Nation: Assessing a Presidency

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Carter was told by some of his counselors when the issue of the Soviet combat brigade in Cuba surfaced that he should never have allowed it to develop in the fashion that it did. But faced with the fact, these counselors said, he should broaden the issue and confront the problem of the Cuban mercenaries operating in Africa. For a moment, according to one witness, his interest was roused, but in the end he would not shoulder the burden of confronting the Soviets.

His civics-class approach to the world appeared again when the Shah of Iran fell. While cautious in public statements, Carter in private had nearly convinced himself that Iran would return to the constitution of 1906, that the legislature would reassemble, the military would hold order and a stable government take root. "It was preposterous," says one who helped plan the American response. "The President's thinking was not based on any actual experience of how governments really work in this world."

In trying to fathom the man and his times, almost every Carter analyst comes back, both in admiration and in doubt, to the President's religiosity. It bolsters him for the great waves of criticism that pound now at the White House. But it also seduces him and contributes to many of his falterings. He is a believer—in-Bert Lance, his old friend and economic counselor whose banking improprieties forced him from the Office of Management and Budget; in Billy Carter, the kid brother with a good heart who must mean well; in Leonid Brezhnev, who pledged his hope for peace in the shadowy halls of Vienna's Hofburg Palace. Carter's matrix is that found in the Scriptures, where the rules of a just and loving life are laid out. He wants to prevail by purity. Applying those patterns of human concern and behavior to the world's masses is far more difficult.

When a close Carter aide found out that the President was going to Washington's National Cathedral to pray with the families of the hostages, he knew instinctively that the U.S. would not for the time being assert its power in any way that might jeopardize the hostages. For months Carter resisted using the rescue plan devised by his National Security experts. He was consumed by fear of losing individual lives in such an operation. The hostage crisis was incorporated into his political campaign, and from the Rose Garden he sounded the theme of peace, noting proudly that not a single American had died in combat during his presidency.

The wider interest of America's position in the world was only vaguely appreciated, if at all. Always Carter's mind fixed on the small parts of the effort and not the whole. At one stage in reviewing the attack plans on the embassy compound where the hostages were held, the President asked about the Iranian guards stationed inside the embassy, near the wall that the commandos intended to scale. Were they volunteers or conscripts? he wondered. If they were radicals, Carter explained, he could go along with killing them, but if they were only peasant conscripts, he wanted them knocked out temporarily. Carter was gripped by what Historian Thomas Bailey has called the "tyranny of the trivial."

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