Jimmy Carter is no Harry Truman

The World Is Too Complicated to Substitute Good Intentions for Experience

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 ...

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