Awaiting Rehabilitation: The Carter Presidency in Political Science Textbooks

Article excerpt

Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president in 1977 amid high expectations. After the unprecedented damage inflicted on the presidency by the twin tragedies of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, official lies and deceptions had left many Americans without confidence in the integrity of the occupant of the White House. The nation hoped that the former governor of Georgia would restore dignity and respect to the office. Although Carter had defeated Gerald Ford in a very competitive election, there seemed to be a consensus of support for an individual who had campaigned as an "outsider" against the discredited politics carried out in Washington.

Four years later, Jimmy Carter's political career ended with an embarrassing landslide defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan. The first incumbent president to be denied re-election in nearly fifty years, Carter left office with the reputation of a chief executive who had failed to exercise leadership at a time when the country faced new and severe challenges. Long after Carter's presidency had ended, the American public's recollection of his tenure remained sharply negative. A 1988 Harris poll showed that when asked to rate the nine presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Americans put Jimmy Carter last in "ability to get things done," next to last in "set the lowest moral standards," and second only to Richard Nixon as the "worst" president.(1)

However, it is not unusual for the passage of time and the availability of primary documentation to give rise to assessments of historical events or periods which differ from judgments rendered by contemporary observers. In addition, students of the presidency have yet to agree on a uniform set of criteria by which to judge presidential performance; therefore, the assessments of an individual chief executive may vary depending on the guidelines being employed. And just as Dwight Eisenhower's reputation has benefitted from recent studies of his administration, some scholars have suggested that a similar wave of revisionism may lead to a gradual rehabilitation of Jimmy Carter.(2)

This article seeks evidence of a trend toward improved evaluations of the Carter years in American government textbooks designed for college students. I have examined the treatment accorded to President Carter in forty-one introductory texts on the American political system.(3) Every reference to Carter and his administration was evaluated in terms of its qualitative assessment, if any, of the president. Specifically, I attempted to establish whether or not the texts provided any normative appraisals of the events and issues that were discussed as part of the Carter administration.

Instead of a rehabilitation of President Carter, I found an overwhelmingly negative view of his administration. If a revisionist view of the Carter administration is indeed emerging among scholars of the presidency, it has yet to make an impact on the anti-Carter tone reflected in these books. The judgments of Carter were not only unfavorable, but they included numerous omissions and factual errors. The effect of these uneven or partial assessments was to invariably emphasize those developments that cast Carter in a negative light and to reduce the resonance of more favorable events.

Such a lack of objectivity is particularly damaging when it is manifest in introductory texts explicitly tailored for an unsophisticated audience. A distorted accounting of events may be dismissed or challenged by readers who are aware of contradictory interpretations, but, regrettably, most college students are not discriminating consumers of the information dispensed to them in political science textbooks. Given the widely acknowledged inadequacy of their high school preparation, many of those enrolling in introductory American government courses do not bring firm opinions or factual knowledge about Jimmy Carter into their college classrooms. …