Carter remains what he always was: an outsider and an enigma
TIME Washington Contributing Editor Hugh Sidey has been reporting on the White House ever since Dwight Eisenhower's second term 23 years ago. Here, on the eve of the Democratic Convention, he reviews the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
The stately old East Room of the White House, which has managed to maintain its dignity through the drying laundry of the John Adams family, the gallons of lemonade poured by the abstemious Lucy Hayes and the baleful exit of Richard Nixon, witnessed another extraordinary event last week in the long and colorful caravan of presidential history.
Jimmy Carter, the 38th man in this procession, went somberly and with weighted shoulders before the television cameras (nudging out M*A*S*H) to spend an hour attempting to untangle himself and his Administration from the clumsy conniving of his brother Billy for Libyan oil and a vision of millions in commissions.
It was the best of Carter, a profoundly caring man, loving his brother through stress, as honest as a political human knows how to be, skillfully projecting his concern from his electronic stage to an estimated 65 million Americans. He was forceful in his conviction of his own rectitude and a master of every detail in the intricate caper of Billy, the wily and greedy buffoon.
And it was the worst of Carter, the President. Rarely in the past 3½ years have we seen the President so focused and eloquent on a problem—a problem that never should have been, and even now should be relegated to the lawyers who love to niggle. In a world that is stalled and frightened, with only a handful of men and women wielding the power to address the malaise, Jimmy Carter, as so often in his stewardship, confused his personal and political concerns with his larger duties as President. While most Americans surely felt admiration for Carter the man, there hovered in the background those dark clouds of doubt about his leadership that were reflected in the question by CBS's Lesley Stahl, "How do you think you got into this big mess?" He never seemed to understand why this was the real question—and the implications of his failure to answer it.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once broke into tears in the presence of a friend, so distraught was he over his conviction that Carter did not grasp his true responsibility as leader of the U.S. The world drifts toward war, believes Schmidt, with Carter uncomprehending. The same sentiment echoes from Asia, where Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew finds Carter's vision "a sorry admission of the limits of America's power." An official of Moscow's Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada complains: "What drives us crazy about Carter is his capriciousness, his constant changing of the points of reference in our relationship." Following this summer's economic summit meeting in Venice, a participant observed: "Mr. Carter cannot merely keep declaring himself the leader of the free world; he must demonstrate that capacity."