Nation: Assessing a Presidency

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Yet Carter is today a political cripple both at home and abroad because the larger issues have swamped him. Inflation and interest rates have doubled in his time. The true anguish at home, as described by Patricia Harris, Secretary of Health and Human Services, is among members of the middle class, who are far from deprivation but find themselves losing ground economically. Their fear is directed at Carter. Overseas, Soviet influence massed and grew and almost everywhere shoved a clumsy and reluctant U.S. against the wall. "We feel," says Raymond Aron, the distinguished French student of Realpolitik, "that American power is in decline. It is that simple and that unfortunate." It is, for instance, one of Kissinger's views that Americans are beginning to reproach themselves and Carter because the U.S. did not take dramatic action to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis when it first occurred. The public wanted nothing done then, but now is blaming the President for failure to act against popular will. That may be another manifestation of what has gone wrong on Jimmy Carter's watch. In his own inexperience and uncertainty, the President could not define a mission for his Government, a purpose for the country and the means of getting there. Former Secretary of the Treasury W. Michael Blumenthal confided to friends after he was fired that at first he thought Carter's long pauses during economic discussions were periods of thought. Later he decided they came from Carter's inability to decide what to do or even what questions to ask.

When the President moved into foreign policy there was a similar inability to view the entire world and calculate actions on a broad strategic canvas. A member of the National Security Council marveled at Carter conducting the discussions about manufacturing and deploying the neutron bomb. "It was out of a high school civics lesson," this man reported. "It was viewed in terms of sovereign countries, a bunch of equals deciding on a policy. It never seemed to occur to Carter that he was the leader and should make the decision in the free world's interest."

Visitors to the White House have wondered at Carter's literal acceptance of dovish letters from Leonid Brezhnev. The ruler of a critical Middle East country showed another statesman a handwritten note from the President that was viewed by the recipient as a near insult, a naive and flawed view of the forces at work among Arabs. During the months that the Panama Canal treaties were being discussed, Carter worried in his secret meetings about the fact that the U.S. had never admitted guilt in grabbing control in the Canal Zone and demanding absolute rule there. His hang-up on this point came from the popular book,

The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. When the Soviets subverted the government in Afghanistan in 1978, the official protests went out routinely, but in the National Security Council, Carter paid only perfunctory attention, though the act was clearly described to him as the possible prelude to trouble. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, the President's indignation was triggered by the act of the border crossing; his mind focused on that narrow episode, not on what had gone before.

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