The Riddle of Jimmy Carter

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At the time, many Americans thought the energy crisis was flimflam. With his concerns about excessive consumption, and the perils of relying so heavily on imported oil, Carter was way ahead of his time — talking hybrids to a country not yet sold on seat belts. Carter says he spent more time thinking about energy policy than anything else, investigating alternatives like synthetic fuels, geothermal energy, wind and solar power, tax credits for energy efficiency. His initiatives cut oil imports in half, a trend that was quickly reversed by Reagan. Reducing foreign oil seemed especially crucial to Carter, he says, because scientists had already noticed "the first glimmer of global warming." There is little doubt that the world would be a far better place today if Jimmy Carter's energy programs had lasted.

In July 1979, Carter searched for a way to explain to an Eisenhower generation used to believing they could have it all, that there were limits in life. He scheduled an energy speech. Then, instead of delivering it, he disappeared. "The whole country did a double take," says the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. "Nobody knew where he was. He canceled the speech. Where'd he go? Nobody knows what's going on. All was quiet. People thought he'd gone crazy."

Carter was at the presidential retreat in Camp David, where he spent days in reflection, weighing what to say to the nation. Then he came down from the Maryland mountaintop, looked into the camera and announced that the country was suffering from a "crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will." But America could revive, if it would roll up its sleeves and sacrifice. "I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy," he said. "What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight."

The speech was a presidential classic because Carter had done that rare thing: He had spoken to Americans like adults, appealing to that cherished Emersonian myth of self-reliance, offering a progressive way to be patriotic. And the country responded. For a moment, Carter's polling soared — until he followed up the speech a few days later by abruptly asking for the resignations of his entire Cabinet.

Looking on at the time, Eizenstat witnessed a display of political ineptitude that seemed "hard to fathom," almost willful, as though Carter was a man determined to emphasize the difficulty of the times at a moment when what people wanted most from him was a diversion from all the hardship — a worthy cause, an uplifting of the heart, maybe even a laugh or two. In storage, Carter located the old "The buck stops here" sign of his favorite president, Harry Truman, and placed it on his own desk in the Oval Office. But Truman played poker and piano, liked sharp haberdashery, and sent off hasty letters defending his daughter's terrible singing. Truman was fun. Carter, like Obama, had campaigned largely on his own personality; he had charm, but he didn't value it. People close to him were always trying to convince you how funny he was, a sure sign that he wasn't really very funny. Carter was the national drudge. "

After three years in office, there was no buoyancy, no optimism," says Eizenstat. "Optimism — the great presidents have it. Clinton had it. Roosevelt and Reagan had it. President Carter, for all his skills, did not. Maybe because he is a realist."

Carter had campaigned as a leader whom Americans could rely on because he was one of them, just folks, a humble, trustworthy and plainspoken man of faith and of the land. But once in the White House, he seemed different, less down home than a little out there. Part of it was his eccentric family. There was his God-loving evangelist sister Ruth, his Hells Angels-loving sister Gloria, his beery brother Billy and his mother, Miss Lillian, "a sight in this world," as they say in Plains, who once reflected on her own four children: "Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin." At the White House, Carter's divorced son Chip could be found up on the roof getting stoned with Willie Nelson, while downstairs daughter Amy read books at the table during state dinners and roller-skated through the White House halls. When family friends Gregg Allman and Cher came to supper, the Carters watched as their guests mistook the contents of the finger bowls for clear soup, eating even the scented geranium leaves floating on the surface. Amid the chaos, Carter himself seemed an alternately stern and bemused figure, busying himself with briefing books while everyone ran wild around him. His coolness to the national press, coupled with media prejudice against Southerners, had primed many journalists to describe him as "un-presidential," and the widely mocked report in 1979 that his fishing boat had been attacked by a fast-swimming "killer" Georgia swamp rabbit only increased public concern that Carter was too weak and too odd for the job.

The following year, voters sent him back to Georgia. "I can't stand here tonight and say it doesn't hurt," he said in his concession speech, with the tinge of embittered vengeance that still resonates to this day. What tends to define that 1980 presidential election now is the landslide margin that ushered in the Reagan Revolution. Yet in the final few days of the campaign, polls projected a vote too close to call. Hendrik Hertzberg, who served as Carter's speechwriter, recalls being on Air Force One the night before the election, when Carter learned from his press secretary Jody Powell and his pollster Pat Caddell that Reagan was going to beat him. "Jody was in Carter's suite, talking to Caddell on the phone. Carter came in and said, 'Who are you talking to?' Jody said, 'Caddell.' He said, 'Oh, let me talk to him.' I saw him crumple, go pale, kind of go sit down on the bed. We all knew to leave. That's when Caddell told him, 'It's gone.'"

Carter hadn't expected to lose, and once he did, he couldn't get used to it, didn't want to get used to it. When I talk with him about the 1980 campaign, he complains that as it approached, "every headline was dealing with the hostage anniversary, not with the election." He also blames the defection of many of his supporters on Ted Kennedy, whom Carter eventually defeated in the primaries. Kennedy, Carter notes, "refused to shake my hand on the convention platform." Then, in a sudden shift, he acknowledges that the divided Democratic Party was "to a major degree my fault. In the 1976 campaign, I'd done much better as an independent, lonely peanut-farmer candidate who'd never been to Washington. Then when I came to Washington as titular head of the Democratic Party, I never acted as titular caretaker or loving proprietor of the Democratic Party." Say what you will about Carter, more than most politicians, he owns his errors.

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