Despite the appealing image that President Jimmy Carter has tried to cultivate—of being open and candid and honest—doubt lingers as to how well he lives up to his own standards. Maybe they are impossibly high, but by proclaiming them so strongly, Carter should have expected to be judged harshly. The question is: How hard does he try?

Perhaps Jimmy Carter has not been president long enough, but it might be useful to try to put him in historical perspective. Let’s look first at the campaign of 1976.

As a candidate, Jimmy Carter was criticized—roundly and rightly, I believe—for being vague on the issues. It may be that he was not sufficiently well-informed or even sufficiently concerned to take strong positions. More charitably, you might speculate that he deliberately side-stepped controversy in the interests of continuing the post-Watergate healing process that Gerald Ford had nobly begun.

Whatever the motivation, the result was that Carter soft-pedaled ideology and instead appealed for support on the basis of that more amorphous quality he liked to call “character.” He consciously tried to subordinate substance to style. It is hard to remember, looking back, what major philosophical positions he took, what clear programmatic commitments he made—or even where, in general, he seemed to place himself on the political spectrum. On the other hand, it is easy to recall the personal image he projected: the soft-spoken Georgian outsider tilting with the Washington Goliath; a leader “as good as the American people”; our own latter-day George Washington who would never tell a lie.

If his purpose were simply to emerge as the least objectionable candidate and paper over party divisions, he could not have devised a better strategy. Avoiding specifics, he avoided giving offense. The constituency he cultivated was oriented to Jimmy Carter the man, rather than to any set of ideas, plans, and goals that he represented.

Now, I have no objection to a candidate selling himself on the basis of his innate virtue and honor; indeed, I wish there were more to go around. But although virtue and honor have their place and constitute a necessary consideration in electing a president, they are, in and of themselves, hardly sufficient.

The world is too complicated and precarious to be led by those who think good intentions are a reasonable substitute for knowledge and experience. The patience of our citizens is tried enough as it is to be governed by leaders who require on-the-job training in the massive and mysterious ways of the federal government. I’m all for fresh faces and new blood, but, really: The task is so challenging, you have to get off to a running start if you intend to have any impact.

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Yet I can understand the public mood that propelled the one-term Georgia governor to the highest office in our land. It was a mood that had soured on politicians who seem to know and promise too much. Issue-oriented campaigns like those of Goldwater and McGovern held unpleasant memories of ideological wrangling. Too specific and aggressive in their platforms, they antagonized as many voters as they attracted. As for the Hubert Humphreys and Gerald Fords, they were perceived, however unfairly, to be shop-worn apologists for any despised thing a voter associated with Washington.

Moreover, the credibility gap that had plagued administrations of both parties during the previous decade cheapened the very value of platforms and promises: They didn’t seem to be kept very often. In 1964, candidate Lyndon Johnson affected to be practically a peace-nik compared to his opponent. But shortly into his new term he plunged this nation into its most disastrous episode of war. Richard Nixon some years later campaigned on his unimpeachable record of anticommunism, and then, safely elected, announced to the world one night that he had decided to go to Peking and propose toasts to Chairman Mao.

Given the rapid pace of events in the third quarter of the twentieth century, it is possible voters found themselves hoping that false promises would not be made, that the president would preserve for himself the flexibility to examine each situation anew and adapt to changing circumstances. Finally, Americans had developed such a mainstream of values and policies that, to many, the critical concern about a candidate was not his stand on particular issues but more intangible things, such as his leadership ability or his trustworthiness. All in all, the electorate was left by 1976 not a little susceptible to candidates who were “fuzzy” on the issues, yet righteous in their rhetoric.

Jimmy Carter sensed this mood and exploited it well. In fact, he even went to the trouble of developing two quite different images to suit the new public mood. One conveyed competence, the ability to run the government efficiently and decisively; the other conveyed character, the ability to run it honestly and morally. He struck at times the pose of the competent manager: the Annapolis graduate who understood discipline, the nuclear engineer conversant in the detail and complexity of policy problems, the successful businessman who knew how to make decisions and meet a payroll. At other times Jimmy Carter could have been mistaken for a Baptist preacher: sprung up from the red clay of Georgia, heir to the homespun wisdom of a small-time farmer, just regular straight-and-narrow plain folk, making speeches from the stump that sounded like sermons from the pulpit.

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If the public wasn’t sure what specifics Carter stood for, one or another of those general images was apparently enough to convince it he could be president. After an era of worldly and sophisticated types at the White House who still managed to go so wrong, the romantic notion of the American presidency had again become appealing: that all it takes to run the country is common sense and hard work. That, of course, is why Truman has enjoyed such a revival. Lest Jimmy Carter lose a chance to bathe in reflected glory, you may remember that one of our new president’s first official acts was to recall from the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, that famous desk plate that says, “The Buck Stops Here.” It is reminiscent of the none-too-subtle way Richard Nixon once compared himself to a famous predecessor: When Watergate was at its height, and Nixon was coming under unceasing attack, he volunteered the analysis that Abraham Lincoln had been maligned in his day, too. Regrettably, this did not in truth make Nixon a Lincoln, nor is Jimmy Carter necessarily a Harry Truman.

Nonetheless, from the outset of his presidency, Carter behaved boldly, as though the comparison and confidence were deserved. It was the preacher and political activist in him coming out. He had not run for two long years to be president only to arrive at the White House and sit on the Truman balcony.

For all his previous fuzziness on the issues, it turned out Carter had a huge agenda tucked away in his coat pocket. He took it out, turned to Congress, and demanded immediate action. Among other things he wanted: national health insurance, welfare reform, an energy package that even Santa Claus couldn’t deliver, civil service reform, extensive reorganization of the Executive Branch, wholesale reforms of the tax code he had called a “disgrace to the human race,” hospital cost-containment, and a streamlining of Pentagon operations that would save the country a promised $8 billion.

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Never mind if these proposals were only half-developed or still in the conception stage, or if they were delivered to Congress with amazing naïveté about what it takes to get something passed in that complex, independent body. It should have surprised no one that the president found himself stalled on major fronts. And for having raised expectations so unrealistically high, respect for his performance plummeted all the more. He only slowly learned the need for compromise—let alone the art of it—and his relations with the Congress have often been in disrepair. His standing in the polls has been at times an embarrassment to the country as well as to the president himself.

It is one thing when the president acts this way on the domestic front; the damage can be limited because the Congress acts as a check and balance. In foreign affairs, however, where the president serves as our one spokesman, the damage can be much more severe and less reversible.

The litany of missteps is long and familiar: the confused and indelicate handling of Mideast matters, which has been overcome at strategic points largely because the countries involved are strong and independent enough to make progress on their own; the costly battles with the Senate over Panama and the F-15 sale to Saudi Arabia, which might have been averted by more adroit Congressional relations; the abortive Anglo-American initiatives in Rhodesia; the fiasco of our nonpolicy toward Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn of Africa; the quarrels with Japan over trade and with Pakistan over nuclear reprocessing; the blunt announcement of a timetable for Korean withdrawal, unnerving allies who hadn’t been consulted; and our dangerously unstable relations with the Soviet Union—and, in their trail, uncertain prospects for a timely, fair, and meaningful agreement on stragetic arms limitations. Even the much-touted administration success in lifting the Turkish arms embargo was achieved more in spite of, than because of, the president’s efforts, considering that on this issue Republicans were his mainstay, and fellow Democrats his leading antagonists.

The pattern in these cases is distressingly similar: Carter, the moralist, receives a revelation, hands it down uncompromisingly, and is startled when it is rebuffed. He then starts over at square one, having lost valuable time, as well as the advantage.

Perhaps the classic example of this modus operandi in foreign affairs was his early lecturing on human rights, which, admirable as its motivation, turned out to have been conducted in such a public and sanctimonious way as to provoke the pride of the offenders, cause hardening of positions, and in the end proved counterproductive. Carter’s actions, more ideological than practical, confirmed the age-old paradox that the best is sometimes the enemy of the good. Our black-and-white perceptions of right and wrong are not always shared universally, and to try to impose American standards on countries of widely varying circumstances itself raises moral questions. It’s true that much of the American public seemed in the last election to have soured on too much Kissinger-like realpolitik. Americans yearned for more undiluted morality in our foreign policy. This showed up in the responsive chord that both Carter and Reagan struck in seeming to take strong ideological stands on such issues as human rights and the Panama Canal. People do like to stand for something, and it is much more exciting to talk boldly than in a wishy-washy, though practical, way. And it is much more satisfying to the conscience.

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But look at it another way. If we’re really determined to be so perfectly moral, why is there no greater public outcry raised against continued deployment of tens of thousands of troops in Korea serving to defend the repressive regime of President Park? Why do we prop up Mobutu in Zaire with economic and military aid, or Baby Doc in Haiti, or Somoza in Nicaragua? For that matter, if we want to make an unambiguous moral statement, why not just unilaterally disarm this very moment?

Of course, the reason in all these cases is that foreign policy issues, like most situations, are complex and have to be judged in context rather than in isolation. America has many interests, and they all have to be assigned a certain importance and weighed one against the other. Opinions may differ on what policy is proper in those particular cases, but reasonable people should be of one mind that the decisions at the bottom line should be balanced. They cannot be dictated by any absolute standard. I believe that President Carter has come around to this viewpoint. I will credit him with this: He’s a good learner. It is unfortunate that the Administration has had to learn its lessons at the expense of the leadership our nation has urgently needed for two years.

Indeed, Carter’s greatest success on the foreign affairs front, the Camp David agreements, is testimony to how far the president has come around in terms of his diplomatic style and perspective, and a vindication of the approach favored by his predecessors. It is hard to remember at this point how severely he once criticized the quiet and personalistic diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, so much does he seem now to have emulated it, certainly in the instances of his success. With respect to Mideast peace, the discovery should not have been unexpected: Having first tried to impose grand American designs and exert public pressure on the sensitive parties, he finally realized that the most effective way to resolve problems is simply to let the parties negotiate for themselves, though the president can still perform a key role in getting them together and, in a low-key way, offering them options.

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Jimmy Carter is a good man; I respect him. But the problem is that he is too conscious of his image, and, unfortunately, hasn’t decided what kind of image to project. The unhappy result for both him and his country is that he sometimes exemplifies two very different personalities, alternating between one of excessive moralism, and one that represents politics-as-usual, when he seems to suspend his proudest virtues. We are left to wonder: Why not choose a more down-to-earth middle ground? Say what you mean, and mean what you say. For a decent man, morality at that point will only come naturally.

John B. Anderson is a Republican congressman from Rockford, Illinois.

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