A Maverick Politician
The ceremonial drive from Capitol Hill to the White House that follows a president's swearing-in is, by tradition, a stately procession. Crowds line the approximately mile-and-a-half stretch as the presidential motorcade, accompanied by military bands and mounted units, wends its way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the new leader's new home. On a crystal clear wintry day in January 1977, Jimmy Carter shocked the crowds—and the nation—when he ordered his Secret Service agents to stop the limousine so that he, his wife, Rosalynn, and their nine-year-old daughter, Amy, could join the parade on foot. Stepping out onto the street, Carter thought about "the angry demonstrators who had habitually confronted recent Presidents and Vice Presidents, furious over the Vietnam war and later the revelations of Watergate."1 Carter, the people's president, was determined not to be seen as standing apart; he was, in fact, more comfortable walking among the citizenry than he was in the formal trappings of presidential power.
Standing in the frigid weather that had gripped the capital that week, the crowd was visibly elated as they watched Carter and his wife stroll the entire sixteen-block walk from the Capitol to the executive mansion. Amy skipped and danced alongside her parents. One man standing at the barricades sporting a long beard that made him look as if he came right out of the 1960s counterculture jubilantly yelled "Jimmy! Jimmy!" The president looked at the man, grinned, and waved his arm. "All right," the man screamed.2
Walking among his constituents, Carter appeared to be just the kind of leader a disillusioned nation was looking for. His message was simple: his presidency would be different.
Carter was in fact a genuine outsider who had arrived in Washington after having shaken up Georgia politics as governor. Part of a younger generation of southern politicians, Carter lacked strong ties to major interest groups in the Democratic Party and possessed a stubborn determination that moved him to take politically unpopular positions. His independence and lack of encumbrances were welcome relief just years after the Watergate scandal had weakened public confidence in the political system.
During his first two years in office, Carter did not disappoint. He took the issue of ethics and honesty seriously, supporting procedural and regulatory changes to clean up government. Carter's average approval rating was 69 percent in the first quarter of his presidency (higher than Presidents Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan during this same time period). "Carter has changed the tone for the better," said one Democrat in an interview with Time magazine about the first Hundred Days; "he is making the presidency relate to the people again."3
The president's popularity was supported by significant early legislative successes. Carter persuaded the Senate to ratify the controversial Panama Canal treaties in 1978, which gave control of the canal back to the Panamanians and signaled a new direction in U.S. policy toward the region. The Senate ratified the treaties by just one-vote margins, but it was a victory nonetheless. His administration also designed an ambitious energy plan, which though severely watered down by the Senate before passage in 1978 is to date one of the most aggressive efforts to come out of the nation's capital to deal with America's dependence on foreign oil and energy consumption. Working with allies in Congress, the administration elevated human rights as a defining issue in foreign policy, aiming to restore moral clarity after Vietnam had shaken Cold War certainties about involvement abroad.
Two years after his inauguration, however, the euphoria about Carter had vanished. This maverick presidency had gone badly. Nothing captured Carter's political problems more than a bizarre story that broke in the summer of 1979 about the president and a Georgia swamp rabbit. Carter had privately recounted this story to a group of staffers who were sitting on the Truman Balcony on a warm spring day in 1979. Carter explained that as he was fishing in a canoe on April 20, a hissing swamp rabbit tried to make his way onto the boat. A photographer had captured the moment. Several months later, Press Secretary Jody Powell informally repeated the story to an Associated Press reporter, Brooks Jackson, over a cup of tea. The next day, Jackson wrote a small piece about the incident and sent it out on the wire, not thinking of the story as more than a humorous piece.4 The story broke on the front page of the Washington Post on August 30. "Bunny Goes Bugs: Rabbit Attacks President," the title read, mocking the unpopular president. What started as an innocent story turned into yet another political headache for Carter.
It was more than two and a half years into his presidency and Carter was in such bad shape that the story actually mattered. Republican senator Robert Dole, who planned to run for president in 1980, joked that Carter should apologize for "bashing a bunny in the head with a paddle. I'm sure the rabbit intended the president no harm. In fact, the poor thing was simply doing something a little unusual these days—trying to get aboard the president's boat. Everyone else seems to be jumping ship." The administration prevented the picture from being made public. "We're afraid if we release the photo," Powell told reporters, "the rabbit controversy over the next two weeks will receive more ink than the SALT treaty."5
This was just the tip of the iceberg. For the remainder of 1979 and 1980, the economy was in shambles, oil prices skyrocketed, Americans were held hostage in Iran, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. As the Democratic primaries reached a conclusion and the general campaign of 1980 was about to start in September, the pollster Patrick Caddell warned the president that the race against Republican Ronald Reagan and Independent John Anderson would be difficult.
Caddell's predictions turned out to be correct. Although Carter put up a strong fight in the final month of the campaign, Reagan won, and Republicans regained control of the Senate for the first time since 1954.
Most historical accounts of the 1970s have assumed that Carter was inevitably doomed to failure. They argue that Carter was incompetent, weak, and unable to lead. The conventional portrait depicts Carter as a tone-deaf moralist who never displayed many political skills, a man who was fortunate to find himself in the right place at the right time after Watergate and whose weaknesses as a leader became painfully evident as soon as he was given the responsibilities of governing.
But these interpretations ignore some powerful factors that could very well have made Carter a success. His was in fact a presidency with considerable potential. Jimmy Carter was an exceptionally smart man. He could also be very engaging; few failed to be dazzled by his memorably wide smile. And, at least early on, he sometimes demonstrated a real sense of what many Americans wanted, whether that was the desire for an antiestablishment politics or the need for a new moral framework, such as human rights, for debating foreign policy. He was a shrewd political operator who had developed a keen feel for electoral politics, both in Georgia and then nationally, as he successfully defeated powerful incumbents. On many issues, such as race relations and welfare reform, he had the ability to see the potential compromise at a time most liberals and conservatives were moving farther and farther apart. Whereas Senator George McGovern failed in his effort to run a maverick campaign in 1972, losing in a devastating landslide to Richard Nixon, Carter pulled it off.
Carter was also politically appealing as the face of the "New South," the increasingly urban, cosmopolitan, and racially tolerant voices of the region. He was a member of a group of progressive moderate governors, such as John West of South Carolina and Reubin Askew in Florida,6 who represented the potential for Democrats to regain their hold on the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that convinced President Lyndon Johnson that he had handed the region to the Republican Party.
Carter was unafraid to innovate, willing to take risks by experimenting with new policy ideas and challenging the orthodoxies of both political parties. From the moment that the oil-producing countries in the Middle East imposed an embargo of oil on the United States, Carter had been quick to understand the arguments about conservation and promoted those goals within his home state of Georgia. While governor, Carter worked with the Trilateral Commission, a group of prestigious experts who wrestled with fundamental changes needed in foreign policy at the confusing stage of the Cold War that came after Vietnam.
Carter was a politician willing to evolve and to question his assumptions. (Critics would later label this a lack of core principles.) Unlike politicians who remained fixed on one set of arguments regardless of circumstances, a problem that helped bring down Lyndon Johnson with the quagmire in Vietnam, Carter applied his background in engineering as a problem solver who adjusted and recalibrated as the political and economic realities changed.
Because he came from the New South, Carter had more political space to pursue these ideas. He was not as tied as other members of his party to the powerful liberal interest groups, including organized labor, who shaped decision making. Carter's political independence and intellectual curiosity seemed to mesh well with an electoral strategy designed to appeal to religious Americans, independents, and even moderate Republicans who had become disillusioned with the political process.
Just as important, the situation was quite good for Democrats, who controlled the White House and Congress for the first time since 1968. Democrats had expanded their numbers in the Senate, reaching the sixty-one majority, enough to end a filibuster.
Yet in the end Jimmy Carter's presidency fell apart. How did someone who had such promise upon entering the White House experience such a terrible outcome? Bedeviled from the beginning of his term by an extraordinarily difficult set of circumstances that would have challenged any president, Carter faced a unique set of personal and political obstacles as well. He struggled with a series of debilitating problems as he made the transition from the politics of campaigning to the politics of governance. And being an outsider in Washington, as it turned out, would be both a blessing and a curse.