Awaiting rehabilitation: the Carter presidency in political science textbooks.

Author:Sanchez, J.M.
 
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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. The likelihood of any countervailing first-hand awareness, impressionistic though it may be, is further diminished by the fact that today's typical first-year college students were preschoolers when Carter left the White House.

Evaluations of the Carter Presidency

The textbooks unreservedly characterize the Carter administration in a negative light.(4) They use such terms as "a failed presidency," or call Carter "ineffective "inept "weak "a lose "not a leader," "not tough enough "soft," "embarrassing," "an apprentice," "indecisive," "not dependable and strong," and "not competent."(5) He is said to have: "just plodded along," "managed the nation poorly," "lacked a forceful personality," "mishandled the presidency," and "lacked consistency."(6)

Even when identifying generally positive traits in President Carter, authors interject qualifications. One text praises Carter's integrity, but promptly adds: ". . . his style quickly caused many people to yearn for a president with personal qualities other than merely honesty and trustworthiness."(7) Another book admits that Carter may have brought "great intelligence and enormous energy" to the White House, but it then notes that he "was unable to present to the people a clear vision of where he sought to lead them."(8) Similarly, "Carter never developed or proposed a clear image of his administration.... He was driven, but did not know toward what."(9)

A more specific criticism is found with reference to Carter's decision-making approach. He is described as having employed a "circular" or "collegial" model in which the president was personally involved in most decisions. The consensus among the texts is that he showed poor managerial skills by insisting on acquainting himself with too many problem areas. Thus, "Carter knew the details of every policy issue, but had difficulty establishing priorities and placing policies in the broader context that leads to effective action"(10); "He often got himself involved in detailed decision making (such as who should use the White House tennis courts on particular days)"(11); "Carter immersed himself in the minutiae of the office. He checked the arithmetic in budget tables and corrected the grammar of staff memos"(12); and "He based his decisions on reading countless memos and asking detailed questions."(13) So much data-gathering resulted in a president "unable to make up his mind on major issues."(14)

Consequently, Carter's caution is depicted as perplexity and diffidence, often unfavorably contrasted with the tone adopted by his successor, Ronald Reagan. Supposedly, the more information Carter assimilated on a problem, the more likely he was to understand the ramifications of each alternative and the political difficulties inherent in implementing each choice. Reagan, unacquainted with the fine Points of complex issues and guided by a definite ideological compass, could readily prescribe simplistic quick fixes for the most troubling issues. Such "solutions" may have insulted the intelligence of the informed elite, but made eminent sense to citizens whose ignorance of a problem's nuances paralleled that of their president. One of the texts captures the essence of this distinction between Carter and Reagan:

Jimmy Carter was one of the best informed presidents in modem times. Carter

welcomed press questions and held frequent press conferences.... His answers

tended to be long, detailed and perhaps a bit boring, but accurate. Reagan's

were quick, simple, and often funny (if too frequently wrong). Voters

preferred Reagan.(15)

The books project an image of Carter as a decision maker so lost in a maze of trivial information that he was unable to develop a coherent set of policy priorities he could then promote within the system. Further aggravating his flaws, Carter's lack of charisma and a dynamic speaking style are said to have reduced his chances of becoming an effective leader.(16)

The Carter Failings

When the texts examine the major events or issues of the Carter years, their negative general assessments are buttressed with specific examples. The most commonly discussed are Carte's defeat in the 1980 election and the 1979 seizure of American hostages in Iran.(17)

1980 Election

To many specialists on the Carter presidency, the 1980-election seemingly furnishes factual confirmation that the American people shared their low opinion of Jimmy Carter's skills. The textbooks herald the Reagan victory as the logical response to the dismal record established by the incumbent administration.

Explanations specifically based on Carter's leadership qualities include: "The prevailing sentiment seems to have been the desire for change without any particular programmatic or ideological definition of change. To get Carter and the Democrats out of office ... was clearly the predominant motivation"(18); "Reagan, the least popular presidential winner since polling began in the 1930s, won because the electorate was even less enthusiastic about the incumbent"(19); "Carter lost because of a general sense in the...

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