Carter and the Politics of Faith

Keepine Faith: Memorirs of a President By Jimmy Carter Bantam Books; $22.50.622 pp.

THE HISTORIANS WHO MAKE a habit of ranking American Presidents are not going to treat Jimmy Carter well. Under the Georgian's stewardship, the U.S. economy went to pot, the nation's self esteem was punctured by repeated humiliations abroad, and--for the first time since George Washington romped on General Cornwallis at Yorktown--the world laughed at America.

How else could it respond to a nation whose chief executive once toasted Mexico's President with a reference to Montezuma's revenge? A country whose leader once billed his energy program as the "moral equivalent of war"--only to realize later that his phrase formed the acronym "meow"? Jimmy Carter could very easily wind up alongside the Franklin Pierces, Millard Fill mores and Herbert Hoovers who dwell uncelebrated in the sewers of history.

In Keeping Faith, Carter generally resists what must be a great temptation to pander to posterity by touching up his White House record That comes as a pleasant surprise: top presidential side Hamilton Jordan has already released a highly defensive account of the Carter Presidency, and in office, Carter always seemed overly worried about outward appearances, Here, however, he owns up to an unexpected number of miscues.

Most of the errors he acknowledges are tactical, rather than substantive Early on, for instance, he allows that he undermined his first-year legislative record by letting loose a flood of proposal to Congress right away, instead of introducing "our legislation in much more careful phases." He regrets, too, "weakening and compromising that first year on some of those worthless dam projects." Such honesty, if unspectacular, leaves one feeling that, for the first time, we can view the Carter Presidency as Carter himself does. The glimpse is compelling, as much for what it shows about the presidency as it does about the flawed world-view of its last Democratic occupant.

CARTER SEES HIMSELF fundamentally as a populist. He invokes that philosophy to explain his lofty goals of bringing harmony, justice and prosperity to the U.S. and the world, but it also accounts for many of his failures. He sprinkles his recollections with selections from a diary he kept during his White House years, the first excerpt, significantly, recounts his decision to walk, not ride, from the Capitol to the White House after his swearing-in. He writes of this symbolic attempt to "return to first principles":

It seemed that a shock wave went through the crowd There were gasps of astonishment and cries of "They're walking' They're walking! The excitement flooded over us, we responded to the people with broad smiles and proud steps. It was bitterly cold, but we felt warm inside.

But the populists ideals Carter had preached on the campaign trail lost much of their utility once his Inauguration ended at the Oval Office. The story of his presidency is one of frustration. He expresses dismay that his well-intended efforts were consistently stymied--on the domestic front by self-interested legislators and (especially) lobbyists, and on the foreign front by uncooperative regimes.

Seeking support for his comprehensive energy package, for instance, he took to the airwaves in 1977 with a series of nationally broadcast fireside chats and town meetings. Although his proposals were well-received, Congress turned much of the energy legislation inside-out: it was not until late in the president's term that the windfall profits tax he had so yearned for was realized.

On numerous other fronts--health insurance, defense spending, tax reform--Carter found himself stranded without Congressional support. At least as he tells it. Congress simply was more interested in keeping special interests happy and getting re-elected than in returning to his "first principles." The White House's unfocused legislative strategy was only slightly to blame:

Ultimately, something will have to be done to control the influence of special interests in the meantime, we will have to suffer as a nation until the abuses become so outrageous that they cannot be ignored any longer.

No doubt Carter honestly believes there was little he could do to fight off the "pack of powerful and ravenous wolves" who preyed on his legislative proposals. But he unwittingly manifests his lingering lack of street smarts when he describes the unusual carrots and sticks he held out to legislators for their votes on key legislation. He proudly reprints the text of a handwritten note sent to all congressmen who backed his controversial--and commendable--treaty ceding the Panama Canal back to Panama. This presidential thank you note, he suggests, exemplifies his efforts to cement relations with the Democratically controlled legislative branch.

Yet he is positively vituperative in describing Congressional pressure to secure small home-state water projects, Carter, it would appear, has yet to learn a fundamental political lesson: dealing with Congress is the art of bargaining. To a legislator hell-bent on re-election, a federal grant to a local industry means a lot more than a handwritten card from an unpopular president on a sensitive issue. This is a harsh realization Carter simply can't understand.

Neither can he comprehend why he had such difficulties dealing with the congressional Democratic leadership. He seems retroactively satisfied with his often-stormy relationship with House Speaker Thomas P O'Neill Jr (D.Mass) "At first, our relationship was somewhat strained because of our different backgrounds and philosophies." Carter recalls, "but eventually I grew to love this big man."

IN THE INTERNATIONAL ARENA, too, Carter suffered from gullibility. Like Woodrow Wilson, who along with Harry Truman seems to have been one of Carter's presidential idols, he demanded a certain brand of morality from those he dealt with abroad. Yet his Administration got burned across the globe by nations less-scrupulous than ours Iran. Afghanistan, and Poland leap to mind as sites of American humiliation between 1977 and 1981. Even today, however, Carter indicates he has no regrets about extending his politics of faith abroad.

I was familiar with the widely accepted arguments that we had to choose between idealism and realism, or between morality and the exertion of power, but I rejected those claims To me the demonstration of American idealism was a practical and realistic approach to foreign affairs, and moral principles were the best foundation for the exertion of American power and influence.