Tuesday, October 19, 2010

White House Diary by Jimmy Carter

Despite philosophical differences with Jimmy Carter, I enjoy reading about his Presidency, in part because it is the first administration I can remember. The Iran hostage crisis and the failure of the Desert One mission made an impression on a five year old in Milwaukee, and I clearly remember my Dad watching a Reagan ad in 1980 and deciding - reluctantly -to vote Republican.

Thirty years later Carter himself has allowed us into the inner workings of his Washington years by publishing an abridged but personally annotated copy of the daily diary he kept from 1976-'81.

Having read Keeping Faith, his memoir of the same era, it wasn't hard to grasp the 'storyline' unfolding with each entry. Younger readers, or those with only a passing familiarity with Carter, might have a more difficult time, despite a modest timeline presented at the start of the book.

Still, there are no major historical surprises to be found; his combative relationship with Ted Kennedy is well known, as is the personal fondness for Gerald Ford and the equal disdain he had for Reagan. Each major crisis in the diary has been discussed in depth in prior memoirs, sometimes while quoting the diary itself.

So why bother reading it?

Day by day you explore the thought process behind the decisions that have shaped our world - a better question would be, why would you not want to read it?

That aside, I think it's invaluable for two reasons. One, while I've always had personal admiration for Carter's intelligence and ethics, it is reassuring to see that it wasn't an act (or if it was, a virtuoso performance worthy of equal respect). In particular, he seemed to be genuinely in love with his wife to a degree not seen by most honeymooners, much less an 'old' married couple. Good for him.

Two, it provides plenty of fodder to discuss just why his Presidency failed (or was/is perceived to have failed).

He is very intelligent, as I noted, but it's something he seems to take pains to impress upon the (future) reader. The annotations inevitably point out how he was correct, then lists the ways subsequent Presidents got the issue 'wrong'.

You get the impression this created a rigid, unshakable belief that he was in the right - leading, in turn, to a firm reluctance to tolerate criticism or change direction, and a horrific tendency to micromanage. The last bit just jumps off the page at the reader time and again.

He seemed to take his 'outsider' label a bit too seriously as well, charging headlong against the status quo, regardless of whether it was in the best interest of his Administration or its goals. He alienates his own Party, members of Congress, NOW, the Jewish community, Republicans, and perhaps most foolishly of all: the press. He (privately) calls several well known journalists liars, dictates scathing entries about The Washington Post, and refuses requests to appear at journalist dinners. Not the wisest path to take.

Carter finishes the book with an epilogue that agrees with my take (and goes even further). Of a more subjective nature is my feeling - and it is just a feeling - that there may be an undercurrent of Anti-Semitism in the diary. Unconscious, but there all the same.

It's one thing to disagree with Israel and its actions. But even taking into account his rather disagreeable experiences with Israel and its domestic supporters, there seems to be an inordinate amount of references to "American Jews", their backstabbing of his Presidency, and on at least one occasion a brief string of adjectives that straddle the line of caricature. He also seems to quickly dismiss the personality and value of the Israeli PM while slathering love on (Egypt's) Sadat.

Hey, maybe its legitimate gripes against an overbearing and presumptuous special interest group. I just got a feeling its a little bit more than that. I could be entirely off base. In fact, I hope I am.

I was also floored to discover that during his Presidency he was a member of a congregation that denied African-Americans the right to worship in the church. (see entry for 5 July, 1980, among others). Yes, as a member of the church he had voted unsuccessfully to allow them entrance, but that was in the '60's. That means that for at least a decade after the vote he continued to attend a segregated church. (in 1981 he left the congregation)

To me, that's inexcusable. By 1977 no President should have tolerated that discrimination so close to home, and I find it hard to believe it hasn't garnered more criticism over the years.

In closing - a good read and a valuable insight into the Presidency. A+

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