Yet four decades after leaving office, Jimmy Carter has lived to see a more positive re-evaluation of his presidency. A decade earlier, Julian E. Zelizer provided an evocative primer on Carter for a series of American Presidents; Recognizing that Carter’s White House years were “the epitome of failed leadership,” Zelizer anchored some of that failure in the turmoil of the 1970s and noted Carter’s achievements. Recently, Carter’s White House domestic affairs adviser, Stuart E. Eisenstadt, added a detailed, if wonky, memoir-study that makes a case for a consequential presidency. Last year Jonathan Alter produced a slick and insightful account of what was (surprisingly) the first cradle-to-aging biography ever written about the man. Meanwhile, Byrd, with his focus primarily on the presidency, has benefited from some new sources, such as the record of Carter’s longtime advisor. Charles Kirbow. Bird noted that about 80 percent of Carter’s White House diaries are still locked and that everyone’s diaries Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser, who is currently unavailable, is likely to learn much more about this pivotal presidency.
Still, Byrd is able to make a persuasive case that the Carter Presidency deserves this new look. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Carter sought to lead a transitional and reformative presidency. His business experience gave him an intuitive feel for the importance of the market. It was Carter, not Ronald Reagan, who started the process of opening up the Great Society economy. Carter oversaw the regulation of oil and gas prices, the airline industry, and the trucking industry. Instead of instituting wage and price controls to reduce inflation, as Richard Nixon had done, Carter brought in Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve, knowing that he would be able to eliminate rising prices from the system. can insist on higher interest rates. Carter also went after ruin, fraud and abuse in government. Concerned that most federal water projects were not only “pork barrels” but were a threat to the environment, Carter zeroed out 19 of them ($5 billion) in his first budget. And he made it clear to congressional liberals like Ted Kennedy that the country does not support and cannot afford single-payer health care.
But Carter was no proto-Reaganite. This fiscal conservative believed that government could also be part of the solution to social problems. He supported the idea of a comprehensive health care bill and, as a first step, a federal program to ensure disastrous health care for all. With the Social Security system facing imminent collapse—due to Nixon’s and Congress’s election-year decision to index gains in 1972—Carter favored the higher taxes that saved it. He deployed the imaginatively dusty 1906 Antiquities Act to keep 56 million acres of Alaska wild. Finally, inspired by revelations from Ralph Nader’s first generation of consumer advocates, Carter’s strengthened safety and environmental regulations. It was his administration that required both seatbelts and airbags in cars, measures that saved countless lives but angered many moderate motorists.
Curiously, Bird’s story of these visionary domestic decisions doesn’t evoke an overwhelming sense of Carter as a tragic, misunderstood president. Instead, his narrative evokes as much impatience as his respect for Carter. Carter stubbornly, almost frankly, killed too many oxen for what he believed to be the right policies. When you do so as a leader, lasting success depends on either building your own governing coalition or inspiring a fanatical base outside Washington. Carter’s distinctive leadership style achieved neither. Bird shows how Carter’s efforts to tackle the energy crisis and high inflation, for example, eroded his support from traditional Democratic constituencies. Controlling trucking reduced the cost of delivering goods, but also increased the development of independent trucking, which weakened unions and reduced truck drivers’ wages. At the same time, Carter seemed oblivious to ambitious rivals, namely Ted Kennedy, who were ready to pounce.
Indeed, Carter dismissed criticisms that he was too insensitive to the political consequences of what he was doing. “is not a person” in the administration “which is particularly preoccupied with the political dimensions of the decision,” Carter’s top aide hamilton jordan Condoled in December 1977. Without that person, Jordan said, “the high quality of your foreign policy decisions would be unnecessarily undermined by domestic political considerations.” In most administrations it is the President himself who has to balance politics and policy. Not in Carter.