Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Carter White House Communications Operation: Lessons for His Successors

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Carter White House Communications Operation: Lessons for His Successors

Article excerpt

President Jimmy Carter had the most ambitious communications program of any modern president. The quality of government policy depends on the involvement of the public in its outcome, Carter believed. Early in his presidency, he explained he would have a variety of meetings with the public "so that people can ask me questions about domestic and foreign affairs and so that to the best of my ability I can give them straight answers. I think that when our country speaks, it ought to speak with a strong voice." (1) A "strong voice" for the government was based on the involvement of the public in its products. He promised to bring the public into the policy-making process by creating opportunities for the public to voice their views, then listening to what citizens wanted and regularly reporting to them in a variety of forums from town meetings to press conferences. As with every experiment, some of his communications initiatives worked, though perhaps not as he anticipated, whereas others did not bring about the end he was seeking. Whether in positive or negative ways, President Carter and his staff contributed to what we know about the rhythms of White House communications operations.

From the perspective of thirty years later, there are three particular lessons we can learn through White House communications operations in the Carter years. First, President Carter demonstrated that, as important as it is for a chief executive to develop and maintain a relationship with the public, listening and responding to public concerns need to be part of an overall communications program designed to focus on a coordinated agenda. The chief executive needs a disciplined communications operation that focuses the attention of the public. A listening operation is important, but so too is a publicity operation that channels public attention through speeches and events designed to communicate specific messages.

Second, the central elements of a press secretary's job remain today in spite of all of the changes in the publicity environment taking place after Carter left office, such as the development of cable news networks and the Internet. No matter who is in office, reporters expect to receive an accurate accounting of the president's thinking and actions and to get it in a timely manner. It does not matter whether there is a twelve-hour news cycle or a twenty-four-hour one; authenticity of information is crucial to a White House communications operation.

Third, through the experience of the Carter administration, we learned that presidents need to have communications organizations in addition to their daily press operations. Communications is a basic White House function and requires an office dedicated to responding to critics, long-range planning, and coordination to carry it out.

Presidents Need to Direct the Conversation with the Public as Well as to Listen to Citizens

President Carter made a determined effort to reconnect the people and their government, a link broken during the discouraging years dominated by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. In those years, the public lost faith in its government over an unpopular war that caused great division within the country followed by the secretive, lawless actions of a president forced to resign his office. Even though President Gerald Ford sought to reestablish critical connections with the public through his meetings with citizens, his administration represented a continuation of the Nixon administration, as it was the former president who won reelection in 1972, not Ford.

Governing with the Public

President Carter promised a break with that past by bringing the public into the governing process. He did so not just as a political point but also as a governing style. He believed public knowledge and approval of government actions strengthened governmental decisions. Early in his administration, in a meeting with State Department officials, President Carter explained the importance of the public component to the broad grounding of government policies. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.