'Not What We Were Looking For'

An Interview With Haynes Johnson

Crimson: Towards the end of your book you describe the Carter presidency as a tragedy. Do you still think it is, today?

Johnson: Yes, I do think there's a tragedy about Jimmy Carter, and I'll tell you why. I'd been thinking back about how I felt and many people felt when he became president. We had gone through all these shocks, pain, anguish even: the murders of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy--it didn't matter whether you were left, right, liberal, conservative, Black, white; everyone who offered himself up for national leadership from John Kennedy to Jimmy Carter had been destroyed. Here comes someone totally fresh, who seemed to promise so much, and would be a different kind of president. To have it ending the way it did--though it could draw on another four years--I still find, between that beginning and ending, there's a tragedy in it somewhere.

Crimson: He seems more politically successful now.

Johnson: Yes, in the old manipulative sense. In fact, I might even be harder on him, because to see him stand up for the third time on the eve of a primary--it happened in Wisconsin, it happened when I was out in Iowa, it happened up here in New Hampshire--"peace is at hand." Go back and look at it. Oh yes, he's learned to use the power, better than Lyndon did, he's learned to use the manipulation of the press better than lots--call them in at 7:00 on the morning of a primary, with this wonderful "peace is at hand" kind of thing. That's not what, I guess, we were looking for.

Crimson: Given the opportunity that Carter had on the eve of the presidency, as you paint it in your book, what specific qualities in him would you be able to pinpoint that led to his troubles, or what qualities would have worked better in someone else?


Johnson: Let's start with the positive qualities. This is a very serious man, a serious man who has informed himself on issues marvelously well. Intellect--a first-rate mind. Well-disciplined. Hard worker. Honorable--old-fashioned word. Integrity--I believe it, a lot of people don't. Those are all very positive things. And a desire that is maybe quite unusual: everyone wants to do well, but I think he particularly really wanted to do something superior, fine.

Negative qualities: stubborn. A strain of pettiness that surfaces from time to time. A kind of us-and-them feeling that does not surface much but I think is there. I think that's endemic to anyone in the White House, but it's especially so for Jimmy Carter, coming in as the outsider, the loner, not conversant with the salons of power, coming in and running against everybody. Carter, too, seems unable to use politics for what it should be used for. The art of the politician, the public educator, whatever we call leadership, I think it's that--I hate the word "leadership," because it's a catch-all for everything. But let's go on with "public educator": to build, to guide, direct, to channel, to chart the course. You can argue about the direction and how we get there, but at least have it clearly defined, and keep at it, and persuade. Those are great things; that's what a president has to do.

Crimson: Is there a real conflict between corrupt politicking and necessary, log-rolling politics or is it just that Carter doesn't understand as well as other politicans the line between them?

Johnson: There are two things. There's an impression one night when I asked him about the political process. I said, "The people complain you're not a good enough politician, and they want you to do well, Mr. President," and he said, "I can't imagine sitting around and doing things the way Lyndon Johnson and Ev Dirksen used to do, trading judgeships." For me at least, that was quite revealing: it settled the way he really felt, and this perception of the process as something he wouldn't do. That's a problem--not that you have to trade judgeships, and somebody else is doing it for him anyway, they're doing it now. I think there is a conflict there; it seems that Jimmy Carter particularly has felt this withdrawal, the idea that politics is somehow distasteful, and it's kind of suspect, and it's not moral, seems to come through. Certainly, in the relationships he tried to establish, no one was more open; he tried, no one listened more painfully and earnestly, and worked and solicited opinions. But it's how you do it. There's a quality of humanness, gregariousness, conviviality, whatever it is, liking that. He seems to be more withdrawn. And when you're with Carter, you always come away with a sense that he's very serious, and very quiet; you never get much of a feeling about what he himself feels.

Crimson: If Carter is clearly intelligent, as you say, he must have understood that things were not working right with Congress. Was it some sort of paralysis, that he felt loyalty to his people?

Johnson: I don't know how to answer that because I have never satisfactorily resolved it in my own mind. They are a very tightly-knit group, the Carter people; there are very few of them, and he is intensely loyal to them--to very few, to Hamilton, Jody; Frank [Moore] was with him in the state house in Georgia. He's clearly going to defend them at all costs. I think he feels these are unfair assaults on the part of wicked Washington, and all the people who despised him anyhow, and the people in the press, and the people on the Hill, they were ganging up on him, and by God, he'd beat them, and he'd show he was right. There is that conviction that he would triumph, that he would be proven right. Now, that's not psychohistory, but I think that's the answer. Otherwise, then he's a fool--and I really don't believe that at all. I think it's the sin of pride he might preach against.

Crimson: How about the title, In the Absence of Power: is the absence of power in Congress, in the presidency, in Carter himself?

Johnson: It's a lot of things. The presidency is operating in an absence of power it once had. It's different, it's changed. Congress is acting, conversely, in an absence of kinds of powers it was once able to exercise, even though it's taken some of the powers back from the presidency. It's unable to do things in the old sense. The country in the world is operating differently--we can no longer ordain things; I'm not sure that's at all bad, but it's a condition. We can't just wave our hands and some "militants" will give up American citizens. And we find that we can't just send in the Marines. People themselves are operating in a time when things seem out of control and there's no system of power in the larger, not military sense, that puts them back together. I think all of these combine to create a different kind of condition that we're now entering, politically, personally, as a nation, as people as leaders. It's a new period.

Crimson: About inflation--it seems to me that any other president in a situation like this would be going through hell.

Johnson: If there's a parallel for it I don't know about it. It's inconceivable, with the kinds of problems we face here and abroad, that this president doesn't seem to be bearing the political liabilities for it, the wave of anger. I can speculate about it; I think it's because we do feel that no one has any better answers. The economists can't agree on anything. You step back and say, how can I possibly know what's right? You say, yes, I know all about the president, he's not the best

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