Bill Moyers discusses the first two tentative and erratic years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Experts James Fallow, Brooks Holifield, Nicholas Von Hoffman, Bill Miller, Reynolds Price and Charles Hamilton share their opinions.
WATCH A CLIP
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do solemnly swear…
HARRY S. TRUMAN: I, Harry S. Truman, do solemnly swear…
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, do solemnly swear…
JOHN F. KENNEDY: I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear…
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I, Lyndon Baines Johnson, do solemnly swear…
RICHARD M. NIXON: I, Richard Milhous Nixon, do solemnly swear…
JIMMY CARTER: I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear…
Chief Justice WARREN BURGER: … that I will faithfully execute …
JIMMY CARTER: …that I will faithfully execute …
CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN BURGER: … the office of President of the United States …
JIMMY CARTER: … the office of President of the United States …
CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN BURGER: . . . and will, to the best of my ability…
JIMMY CARTER: … and will, to the best of my ability …
CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN BURGER: … preserve, protect and defend …
JIMMY CARTER: … preserve, protect and defend … the Constitution of the United States …
JIMMY CARTER: … the Constitution of the United States …
CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN BURGER: … so help me God.
JIMMY CARTER: … so help me God .
CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN BURGER: Congratulations. (Applause from onlookers.)
BILL MOYERS: It’s been two years since Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States — two years since he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, waving and smiling, into the White House. In this, the last year of the 1970s, the second half of his term, it’s time for an assessment, time to look at Jimmy Carter. Just as important, it’s time to look at the Presidency — its problems and powers — and what we expect now from the man we elected two years ago. To take that look we’ve come to the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, where six of our fellow citizens have convened to ask the questions a lot of us have been asking about the man and the office. But when you assess any President you’re probing the country itself, so as the people you’re about to meet talk about Jimmy Carter in the White House, they will also be holding up a mirror in which we may learn something about ourselves.
In Bloomington to talk about Carter and country are: James Fallows, who returned to journalism recently after serving as President Carter’s chief speechwriter; Brooks Holifield, a theological historian who is an expert on Carter’s religion; Nicholas Von Hoffman, a nationally syndicated essayist; political scientist Charles Hamilton, from Columbia University; novelist Reynolds Price, who talks about Jimmy Carter’s Southern roots; and Bill Miller, a scholar and author on the American Presidency. An insider, a theologian, a novelist, a columnist and two political scholars together explore Jimmy Carter and the office of the Presidency …
JIMMY CARTER: When I was running for President I made a number of commitments. I take them very seriously. I believe that they were the reason that I was elected, and I want you to know that I intend to carry them out.
JAMES FALLOWS, Presidential Speechwriter: Carter, a man who in most ways knows his own mind very thoroughly, in his first year in Washington eventually got beaten off his own course by the unremitting reports that he was doing things wrong, because he was doing them the way they hadn’t been done before.
REYNOLDS PRICE, Novelist: I watch the evening news every night; my perception is that the country sort of feels that he’s fading from view.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD, Theological Historian: In America we tend to equate being a religious person with being a good person. That, to me, seems to be quite a false equation.
WILLIAM MILLER, Essayist: I’m a Carter supporter, I voted for him. It’ll probably work out that I will vote for him again. But I’m not a happy Carter supporter. I’m not a fully satisfied Carter supporter.
CHARLES HAMILTON, Political Scientist: I would say that the line — economic policy line — being pursued is not meeting the needs of a substantial portion of black constituency, yes. Of course.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN, Journalist: … about our day-to-day lives. Don’t you have the — you know, you go through like four or five days and then somebody says, “Carter.” And you say, “Oh, yeah, Carter! I forgot all about him. Nice fella.”
BILL MOYERS: The participants in Bloomington talked about the forces that have shaped Jimmy Carter’s performance: his religion, the influence of the South, his character, the expectations he aroused among his followers in 1976, and especially his unusual ties to blacks. During the opening session, different views of Carter emerged quickly, especially when Jim Fallows, his former speechwriter, and political columnist Nick Von Hoffman tried to define Jimmy Carter.
JAMES FALLOWS: He is a good man in the sense of being — I would trust him to deal with my fate fairly, if it came to that, and I can’t say that about any other recent Presidents. I think there have been two significant achievements that you can attribute to those qualities of Carter’s. One is that he has not been a dishonest President in any important way. I think that he will serve out his four years or his eight years without people feeling that there has been yet another President who lied to them about very important things. I think the other way in which those personal qualities have an importance is in foreign policy. I think Nixon — excuse me, Carter — unlike the last three or four of our Presidents, is a confident and whole person who doesn’t need to prove to anybody that he is smart, that he is tough, that he is a he-man. That and his honesty are two important personal achievements.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: I think another way you can describe Carter’s arrival among us is that we had to elect some President. (Laughter from audience.)
You also find in a Jimmy Carter a guy who — he may not have been very well known to us, but he was very well known to the members of the Trilateral Commission. In other words, he was not a scary type to Wall Street, he was not a scary type to George Meany. I mean, for example, there are people that have even described him as sort of a Southern-fried Jerry Ford. This is not some strange tropical fruit we’ve got here. (Laughter.)
This is a basic, mainline American.
BILL MOYERS: As these men debated their perceptions of Carter and wondered about his effectiveness, the thought struck some of us in the audience that only five years ago very few Americans even knew who the man was. That’s most starkly demonstrated in this look back at what must have been one of his first— if not the first — major appearances on national television.
TELEVISION ANNOUNCER: Come on, let’s all play “What’s My Line?” “X.” (Applause from audience.)
MODERATOR: Panel, all I can tell you about Mr. X is that he provides a service, and we will now show the audience who our guest is and what his line is. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: And let’s begin the questioning with Arlene Francis.
ARLENE FRANCIS: I can rule out that you are a government official of any kind, can’t I?
JIMMY CARTER: No.
SECOND PANEL MEMBER: You know, Mr. X has a very spiritual quality. Does he recruit nuns?
BILL MOYERS: As Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, he told us who he was. He said he represented an older, simpler America; he had grown up in the rural South with a strong religious tradition; valued his family life, and was a graduate of the Naval Academy; he’d been a successful businessman, member of the local school board and state legislature; and served one term as Governor of Georgia. His rapid rise to the highest office in the nation was a surprise. In the first election since Vietnam and Watergate, many said Carter won because he seemed a decent man. He promised he’d never lie. He ran his campaign with a quiet, evangelical fervor, almost like a missionary preacher from the Deep South calling his country to repentance. But two years later, some critics charge that Jimmy Carter’s many identities have weakened him as President. (April 14, 1976)
JIMMY CARTER: There are people who have confidence in me because I’m a farmer, because I’m an engineer, a scientist, a businessman, because I’ve worked closely with black people, because I have a good record on civil rights, because I know how to run a government.
BILL MOYERS: Throughout the campaign he revealed various identities, and voters seemed to respond to the symbols.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: Who can forget his list of identities? “I am a farmer, an engineer, a businessman, a Christian, a planner, a nuclear physicist,” and he even threw in Bob Dylan as the minstrel of the anti-hero. Carter did not simply present himself as a decent man. He picked up on images of the hero that have marked our cultural history, and the voters were responding to images that were deeply rooted in our culture; and yet it now seems that the absence of a clear consensus about the hero among the people who form our opinions indeed makes it more difficult for Jimmy Carter to govern, especially if political parties are weak and Congress lacks cohesion.
BILL MOYERS: Ironically, it may have been the very symbols that got him elected that also resulted in much of the early criticism of Carter as President. Political cartoonists from the onset mocked his Southern roots. (Sequence of political cartoons.)
BILL MOYERS: Carter’s Presidential style also provoked caricatures. Remember when he set out to talk directly with us through a radio call-in show? (March 6, 1977.)
CALLER: I’m wondering, what is the justification, with you trying to reduce the federal budget, the justification behind the $12,000 pay increase for Congress? How can you lower the budget by giving them $12,000 a year, and us fifty dollars back?
JIMMY CARTER: (Laughing.) Joe, that’s a hard question for me to answer. I think …
CALLER: That’s why I thought I’d throw it at you.
BILL MOYERS: Not even that was sacred. (NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”)
“WALTER CRONKITE” (BILL MURRAY): Good evening, and welcome to Number Ten in the CBS radio series, “Ask President Carter,” a continuing experiment in Presidential communication with the American people. Mr. President, our first call this week comes from Mrs. Edward Hovrath, or maybe it’s Hobraith …
“Mrs. HORVATH”: That’s Horvath.
“WALTER CRONKITE” (BILL MURRAY):Mrs. Edward Horvath, ‘scuse me, of Maple Trace, Kansas.
“PRESIDENT CARTER” (DAN AYKROYD): Hello, Mrs. Horvath.
“Mrs. HORVATH”: Hello, Mr. President, how are you today?
“PRESIDENT CARTER” (DAN AYKROYD): Very fine. Could you turn your radio down, please?
BILL MOYERS: Once the style of the Carter Presidency seemed to wear thin, political criticism centered on the absence of a clear White House position on a range of issues. Critics said Carter didn’t have a predictable ideology. The panel in Bloomington talked about the problem.
WILLIAM MILLER: He is the President with the least ideological formation of any President since Eisenhower— and who else would there be in the twentieth century who would match those two? — as to unideological good men who represented a kind of set of personal qualities without much formation as to the direction that they wanted to lead the country. Had Carter been the kind of ideological leader who could do that, he would have made an enormous difference. He still could; I shouldn’t put this in the past tense, Jim.
JAMES FALLOWS: The reason that you’re trapped when you don’t have one is that if you go down a list of fifty subjects, you all could probably — and I could certainly— tell you Carter’s position on each one of those fifty, if it’s inflation or nuclear bombs or whatever. What you can’t do, because there is not an ideology from this administration, is predict what the choices will be when those positions come into conflict, when the often-stated goal to protect the environment runs into the often-stated goal of fighting inflation. Because there is not the big picture presented of where the choices are made, you can’t marshal the troops into action because the outlines are fuzzy. There’s only been one place so far where Carter has had to state that choice, and that’s in the choice between inflation and unemployment, where he was forced by events to say inflation is the one we’ll fight, even though that’s a choice which means backing off on unemployment. But those choices, down the rest of the fifty items, are not there.
REYNOLDS PRICE: I think he does have an ideology. He’s told us constantly what it is. He’s a Protestant Puritan Christian, and more than anything else in the world he believes that…
WILLIAM MILLER: That’s not a political ideology.
REYNOLDS PRICE: No, it is. And more than anything else in the world, this man believes that all this stuff is vanity.
JAMES FALLOWS: Your Protestantism can be an ideology if you’re a cleric; it can’t be that if you’re a President and have to fight inflation.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Whatever his private VlSlon is, he isn’t going to get very far if he gets out of line.-
JAMES FALLOWS: Unless he were better at getting his out-of-line view across.
WILLIAM MILLER: Didn’t John Kennedy, facing as difficult a political situation as to his own goals, all things culturally considered, make a very considerable difference in restoring to American culture a sense that we could move ahead? And he had a kind of articulateness and a turning of himself into a symbolic figure for the nation, even though he was hamstrung, I would say, as much, maybe more, than Carter.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Well, look, there’s no doubt John Kennedy was a lot of people’s pin-up boy. But if we talk about what he did, he was the head of a very ascendant, very powerful war party; but not backed only — not just out of the White House. I mean, there was an enormous desire to do that in all kinds of places in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And when you get that kind of thing you can get a President who looks extremely powerful but in fact is going along with a kind of tide that he didn’t create but was certainly there.
JAMES FALLOWS: If you take the President’s position, be it warmongering, or whatever Carter’s may be, there are at least two groups that he has to either sell it to or not sell it to; one is the public and the other is the Congress. And Kennedy was no better than Carter at getting things through the Congress. He was better at selling them to the public, and I think if Carter could sell them better to the public then he would better be able to get across what he’s trying to do. Of course, we have to define what that is.
REYNOLDS PRICE: He did sell it to the public very well while he was running for President, it seems to me; extraordinarily well, and in the first six months of …
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: But what did he sell?
REYNOLDS PRICE: … first three months of the Presidency. Well, I think he sold his own peculiarly fresh personality.
JAMES FALLOWS: Right. But that’s because the choices between the different parts of his personality and his personal quirks, none of those contradictions had come out yet, he didn’t have to choose yet between jobs and inflation.
REYNOLDS PRICE: Right.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: But gentlemen, we can say the same thing about Kennedy. He sold his glamorous personality. But try and translate that into legislation; and then, you know, you get down to who’s got what kind of power and force.
BILL MOYERS: During this session Nick Von Hoffman differed strikingly with the other panel members on the powers of the Presidency. I talked with him about it in a separate interview. You obviously, then, do not agree with the current clichÈ that the President is the most powerful office in the world.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: No. There is no imperial Presidency; there never has been an imperial Presidency. You have Presidents that look very strong when, for reasons that they don’t really don’t control and certainly don’t conjure up, there is a kind of united agreement on policy and a great deal of energy behind it. I mean, Lyndon Johnson, in the early years of the 1960s, the mid-years, he looked very, very powerful. He did indeed look like an emperor, because America was going to war, all the power groups in the society were united behind it, and he was speaking for them. And then in a matter of three or four years he looked terribly weak, because his own supporters, realizing that they had misjudged the nature of this conflict, divided, and he found that he wasn’t at all strong.
BILL MOYERS: Then who’s running Washington?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Oh, the same people that are always running Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Who?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Both the Congress and the congress of interests that are the center of our political decision- making system.
WILLIAM MILLER: One question that runs through our remarks is, does who’s President make any difference?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Oh, everybody makes a difference. Even Presidents. (Laughter from audience, panel members.)
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Everybody makes a difference; whether it’s a decisive difference is another matter.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think it’s probably true that Franklin Roosevelt could do more in 1932 than he could have done in 1924, but it’s certainly clear that Roosevelt could do more in ’32 than Coolidge could have. And to argue — a lot of my former employees make the same argument about the administration’s failure to move the nation now, that, oh, we can’t help it, it’s the product of the times, blah, blah, blah. And I just — I mean, that’s partly true, but I think that it’s always possible to do a lot more than the last two Presidents have done.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: But I can also, you know, remind you that if you take Franklin Roosevelt, that he was a man who found in the early months of his Presidency he had power dumped on him that scared the bejabbers out of him and that he refused to use.
JAMES FALLOWS: But he used more than a lot of other people would and thereby helped shape the times that then gave him his powers …
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Well, but I think …
REYNOLDS PRICE: But he was perceived as using an enormous amount of power.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Well, but of course he was pushed into it by his times, and very specifically he was pushed into it by that large delegation of industrialists who went to him and said, “Listen, here’s an outline for the New Deal, you’ve gotta do this.”
JAMES FALLOWS: Let me give you a more up-to-date illustration. I’ll try not to run over. If you remember again, just twenty-four months ago, in the months between Carter’s election and his inauguration, or the first month or so after his inauguration, there was an enormous expectation, I thought, that this man would help set a different tone, that there was something that this man could do; and I think if he had some gifts which he does not have, especially those of public persuasion, he could have done a lot of things that are now blamed on the times.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Look, just a brief rejoinder. I think there was on the part of a very small number of people an enormous expectation. But I think — listen, almost fifty percent of the people eligible to vote in the country were so interested in the election they didn’t bother to vote. (Laughter.)
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: You’ve got to remember, Carter was still elected by — what was it? — twenty percent, or something like that, or twenty-seven percent of the entire electorate. So that I don’t think it was there; and when you talk about being trapped in your times, part of that is this molasses of people that say no, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Nick, when was the last time you voted?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: I think — national. Local is a different story. 1960.
BILL MOYERS: 1960?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Nineteen years ago?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Yeah, I guess. Yeah, that’s right; yeah.
BILL MOYERS: No guilt over the years for abstaining?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Pride; pride.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: First of all, I was part of the wave of the future. Millions of my fellow countrymen have joined me. (Laughing.)
BILL MOYERS: But why would you make a lifetime commitment out of one disillusioning experience in a single election?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Oh, no, no, no. I wasn’t disillusioned. Remember, disillusionment in the voting process comes not from having your candidate beaten but by having your candidate elected. (Laughing.) No one is disillusioned by defeat, it’s victory that demoralizes us.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Because you then find all your expectations that your hero had led you to believe he was going to do, fall.
BILL MOYERS: The audience in Bloomington wanted to pursue the question.
QUESTIONER FROM AUDIENCE: Aren’t minorities and indeed, us all — placing too much dependency on the office of the Presidency?
REYNOLDS PRICE: I agree entirely that the burden is perhaps too much for any single man to bear, but it seems to me the central fault of the American Constitution that the Constitution does not give this country any spiritual leader. We don’t have a monarch, and we don’t have the head of an established church in this country. Therefore the President has to be all these things for us: you know, big daddy, scapegoat, king, spiritual leader, ultimate father — and my God, whose shoulders can bear that?
BILL MOYERS: Many Americans who did want their President to be a spiritual leader thought Jimmy Carter had spent a lot of time boning up on the role: years of Bible reading, prayer meeting, Sunday schooling, and B.Y.P.U. (May 6, 1976. Carter as candidate.)
JIMMY CARTER: I feel like I have one life to live; I feel that God wants me to do the best I can with it. And that’s quite often my major prayer, let me live my life so that it will be meaningful. I have a sense of peace and just self-assurance — I don’t know where it comes from — that what I’m doing is the right thing. I assume, maybe in an unwarranted way, that that’s doing God’s will. And this is embarrassing, a little bit, for me to talk about, because it’s personal, but in my relationship with Christ and with God I became able in the process, to look at it in practical terms, to accept defeat, to get pleasure out of successes, to be at peace with the world. In the modern-day world you don’t have that; it’s a mobile world, and things to cling to are kind of scarce, and few and far between. But maybe we could go back to some of those old principles that we knew when we went to B.Y.P.U. on Sunday afternoon (laughs), and at the same time keep the advantages of a modern world. I’m sure we can keep the advantages of the modern world, but going back to those principles that give stability are things that we’re still searching for; we haven’t found them yet.
BILL MOYERS: I’d better explain to people that B.Y.P.U. means Baptist Young People’s Union.
JIMMY CARTER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: What was your favorite Baptist hymn?
JIMMY CARTER: Well — “Amazing Grace.” It still is.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: We have learned to fear the mixture of political and religious rhetoric in America, and with good reason. President McKinley fell to his knees and heard God tell him to conquer the Philippines. Woodrow Wilson fell to his knees in prayer and discovered that World War I was a crusade. Lyndon Johnson proposed that we build a monument to God while his bombers were flying over Buddhist temples. Richard Nixon propped up his prestige with prayer meetings and court evangelists. Carter has not fallen to his knees and discovered that we needed to conquer Panama. Now, that is not to suggest that Carter has never displayed his religious faith for a political effect; he has. And I think that there is a hard, aggressive, abrasive side to Carter; that, too — perhaps fortunately — is part of his complexity, and in some measure it reflects the religious culture that formed him. He views himself as a man forever at war with oversimplification. When he’s not campaigning he returns in his speeches and interviews to images suggesting complexity, complication, the balance of opposing points of view, the blending of conflicting virtues, and it’s precisely for this reason that reflection on Carter’s religion exposes so much about his Presidency. His religion reveals a complexity, not a simplicity.
JIMMY CARTER: The simplest decisions that I have to make are the ones about which I know least. The more you know about a subject, all the complexities on both sides, the detailed, intricate arguments, the more difficult it is to make a decision. If you don’t know much about a subject, you make a very quick and easy decision.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Jim, you’ve lived around this man for two years. What do you make of all this?
JAMES FALLOWS: I wonder if it’s possible to take his religion too seriously as a way of understanding Carter. I think that two years ago when he was emerging, that was one of many things which sounded different about him and therefore was a subject for speculation; and it may well be that all the things that you’ve said are true in understanding the way he works. But it seems to me that the two of his traits which I find morally most interesting and most … important in the way he’s run the government so far don’t necessarily have anything to do with religion. One is an appreciation for the frailty of mankind and an awareness day by day that there, but for the grace of God, go I, in the gutter. That, as a trait, I think, is a genuine one in Carter; I’m not sure it’s a religious one. I think the people who — it may spring from religion in his case, but other people who are not …
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: See, but that’s the point. In his case it does spring from religion. The argument for that would be that he’s formed in a religious culture. The small-town South is a religious culture. And are many things about that that are not admirable, but in this instance…
REYNOLDS PRICE: It’s a small-town situation in which intimacy is the key to the response rather than a specifically religious thing. I think they’re sort of indissolubly welded, since the religion comes in very early at that level and the intimacy is fed by the religious emotion.
JAMES FALLOWS: Let me just bring up the other moral trait I find in Carter, which, again, I don’t hear him using religious rhetoric much to push, and that is the belief that those who have privilege in a society have a responsibility to use it in a charitable and noble way; and that is what usually lies behind his attacks on the lawyers or the doctors or whatever else. And I have not heard him talking about that in “religious” ways.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: In Georgia, probably where he felt freer to use religious rhetoric, he did always -well, he did combine those two. And it was always God-given abilities, God-given talents. Now, I think Carter is extraordinarily sensitive now -even more so than he was — about the separation of church and state.
CHARLES HAMILTON: In your presentation you’ve helped me understand some things that I’ve been concerned about. I saw a person in the ’50s and ’60s in rather key positions. Bill mentioned the other day, or the other session, a superintendent— no …
WILLIAM MILLER: On the school board, in Sumter County.
CHARLES HAMILTON: School board, state senator in a very important state in the South — as you know, some of those local politicians are very important — so that I would assume, and I’m asking this for your reaction, that his sense of rough justice would permit him to, if I may use the term again, sit out the ’50s and ’60s the way he did.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: I wish I could say yes. I rather doubt that. I imagine he sat out the ’50s and ’60s because it was a more comfortable thing to do. He often acknowledges he sat out the ’50s and ’60s. The difference is — and I think quite early, when it didn’t have quite the political payoff it does now — is that he said, “And I was wrong to do so.” I mean, I really think he felt guilty. Later he felt guilty about it.
CHARLES HAMILTON: I have not heard that. I didn’t know that.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: I remember being a newspaper reporter in Americus, Georgia, where he was part of a state senatorial district during some of the serious civil rights troubles, and you couldn’t find him; he was just an absolutely invisible man. I don’t know. I listen to all the discussion about Carter’s religion; I’m sure that in some personal way it does form him. But on the other hand what I see is kind of your American Sunday Christian, you know; he goes to church every Sunday, I’m sure he believes it, et cetera, and I think he leaves it there. And I think there is a more immediate kind of explanation for why he sat out the ’60s, was, anybody in electoral politics in the South who got mixed into it was destroyed. You had to choose. If you were going to go up the ladder in the South in the ’60s, you couldn’t take a strong stand. He took a strong stand when it became politically safe to take a strong stand, which means that he is an effective politician, at least in the sense of advancing his own career — which I don’t think is wrong; I think ambition has a real place in our society. I don’t fault him for that. But he made a certain kind of choice.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: I think you’re right, and you can even look at that governor’s race, in which his appeal to the Wallace voters was not a very subtle appeal; it was a pretty — most Wallace voters have difficulty understanding subtle appeals … (Laughter from participants.)
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: And Nick, the appeal ~hat he made was not a subtle one.
REYNOLDS PRICE: I think we might concede him that in the ’50s and the ’60s very few Southerners of his education and social class believed that the situation was alterable. Certainly they didn’t believe it was alterable from within. And I’m not altogether sure that we can’t give Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter some of the benefit of that doubt, that it really in a way hadn’t occurred to them that it was possible to do this.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Well, don’t you think — I don’t know, I think there’s an iron law of American politics that’s involved here. You can be a leader or you can be in electoral politics, but you can’t be both. There is no example in the twentieth century of any significant idea or force coming into our public life through elected officials. I mean, who is the most …
WILLIAM MILLER: If he had marched in Albany, he wouldn’t be President.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: He wouldn’t be President. Who is the most important …
CHARLES HAMILTON: We weren’t asking for him to march in Albany. I’m sorry, Nick, we were asking for him not to be silent. Look, I’m sorry I interrupted you; go ahead.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Well, all I was going to say is that the most important political figure in that period — the most creative, et cetera, et cetera -has to have been Martin Luther King. The most important American politician in the late ë50s and the 1960s was Martin Luther King. Got the most done, did the most; far more important, much more effective than any President in that period. Couldn’t have been elected to anything anywhere.
JAMES FALLOWS: He could have been a Congressman.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Mayb — towards the end of his career, after he had already succeeded … you know.
SEVERAL SPEAKERS: You re right, You’re right.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: So you have to make a choice in our political system: do you want to lead or do you want to get elected? You can’t do both; he chose to get elected.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: But that really does bring us back to the religion thing, because, a) Martin Luther King recognized, precisely as a politician, two things. He recognized, first, you had to bring some kind of force and power into the situation. He recognized that that alone was not enough but that there was also a religious-moral tradition to which one could appeal that would enable people who were being pushed and forced to begin to accept, to accommodate themselves to what in any case they were going to have to accommodate themselves to. It was precisely a religious and moral rhetoric that he used, and I don’t think that moral rhetoric, that religious rhetoric, was insignificant politically in his …
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Oh, I think it was very important in King’s politics.
BILL MOYERS: Should we care whether a politician is religious or irreligious?
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: I think that the question is, should we care whether a man’s character has been formed by a tradition that gives it substance? Some religious traditions can form character in that way, sometimes. Some moral-humanist traditions can as well. When a religious tradition does that, then I think that we should be grateful.
BILL MOYERS: Jimmy Carter’s religion did unquestionably shape his personal approach to the Presidency. As voters we received a measure of that during his campaign. His primary theme — and remember, it was the first Presidential campaign on this side of the credibility gap created by Vietnam and Watergate — his primary theme was that he would never lie to us as President of the United States. (Wisconsin primary.)
JIMMY CARTER: The American people are honest. Our government is not honest! In many ways it isn’t. The American people tell the truth. I see no reason for anyone in government to ever lie. We’ve had misleading statements made to us, in domestic and foreign policy. When I first began to campaign I made a simple statement: that as a candidate and as a President I’ll never tell a lie.
BILL MOYERS: That promise raised eyebrows then. And here in Bloomington it became an issue when Jim Fallows was asked by an audience questioner:
QUESTIONER FROM AUDIENCE: Again, Hr. Fallows, has Jimmy Carter ever lied to us?
JAMES FALLOWS: Uh — (pause) … (Scattered laughter from audience.)
BILL MOYERS: The reason Fallows has paused is that he is aware of one well, at least one — Presidential indiscretion. In my interview with him in November I asked President Carter: You were criticized, I know, talking about details, for keeping the log yourself of who could use the White House tennis courts. Are you still doing that?
JIMMY CARTER: No; I never have, by the way.
BILL MOYERS: Was that a false report?
JIMMY CARTER: Yes, it was.
JAMES FALLOWS: In a man who I generally admire greatly and who, like the rest of us, has flaws, one of his least attractive qualities is a tendency not to tell the truth on small matters. One we were discussing at dinner before we came here was, Bill Moyers asked him on an interview a couple of weeks ago, “Why did you assign use of the tennis court?” And Carter said, “I didn’t do that.” Well, in fact he did. I mean, I don’t know of him ever having lied on anything of more consequence than that; but he tends to fuzz the truth in the “I am a nuclear physicist” type. He’s not a nuclear physicist, but he says that.
BILL MOYERS: If you learned that Jimmy Carter had lied to us, would it matter to you?
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: No. Jimmy Carter is going to lie to us. I think my own religious vision of the world accepts that Jimmy Carter is going to make mistakes, he’s going to lie, and he’s going to do some ignoble things, precisely because he’s quite the finite, fallible, weak creature like I am.
BILL MOYERS: But your critics might say, “Yet this man campaigned across the breadth and the depth of the land in 1976 promising, ‘I won’t lie to you.’”
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: He should have listened to his mother. She told him to shut up.
BILL MOYERS: (Laughs.)
BILL MOYERS: During the next session of the forum, the panel moved from a discussion of whether Jimmy Carter can turn the personal virtue of decency into moral leadership, to a look at Carter’s Southern heritage and how that affects his ability to deal with domestic issues.
REYNOLDS PRICE: Jimmy Carter is intensely a product of his world. That formative background distinguishes him from a majority of white Americans. He possesses direct and close understanding of black Americans. He is the first such President since Andrew Johnson 110 years ago.
BILL MOYERS: When blacks voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, what did they expect of him?
CHARLES HAMILTON: I think they expected — and wanted — the economic policies of a Franklin Roosevelt and the — how shall I say? — cultural identification of a Martin Luther King.
BILL MOYERS: And they got?
CHARLES HAMILTON: I think they got a harsh economic lesson.
BILL MOYERS: It’s precisely the difference between Carter’s Southern roots — especially his cultural and religious ties to black voters — and Carter’s performance as President that illustrates the tension in the Carter record of the past two years. Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Carter in 1976, but their leaders soon felt betrayed by the lack of response to black aspirations for a greater slice of the gross national product.
(January 19, 1978.)
JIMMY CARTER: Last year was a good one for the United States. We reached all of our major economic goals for 1977.
(January 17, 1978.)
VERNON JORDAN: We in the Urban League cannot share that view. For black Americans 1977 was a year of continued depression with unacceptably high unemployment and a widening income gap.
BILL MOYERS: Charles Hamilton led the discussion on Carter and the blacks.
CHARLES HAMILTON: I’m suggesting that a Carter candidacy and Presidency represented in a curious and interesting kind of way a kind of latter-day rapprochement between blacks, the South and this country. Now, Carter also represented a kind of new identity with and attachment to black religious culture. When he said, for instance, “Amen,” as he sat in a pulpit in a black church, it was very clear to a lot of blacks that he understood that. Northern white liberals, then, clearly might be the friends of blacks, but Jimmy Carter, in that kind of religious connection, epitomized something more. Therefore, blacks in a way became responsible for Carter’s campaign and his victory. In a curious way, then, this was as close as blacks could come in national Presidential politics to saying, “One of our boys made it.” If civil rights in the traditionally understood sense were still the issue predominantly — that is to say, obstinate vot.er registrars in the South, governors standing in schoolhouse doorways, and so forth— it’s very clear, as far as blacks are concerned, that Carter would be a great President. But the agenda now is different. Problems now are couched in terms of affirmative action, job plans, say, on the police force in Detroit. And it’s likely the case that blacks bought a candidate who would clearly be right on issues which are no longer primarily important — substantially important. The black frustration, if it’s there— and I suspect it is, to a certain extent — with Mr. Carter today is less a matter of Carter’s switch than it is, I’m suggesting, of black misperception.
(January 19, 1978.)
JIMMY CARTER: Government cannot solve our problems; it can’t set our goals; it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy, or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy. And government cannot mandate goodness.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think will happen among blacks if he continues to pursue that policy?
CHARLES HAMILTON: I think clearly what we can see, what we can predict, is not acts of mass expressive violence but acts of what I call individualized instrumental violence. You’re going to see the rise of muggings, boosting, individual acts of crime against the person and property in these urban areas. Crime’s going to go up.
BILL MOYERS: What should the President do in this kind of …
CHARLES HAMILTON: Be the leader. Lead the dialogue. If he says he doesn’t really care if he’s reelected the next time, then fine, go out on something important. That is to say, engage the discussion; go to Salem, Mass., or wherever you go, you know, when you go to these little — and just talk plain, simple economic lessons. Start the dialogue.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: You spoke of blacks. Can one speak anymore of blacks? Are blacks still united on those economic issues? I come from Atlanta, where there’s one of the largest middle-class black communities in the United States, and I suspect that there would be widespread support there for Carter’s anti-inflation policies.
CHARLES HAMILTON: It’s very clear, even in Atlanta, that what we are seeing is the development of a public- sector black middle class.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Exactly. Exactly.
CHARLES HAMILTON: And that public-sector black middle class has substantially different orientations toward public policy outputs. By that I mean if you would look at the June 6, 19 — God, I really have to be careful — June 1978 vote in California on Proposition 13, how did blacks vote? Two to one against Proposition 13. It’s very clear that blacks are concerned about higher taxes and inflation, and so forth; but black middle class is still very tied to a public-sector economy. See? And therefore they are going to be oriented toward public policy outputs in a substantially different way than their white counterparts.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Hear, hear. I think you’re absolutely right about that, and I think there’s a follow-up to it, which is that if you look at Carter, he is committed— insofar as he’s stimulating employment, et cetera — he’s primarily committed to trying to do it through a private sector. I mean he’s said it over and over again, and yet …
CHARLES HAMILTON: There’s no question of that.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: … you’re absolutely right, the private sector is completely unable to supply significant new middle-class employment for blacks.
CHARLES HAMILTON: Nick, I agree with you, and that is the debate we’ve got to engage. For some reason or other, we skirt that. I’m saying, if what you say is correct — and I happen to believe it is — then why can’t we have a serious, honest discussion about that? You see; and I’m saying, why can’t the White House take a leadership role in that public debate?
QUESTIONER FROM AUDIENCE: I was interested in the comment before about the fact that basically the black voter, whether middle class or lower class, working class, et cetera, comes out the same— you know, that essentially the blackness is the greater overpowering magnet in the vote. Where does the fact of blackness come into their commonly being tied into the public sector?
CHARLES HAMILTON: I think that to the extent that it’s been the public sector that has been one of the major routes for upward mobility in the last decade or two is it, you know. In Harlem, three budgets support that community: the OEO, Model Cities, and the Community School Board. All of those are public sector. And a lot of the middle-income blacks who have gotten jobs as a function of the OEO programs and so forth — well, now middle-income, but also in public sector budgets — that’s one tie-in.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: Maybe we could put it another way and say that if you look at the black middle class and the white middle class you will find X percentage of whites are capitalists; that is, they literally own stock in the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. I think if you examined the financial position of most of the members of the black middle class you would discover that they are not capitalists …
CHARLES HAMILTON: No question.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: … in a capitalist land, and therefore they have a very special relationship to the government, because they have no ownership of capital. They are excluded from capitalism. And Carter is committed to having no significant change in the patterns of ownership of capital.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that your diagnosis is right, that Carter’s dealings with blacks are, to me, the very starkest example of the contrast between symbol and performance in the office, because everything I have seen leads me to suspect that Carter is very conscious of things like standing in a church and saying, “Amen,” addressing black crowds as “brothers and sisters,” and all the rest— things that Teddy Kennedy could not do — knows there is a difference between doing that and passing a public service jobs bill, and hopes that by doing the symbolic things he won’t have to do the others. I mean, he’s not going to do the others one way or the other.
BILL MOYERS: This discussion of black hope and Carter compromise illustrates one of the President’s most critical predicaments. He walks a high wire, juggling a multitude of special interests. Questions from the audience throughout the Bloomington sessions showed the range of those interests.
FIRST QUESTIONER: … for the decriminalization of marijuana …
SECOND QUESTIONER: … black higher education
THIRD QUESTIONER: … technical benefits that have been born from the space program …
FOURTH QUESTIONER: How powerful is Hispanic influence right now?
FIFTH QUESTIONER: Just how deep is his commitment to the development of foreign languages as a high national priority? (January 13, 1978.)
BILL MOYERS: What’s the hardest part?
JIMMY CARTER: I think the hardest part is the attempt to correlate sharply conflicting ideas from worthy people. The easy problems don’t arrive on this desk. The easy problems are solved in the life of an individual person or within a family, or perhaps in a city hall or a county courthouse or, at the worst, in the state capital. The ones that can’t be solved after all those intense efforts arrive here in the White House to be solved, and they’re quite difficult ones. And I think the attempt to correlate those conflicting ideas probably bring about the most serious challenge to a President.
BILL MOYERS: Have we become a nation of so many diverse special interests that it is no longer possible to translate the many “I’ s” — “what I want” — into a common “we”?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: The people that set this business up were very, very suspicious of big “we’s.” They did not like it. And they made it very hard to produce the big “we.” It’s a wartime phenomenon.
WILLIAM MILLER: The ∑society won’t work if the only thing any of us refers to is his or her own self-interest.
REYNOLDS PRICE: Yes, we tremendously need; perhaps it’s impossible to counter or to build bridges between these warring brands of selfishness. But again, the effort to do so has not been visible.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think this is a matter of unfair argumentation again; it’s mainly a matter of skill rather than intent. I know that the phrase “the common good” is in about twelve times in every speech Carter’s ever given. It’s just that somehow it hasn’t registered, it hasn’t gotten across.
REYNOLDS PRICE: He did look very good at the beginning, I mean, the call-in show, the fireside chat; and then suddenly it stopped. The sweaters got taken off, and we were back — we weren’t back where we started, we were on to somewhere else that we didn’t like as much.
QUESTIONER FROM AUDIENCE: I haven’t hardly heard very many good words, it seems to me, in defense of the action taken by Carter. Now, maybe no one was hired to do that on the panel, I don’t know. (Laughter. )
QUESTIONER:I was told this morning when I raised that question, well, that isn’t the way these men make their money. They make their money by tearing him down.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: I was hired to do it but I failed. (Laughter.)
REYNOLDS PRICE: Well, I think you’ve heard a different session from what I’ve heard. I mean, I would say this is the most sympathetic round of comments Jimmy Carter’s gotten in the last eighteen months. I would think this has been a very sympathetic procedure, as far as he’s concerned.
QUESTIONER: Then maybe I missed — is it against the law to say what he’s done correctly?
REYNOLDS PRICE: Well, I think we’ve said a good deal of that, yes.
BILL MOYERS: For almost twenty years now the Presidency has been overshadowed by a sense of disorder. Kennedy was elected and assassinated. Johnson was elected and discredited. Nixon was elected and disgraced. Ford was appointed and defeated. Carter was elected and on the whole, stymied. As we move toward the twenty-first century, has this eighteenth-century contrivance of the office of the Presidency about reached the end of its usefulness?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: My feeling is that we’ve pretty much got the Presidency that we want most of the time. Occasionally we want a strong something or other. We like it to look very powerful when we’re talking to people abroad. I mean, it’s a Mikado-like office, that it has a great deal of splendor, and when we want we pretend that our Presidents are very strong, especially when we’re talking to the English or the Japanese or the Russians or whoever; but in fact we keep it under great control, and …
BILL MOYERS: Who do you mean when you talk about “we”? Blacks don’t want a weak President. Veterans don’t want a weak President when it comes to budget. The military doesn’t want a weak President when it comes to framing the next decade’s defense spending. Who do you mean, “we”?
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: We have a very big centralized government; we like that. But we don’t want the President to control it. So we have worked out a system where all these nodules of power and bureaucracy and money, et cetera, are in a sense a kind of endless deal between XY bureaucracy, the component in Congress that’s interested in it, and the private sector constituency that’s interested in it. And occasionally we let the President in, you know, to have his say-so, in those areas or housing, or what have you.
WILLIAM MILLER: Speaking for my own values now, the current fault with the President — the Presidents — is not in the office, and there is a lot of power still in the office; it is that this man who fills it— for whom I voted and for whom I have still many hopes -hasn’t quite fulfilled them. So it doesn’t have to do with the institution of the Presidency but rather whether Jimmy Carter will realize fully the potential that a lot of us saw in him.
REYNOLDS PRICE: But isn’t it true that we want a number of things, not all of which are at all compatible or locatable, apparently, in any single individual? One of the most important things we wanted, and that I had certain vibrations that we might well get from Carter, is in effect what’s expected of most constitutional monarchs, which is some sort of rather satisfactory Pontifex Maximus in the center of the republic. Carter looked like the sort of man who was volunteering to be the first President since John Kennedy who could begin to fill that particular seat of the chair in the President’s office. And I think many of our dis appointments spring out of the sense that he either wasn’t fitted for that chair or just decided not to sit in it.
NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN: But you could see this here; I mean, insofar as we want a Pontifex Maximus, we can’t have your leader in a dialogue; can’t do both. And it’s much safer — Presidents, I think, are much more long-lived when they play Pontifex Maximus than when they play dialogue.
BROOKS HOLIFIELD: The interesting thing about Jimmy Carter is that he embodies precisely the tension that’s in this discussion. There’s one side of Carter that values highly scientific management techniques; there’s another side of Carter that is the side of complex vision. I think if you can get those two sides together without really losing the best of either, then he can probably move perhaps in some new and creative ways within the restraints that limit the Presidency.
BILL MOYERS: And so this discussion ends just about where the country is today: with sharp differences of opinion and no consensus. Several things strike this reporter. Presidents have less power than most people think, including people who want to be President. But they have more power than anyone else, including the power to command attention for a set of phrases, ideas and values which help us to understand our times. Everybody turns to the President to put things right. And that’s wrong. But a President who fails to fight for what he thinks is right is wrong, too. For much of his first two years in office, Jimmy Carter barely used the powers he does have, creating the impression he would rather be an engineer down in the boiler room tinkering with the machinery than captain on the deck charting the course. Now he seems to have realized that running for President was one thing; running the country is quite another. But the office he inherited was an office depleted of much of its legitimacy. He became President partly because people were fed up with overreaching Presidents. When I remarked to a Congressman that physically Jimmy Carter’s a small man, he replied, “That’s exactly the way we intend to keep him.” Thus for two years Jimmy Carter’s tentative and often erratic course has been matched by the country’s conflicting expectations. We wanted him to reflect the times — and got what we wanted. Now we hope he will rise above them, and aren’t sure that if he did we would follow. It is true, the more we study the Presidency the more we learn about ourselves. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 6, 2015.