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Published: 10/3/2010

'White House Diary:' A view from the seat of power

BY STEVEN R. WEISMAN
NEW YORK TIMES

White House Diary. By Jimmy Carter. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 592 pages. $30.

Jimmy Carter's first book, "Why Not the Best?" - published in 1976 when he was a long shot running for president - introduced him charmingly as a born-again Christian, former Georgia governor, former naval officer, Sunday school teacher, and peanut farmer. But its frontispiece cast a shadow by quoting the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world."

That citation was an early sign that Carter would sometimes bear his presidency like a cross. Indeed, Carter's 25th book, "White House Diary," the edited and annotated journals of his turbulent years in office, recalls the plagues visited on him, many beyond his control, and the way he stumbled, suffered, tried to do the right thing, tried to understand his errors, and seemed to believe that politics in a fallen world doomed him to being unappreciated.

"This may be my last chance to offer an assessment of my time in the White House," the 86-year-old former president writes in his afterword. "Looking back, I am struck by how many unpopular objectives we pursued."

Even Carter's proudest accomplishments - the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and getting the hostages seized in Iran home safe - hardly helped his reputation, he notes, adding: "I was sometimes accused of 'micromanaging' the affairs of government and being excessively autocratic, and I must admit that my critics probably had a valid point."

Carter's diaries are not particularly rewarding to read in their entirety, with their endless pages of uninflected entries describing crowds, receptions, appointments, and meetings. Mixed in with such descriptions are asides about his wife, Rosalynn, and his family, mother, jogging, swimming (even skinny-dipping), bowling, fly-fishing, and his tennis topspin. In one annotation, Carter winces that the diary entries seem self-congratulatory.

"White House Diary" also adds little of substance that was not in Keeping Faith, Carter's 1982 memoir. Not surprisingly, the best parts of "White House Diary" mirror the best parts of "Keeping Faith": Carter's detailed accounts of the hostage crisis; the fateful (and perhaps fatal) decision to fire several cabinet members and lecture the country about a "crisis of confidence" in 1979 (the famous "malaise" speech, though he never used the word), and of course the negotiations between Israel and Egypt, during which he knelt and prayed when they stalled.

"Keeping Faith" was criticized as sanctimonious and unreflective, and unfortunately these qualities show up here - no surprise to those who either love or despise Carter for his advocacy of negotiating with Hamas and North Korea. Carter also has a tendency to introduce but not explain certain subjects, which is understandable in diary entries. The book's annotations help but are too often self-serving.

Yet patient readers will find "White House Diary" fascinating on two levels: The pace conveys a sense of what it is like to be president, and the entries contain blunt appraisals of the people with whom he dealt. Granted, Carter was singular in his approach to his office. "White House Diary" offers an early hint of his problems, for example, when he laments that he is inundated by piles of decision papers. Instead of reorganizing his staff, he decides to take an Evelyn Wood course in speed-reading.

But Carter's journals also intensely reflect the experience of any president being bombarded with one crisis after another. The calamities multiplied for Carter as the country dealt with rising prices, unemployment, gas lines, allies abroad killed or overthrown, hostages in Iran, embassies sacked, nuclear reactors melting down, nuclear arms impasse, Chrysler's bankruptcy, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In a familiar pattern for modern Democratic presidents, Republicans charged that Carter was soft on Russia and on inflation, while on the left Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.) led a revolt against Carter's budget cuts, his failure to halt spiraling energy prices, and eventually his presidency.

You can see how and why Carter sought comfort in solitary activities and in the pleasures of visiting celebrities, from Vladimir Horowitz to Sophia Loren, as well as in family activities, like sledding with his grandchildren and collecting arrowheads with his wife. The diaries give us an unusual combination of matters of state and efforts to escape.

"I worked hard all week, some of the most strenuous mental work of my life," Carter writes in 1979, for example, referring to the Camp David meetings held to recharge his faltering presidency. "Also, it's not easy for me to accept criticism, and to reassess my ways of doing things, to admit my mistakes. This was a week of intense reassessment. I ran every day from three to seven miles and swam afterward." The obsession with getting away brings bizarre moments, like the entry in which Carter decides to jog alone on the tow path in Georgetown but gets furious when the Secret Service, stuck in traffic, fails to pick him up at a boathouse, where it is freezing and he has no gloves: "I stood there about10 minutes while I fumed, then ran back into town."

As for Carter's unvarnished comments on personalities, "White House Diary" has already generated some publicity over its harsh view of Kennedy (who died last year) - obviously an implicit response to the unkind words about Carter in Kennedy's posthumous memoir published last September.

Carter notes acidly that Kennedy's ambitious health care ideas had no chance of passing, but were a good issue for him. He asserts that Kennedy felt entitled to the presidency, but that in their first encounter after Carter defeated him for the 1980 nomination, Kennedy had been drinking.

Equally unsparing are Carter's criticisms of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, and many of his own congressional allies and members of his cabinet, including Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.

That the language is blunt and occasionally a little un-Christian may come as a surprise. At a meeting with some lawmakers, Carter writes, "I told them in a nice way to go to hell." A certain Jewish leader "always acts like an ass," he writes. Congress is "just a bunch of disorganized juvenile delinquents."

"White House Diary" would have benefited from even more candor. But the writings here reflect the Carter we know: boastful and painfully confessional, sanctimonious and callous, insightful and un-self-aware. These are the thoughts of a secular preacher and calculating politician, surrounded by friends and yet often alone.



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