White House Diary by Jimmy Carter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”A scholarly assessment after I left office showed that I had the most unfavorable press coverage of the century; with a net of negative news stories every month except for my first one, after my family and I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Despite frequent news conferences and a concerted effort to meet privately in the White House with all the key reporters and media executives, I was never able to turn them around. We finally decided to accept the situation and plow ahead with our programs.”
I wonder if Jimmy Carter had been James Carter would his political career had been better or would it have never existed at all. Though it was Jimmy Carter that the American public wanted as a balm for the abrasions left by Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon; it was James Carter maybe they wished they’d had when multiple things start to unravel. He was a true outsider to the Washington Beltway. He wanted to do things differently than previous presidents and soon discovered he was burning through political capital for the most inane things. He did not go to parties or hobnob with politicians outside of the White House. He didn’t go to the very popular correspondence dinner that presidents have been such a hit at since they started attending. He saw it as silly and the reporters did not. He was elected because he was a pious man, but that fact became a source of irritation to the press corp even though he was very careful to not let his personal beliefs spill into his politics.
We now live in an age of counter balancing biased news sources. In those days there wasn’t a twenty-four hour news cycle with heavy weights like CNN, FOX NEWS, and MSNBC putting their particular spin on any political news story. Every politician now can find a friendly ear with the press, well maybe not Anthony Weiner, but then I say that, and I just saw him on Bill Maher the other night. An MSNBC would have been invaluable to Jimmy Carter back in 1980.
Carter is perceived as weak and inept by more than just Republicans. Even Democrats make excuses for him by talking about all that he did AFTER he was president. The reason why I read this book was to settle some questions I had about his presidency. I was just beginning to notice world events or lets say events outside of my own small home patch of Kansas in 1976. I was more aware, but made most aware when I discovered that we weren’t going to the Olympics in Moscow (which my family always watched the olympic games), and of course the hostage crisis in Iran.
Camp David Accords. Carter’s primary achievement. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt on the left and Menachem Begin Prime Minister of Israel on the right. Carter had many moments when he wanted to strangle Begin during the process, but he understood the pressures he was under from back home as well.
So Carter before his administration became mired in many events beyond his control established two new cabinet positions: Education and Energy. Ronald Reagan while campaigning in 1980 insisted he would abolish the Department of Education. The current Secretary of the Department of Education is Arne Duncan so...exactly…Reagan’s insistent promise didn’t ever happen. Carter established an energy policy which included price controls, new technology, and conservation. He had solar panels installed on the White House which Reagan with much fanfare had removed. Baffling…I know. Carter negotiated the SALT II Treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. He negotiated the Camp David Accords that lead to peace (well pretty much) in that region for thirty years and also the Panama treaties which eventually returned The Canal to Panama. Here is one that I didn’t know.
”I worked assiduously throughout my tenure to control the national debt, with some success. The best yardstick for measuring the debt is to calculate the total national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product. The year I left office, this debt-to-GDP ratio was 32.5 percent, the lowest it has been at any time since World War II. Under Ronald Reagan it increased to 53.1 percent; after the end of George W. Bush’s term, the ratio was 83.4 percent. The accumulated debt for fiscal year 2009 is thirteen times greater than in 1980 and is projected to be 100 percent of GDP in 2011.”
I remember having nightmares about Ayatollah Khomeini, very powerful ones that still sometime intrude into my dreams today whenever Iran makes the news.
In 1979 there was a cascade of things that pretty much assured that Jimmy Carter was going to be a one term president. Lets start with the Iranian Revolution which sent the U.S. supported Shah of Iran fleeing for his life. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini oil production from Iran plummeted mainly because of the destabilization of the country and the fact that foreign oil field workers had to leave the country. This bobble in production made OPEC countries very rich, but caused a worldwide energy crisis that was made worse by panic. This was followed by the Iran-Iraq War which took Iraq oil production out of the equation creating another large perceived shortage. Saudi Arabia is encouraged to increase their production. Frankly there was plenty of oil located in other countries to overcome the shortages from Iraq and Iran, but profits were booming and it does take some time to increase production.
Soviet Tank Graveyard in Afghanistan
In December of 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This was a nine year war that drained resources from the Soviet Union and cost them political clout with the world. In the end they had to leave without ever fully subduing the country. The world of course took note of this colossal failure and the lack of success by the Soviets insured that no one else would ever be naive enough to invade Afghanistan again. Wait...no...can’t be...folks you are not going to believe this, but President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001. But this time it was going to be different right?
Because of the invasion of Afghanistan Carter made the decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. He also funneled Soviet made weapons, readily available all over the world, to the “rebels” in Afghanistan. In the 2000s U.S. soldiers took casualties from these very same weapons.
On November 4th, 1979 the US embassy in Iran was stormed by dissidents and fifty-two American hostages were taken. They were held for 444 days. I still remember Walter Cronkite ending his newscast with the latest, ever increasing, count of how many days they had been held captive. We do not negotiate with terrorists. It is a great policy and one that I feel gives Americans around the world a certain level of protection. I will not get into the Iran-Contra Affair as Carter did not go into it in his book, but the stone cold fact that the hostages were released within moments of Carter’s term ending and Reagan’s term beginning begs more than a few questions.
US Embassy Hostages in Iran.
Carter did attempt an ill fated mission to release the hostages. He authorized two spare helicopters for the mission and as he has often said if he had authorized one more helicopter he would have been elected to a second term. The sands of Iran’s desert clogged the engines and two helicopters became inoperable with a third receiving too much damage to continue. The mission became FUBAR.
We had a similar circumstance, a flashback for many Americans, when the helicopter crashed during the mission to get Osama Bin Laden. We purposely had a spare because these very expensive helicopters seem to become very unreliable when we need them to be perfect.
Carter also had to survive a primary challenge from Senator Edward Kennedy. Even though Kennedy did not win the nomination he did cast a lot of doubt with the liberal wing of the Democratic base on Carter’s ability to come up with solutions for the numerous issues that were facing the nation in the early 1980s.
Three Mile Island disaster.
As if all those issues were not enough the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and the eruption of the Mount St. Helens volcano also happened during his term.
The diary entries are interesting. Carter bemoans the fact that he had 5,000 pages of diary entries; and yet, was only using about a ¼ of them to create this volume. He was very careful not to change entries to make himself look better, but he did allow himself to write further explanations after the diary entries. These were as fascinating as the original entries because he could expand a point to better explain what he was thinking and also show the benefits of many more decades of thought about what he wrote and the decisions he made. This book is going to have a very special place in my library because it represents the first presidential signature I’ve been able to acquire. Unfortunately I did not meet him to get this signature, but I did buy the book for the original list price. I can only believe that the bookseller was a Republican. :-)
4.25 Stars out of 5
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