Jimmy Carter in Context

By Motter, Russel D. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview
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Jimmy Carter in Context


Motter, Russel D., The Mississippi Quarterly


Presidential style is a "presidents's habitual way of performing his three political roles," James David Barber has written: "rhetoric, personal relations, and homework."(2) Essentially, then, style is a president's manner of doing things. Jimmy Carter's critics have argued that his presidential failures were of his own making - that he was a victim of his own style. Such a conclusion rests on assumptions about the nature of the presidency that ignore the historical circumstances that influenced Carter's failures and successes. This essay suggests a strategy to assess Jimmy Carter's presidential style, and it offers an evaluation of the effectiveness of his style within the historical realities he confronted and from which he came. The key variables in such an approach are political circumstance and presidential personality. The possibilities and limitations of the presidency in 1977 and the way Carter's style, personality, and Southern roots served him in achieving his goals define the context of his presidency.

While Jimmy Carter campaigned for the presidency in the summer of 1976, Walter Dean Burnham wrote that "millions of Americans thought they had lost control over their own lives, over the political process - victims of the illegitimate exercise of raw power." Precipitated by Vietnam and Watergate, this crisis of confidence had brought about a fundamental "breakdown in elite credibility and institutional performance."(3) Jimmy Carter too sensed the nation's drift, caught as it was in "spiritual malaise." At a town hall forum in Los Angeles he recounted the "national nightmare" that began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and ended with "revelations of official lying and spying and bugging" and the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon.(4) Offering himself to the American people, Carter pledged to return the nation to its moorings.

Carter's campaign revolved not so much around issues as around his own personal qualities. "Can our government be honest, decent, open, fair, and compassionate?" asked Carter in his campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best? Yes, he answered; but the change must begin at the top. Only the president "can set a standard of morals, decency and openness." The president, therefore, "ought to be personally responsible for everything that goes on in the Executive Branch of government."(5) Carter predicated his candidacy on "the desire to restore respect for and trust of the government within the consciousness of the American people," and its success hinged on his ability to persuade them that he was worthy of their trust.(6) Carter considered himself a decisive leader who could make Washington work again for ordinary Americans. Leadership had failed, not the system. "Don't be apathetic," Carter told the voters, "our government can work, and it will work, if we can only have leaders once again who have wisdom, and who are as good in office as the people who put them in office."(7)

Carter sought a symbiosis of people and leaders in which leaders drew strength from the organic goodness of people, and people demonstrated their goodness when leaders offered them ethical leadership. This conception of leadership, to which Carter held fast in his presidency, was rooted in religious faith. As Bruce Mazlish and Edwin Diamond have pointed out in a portrait of Carter's character, leadership in the Southern Baptist church "is built upon charismatic qualities that attract a following and win spontaneous support." When Baptists see a moral leader, their faith in God and in people who believe in God is enhanced. "The important thing," wrote Mazlish and Diamond, "is that a leader be worthy of the people's trust, and constantly reassure them of this point."(8)

The slogan "a government as good as its people" thus resonated in Carter's campaign, but his hope that "good" leadership would inspire collective sacrifice for the common good was never fulfilled in his presidency.

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