The President as Interpreter-In-Chief

By Mary E. Stuckey | Go to book overview

ability. In Carter's case, his sincerity was not doubted; only his ability to perform up to the role's expectations.

In sum, what neither Ford nor Carter could convey was the one thing Americans needed in addition to a restoration of honesty--a sense of control. 66 Carter gave up control of the national agenda when he decided to communicate to the electorate through news conferences and question-and-answer dominated "town meetings." He surrendered control of much of his administration when he attempted to rule through "Cabinet government." He lost control of the larger issues of government when he decided to make the decisions about who was to play tennis on the White House courts. He lost control of foreign policy when he allowed Iran and the USSR to dominate the news. He lost control of the nation's emotions when he refused to satisfy those emotions in his public speech. When he tried to reassert his leadership, he allowed Reagan to interpret it as Carter's loss of faith in the American people. Ultimately, the electorate opted for a candidate who offered both emotional expression and control of events.


Condusions

Both Ford and Carter did much to heal the nation in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. They both sustained images as honest, decent men. Unfortunately, their presidencies also had people wondering if honest, decent men should be president. There was some feeling that perhaps such men were not brutal enough to lead a world power like the United States.

Much of this can be laid directly at the door of these two presidents. They gave the American people honesty, but failed to give them a sense of control. The problems with the economy, the energy crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the hostage crisis all contributed to a feeling that, as Carter said in his last State of the Union Address, "it has never been more clear that the state of our Union depends on the state of the world." 67 Ronald Reagan told the American electorate that we could be in control; our leadership was the problem. And, as the 1980 election results showed, the American people did not want to be dependent on the state of the world.

An important element in this appearance of lack of control is the inability of either Ford or Carter to control the national agenda. They were very open; the consequence of that openness is a sacrifice of thematic control. With all the competing agendas in the country, as they increasingly toured the country seeking support, what they found was confusion.

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