-dazed Republicans. Moreover, it was the 1970s, a decade during which the national lunacy meter had blown the top off the sanity charts. Richard Nixon had temporarily put down the revolution on the campuses, swept some of the goons and galoots of the streets, and won the Democrats' war in Vietnam, but by so doing had forfeited his presidency. Congress, giddy from inhaling the fumes of regicide, was in the process of losing the war Nixon had won, with televised pictures of helicopter evacuations from the roof of the embassy in Saigon capturing images of congressional triumph and national shame. The Soviet Union was on the move throughout the world. America was on the run.
That was the situation that Carter was elected to remedy -- that plus an economy that had jumped the tracks, propelled by spiraling inflation and an ongoing energy crisis. Glad gamely marches us through policy ins-and-outs of the Carter term -- stabs at an energy policy, Camp David, the Panama Canal, arms control, SALT -- set within the story of the rivalry between his key foreign policy advisers: the sharp and decisive Brzezinski and the amiable and aimless Cyrus Vance, later replaced by the amiable and clueless Ed Muskie. All this would become academic, however, when on October 20, 1979, Carter allowed the deposed shah of Iran to enter the U.S. for medical treatment. Two weeks later Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 diplomats and aides as hostages.
"Thus," writes Glad, "began the hostage crisis with which Carter would struggle until he left office almost 14 months later on January 20, 1981." ABC launched a new program, "America Held Hostage," later to morph into Nightline, which provided daily updates on the hostage crisis. Walter Cronkite
ended each broadcast with a hostage reminder, and Ayatollah Khomeini gleefully called the shots, making the American president dance to his tune on the international stage.
This treatment cut Carter to the quick. Each move he made to appease Khomeini resulted in public humiliation. And if Carter had one defining weakness, it was his thin skin.
"When the Soviets opposed him," writes Glad, "he was inclined to see this opposition as a personal insult." We saw this in the debates, when Reagan's "There he goes again," brought down the house but visibly infuriated Carter. They were laughing at him, and that outraged Carter, a man totally without humor. "His humor came from poking fun, criticizing, and even demeaning those around him," wrote Glad. She quotes journalist Eleanor Randolph: "Carter likes to carve up an opponent, make his friends laugh at him and then call it a joke." Hence, perhaps, the relative youth and inexperience of his personal staff -- good foils. And hence the outrage, when, as in the hostage crisis, he found himself cast on the international stage as the perfect butt.
In the end, it was his response to this humiliation and the form it took -- a cinematic attempt to rescue the hostages -- that drove the final nail into his administration's coffin.
The rescue operation, involving representatives of all the armed services in unfamiliar functional roles, was both undermanned and under-equipped. (After the failure, Glad tells us, Yitzhak Rabin quipped: "America doesn't have enough helicopters?") In retrospect, it was agreed the plan was just too complicated -- too many moving parts, depending too much on favorable external circumstances, and ultimately too much on good luck. It was approved in every detail by Carter. And as Michael Corleone said of Moe Green, he was just unlucky. Not that it was wrong to attempt the mission. As Bill Buckley put it, "one can have no objections whatever to President Carter's mission, restricting our criticism to the maladroitness of its execution and the inefficiency of contingency planning."
When in 1980 economic malaise was added to the hostage-rescue fiasco and the debate flubs, the Carter reelection campaign foundered on the basic issue of competence. "The economy and how Carter responded to it played a key role in his electoral fate," writes Glad. Indeed it did, in the form of an Iran-exacerbated painful and growing energy crisis, galloping inflation and unemployment, and flat economic growth. As Ronald Reagan put it, in one of those formulations that drove Carter up the wall, "I'm told I can't use the word depression. Well, I'll tell you the definition. Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose your job. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."
And that's precisely what he did, leaving behind more of a mess than he'd inherited. What did he accomplish? Through the Camp David accords, Glad writes, Carter "reversed a downward cycle in Israeli-Arab relations" and achieved "a partial resolution of the Middle Eastern conflict." True. Israel gave up the Sinai and Egypt no longer has to put its armies in the field to be decimated by the Israelis. But beyond that, there seems little of lasting value to claim as a significant legacy.
And perhaps that's what accounts for Carter's apparent resolve to punish the Israelis. Perhaps they've diminished his legacy by failing to play the role he envisioned for them. Glad doesn't address the subject. In her summing up, she tells us that today, "Rejecting the relatively quiescent and supportive role expected of men in the ‘club' of ex-presidents, he is instead playing a quasi-prophetic role, calling his successors to account for what he sees as their more bellicose and overextended definitions of American national interest. To the very end Jimmy Carter remains an American original, playing in tune with the changing refrains of his own inner ear."
Perhaps, although even when granting that "quasi-prophetic role," and taking tin ears and shifting refrains into account, it does little to explain the striking hostility toward Israel. Somewhere in that inner ear, something odd and discordant is skirling round.
On this past Christmas Eve, appropriately enough, in an AP roundup in the New York Times, there was a brief item with this headline: "Carter Apologizes to Jews." Was he apologizing for comparing Israel to South Africa, or for meeting leaders of Hamas in Gaza? Not quite. "[W]e must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel," he reportedly wrote.
In other words, he seems to be saying, "I apologize to you for my making valid criticisms that you saw fit to misinterpret." Wonder what Ronald Reagan would do with that?
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