The next presidential one-termer: Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter answering questions as president.  

[Clirk here for (a) part I of this series, the first eight one-term presidents: John Adams to William Howard Taft and (b) part II, on the ninth one-termer, Herbert Hoover.]

Remember all the good feelings of optiimism and relief in January 1977 when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president of the USA.  (You guys not born yet, trust me on this.)   

After the house-of-horrors presidency of “Tricky Dick” Richard M. Nixon – his enemies list, spying on his own staff, wiretaps of news reporters, his “plumbers unit,” IRS audits of political enemies, plus Vietnam, the Cambodia invasion, the shootings at Kent State, and all the lying and deceit of Watergate that finally did him in (I won’t pretend to be neutral about RMN) — after all that, Jimmy Carter seemed a breath of fresh air, even after the interlude of Gerald Ford’s relatively calm brief presidency.  

Honest Jimmy, he came across as down-home and normal, truthful, grounded, at ease with his wife and cute little daughter, a peanut farmer, nuclear engineer, and Navy submariner, willing to get out of his car and walk on his own two feet during his inaugural parade.  Carter was an “outsider” –a one-term governor from Plains, Georgia, with no taint of Washington experience.  He promised to deliver “a government as good and honest and decent and compassionate … as its people.”  And he said “I will never lie to you.”

Sound slightly arrogant?  Slightly smug?  Like an accident waiting to happen?  By 1980,barely three years later, Carter’s popularity had plummeted, his poll numbers at around 20 percent — close to Richard Nixon’s own lowest point during Watergate.  

[Full disclosure: At the time, in the late 1970s, I was a young staff lawyer for Republican Senator Chuck Percy (R-Ill.) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee — scene of much Carter-era action — so I had a nice ring-side seat.]

To his credit, Carter compiled a pretty nice legislative record.  He won major deregulations of the airlines, trucking, and natural gas prices, created the Energy and Education Departments, took major energy conservation steps and pushed through the Alaska Lands Act and bans on ocean dumping and strip mining.  He negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel, pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, and won a treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama (still a sore point with conservatives).  

This was all good.  Put it on the plus side of the ledger.  Now for the rest ….

So what was the accident waiting to happen? 

Almost from the start, things under Carter seemed chaotic, out-of control.  In his first year as president, Carter’s team stumbled into a first-rate scandal that forced the resignation of Carter’s long-time crony and OMB Director, Bert Lance.  After that, a veritable cascade of toubless followed —   

  • First, the economy sank into a swamp of high inflation, high interest rates, sagging markets, and low growth — a new phenomenon called Carter “stagflation.”  Rubbing sand in the wound were repeated hikes in the price of oil (gasoline) dictated by the OPEC cartel of Arab countries.  Then, in late 1979, the Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas, cornered the silver market, driving prices of silver and gold to historic highs before crashing in early 1980.  No, the economic mess wasn’t all Carter’s fault.  And to his credit, his Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker had plans to fix it.  But there’s more;
  • Then, as things kept going wrong, Carter decided to closet himself for a week-long, high-profile secret enclave at Camp David after which he (a) first conducted a purge of his staff, sacking five cabinet secretaries, and (b) then followed it with a national televised speech in which he decried the country’s “crisis of the spirit” – known to posterity as the “malaise” speech; 
  • Then, in late 1979, militants in Iran seized the US embassy there and held 52 American hostages for what would be 444 days.  Carter ordered a military rescue (causing his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign in protest) which failed because of a helicopter crash that, costing the lives of eight servicemen;
  • Then came the late-1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, causing Carter to (a) cancel US participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (pissing off sports fans all across America) and (b)  embargo grain shipments to Russia (causing US grain prices to tank, pissing off farmers all across America); 

  • Then, finally, just when he needed friends the most, came a revolt from within his own Democratic Party as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) decided to challenge Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination.  Carter beat him (he was, after all, an incumbent president), but only after an ugly fight.

By 1980 when the ran for re-eleciton, Jimmy Carter seemed reduced to one last voter appeal:  That as bad as things might be under his own leadership, his opponent, Republican Ronald Reagan, was worse — too inexperienced, too right wing, too extreme.  Voters didn’t buy it.  When Reagan and Carter debated face to face, Reagan came across as calm and reasonable.  He won by a landslide.

(Carter managed to bungle even the debates.  When third-party candidate John Anderson asked to participate, Reagan agreed and Carter refused.  The debate when ahead with just Reagan and Anderson, and Carter’s glaring absence make him again look petty and insecure.)

Lesson for Obama:

How to avoid being like Jimmy Carter?  Obama, let’s start with this:  Please do not start thinking that you are smarter than everyone else.  The minute you do, you’re lost. 

Here was Carter’s trap:  Being an “outsider” and painting yourself as “better than” Washington might make you popular in the short run, even win an election or two.  But those same Washington “insiders” – most just as honest, decent, and civic-minded as you — are the very people whose help you need to accomplish your goals, and whose friendship you need when things get tough.   Living in a White House cacoon surrounded by old friends from back home does little good when issues get complicated.

Yes, partisanship today is out of conttrol.  But the golden rule of Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunket from 1905 still holds today::  “The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary….”

Jimmy Carter is celebrated today as an admirable former President.  Since leaving the White House, he and his Carter Center have helped sooth dozens of world crises, wining him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. This, of course, very nice.  But for now,  the key fact about Carter is this: 1980 Electoral Votes- Ronald Reagan, 489; Carter, 49. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 22.)

Next up, the final one-term president: George H. W. Bush.

Why rank Gerald Ford so high?

So, literally minutes after I posted my c-span presidental rankings last week (see Jan. 18, below), two friends shot back the question: Why Gerald Ford? How on earth did he deserve such a high rank?
How did Gerald Ford break into the top 10?” wrote my legal colleague David Durkin. “You’re not a ‘great President’ simply for not repeating the abuse of power that led to your immediate predecessor’s eventual ouster.”
“How did Gerry Ford crack the top ten?” echoed Jim Hershberg, author of the terrific biography of Harvard nuclear bomb-meister James B. Conant, who added “(Love it that you rated him higher than RR.)
What’s the story with Gerry Ford? Wasn’t he just a dupe, a dope, a boob, a joke on Saturday Night Live, that creep who pardoned Richard Nixon? Wasn’t he the bumbling guy portrayed by SNL’s Chevy Chase? The mediocrity chosen as VP by a cynical Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate as a stop-gap against impeachment, that the country would consider Ford not up to the job?
Yes, it’s true, most historians rate him lower than I do. The c-span 1999 poll rated him #23, and other recent polls rate him #27 or #28. Obviousy, I see it differenlty.
I have always admired Gerald Ford. Its no mystery to me why Gerald Ford’s friends and neighbors in Michigan elected him to Congress thirteen times before Nixon tapped him in 1973 to replace bribe-taking VP Spiro Agnew, who had recently been forced to resign. Nixon knew the Democratic-majority Congress would confirm Ford, even on being nominated by a widely-hated scoudrel like himself. (The Senate cofirmation vote was 92-3; the House 387-35.) Everyone liked Gerry Ford, even if they hated Nixon.
Why? There are times in our history when something simple and basic like being a normal, level-headed, tolerant, self-effacing, non-paranoid human being counts for plenty. By 1974, after almost ten years of LBJ and Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate, the Credibility Gap, the flood of arrogance, lies, and deceit from Washington, the simple disarming honesty of Gerald Ford suddenly in the White House was a profound statement, a remarkable breath of fresh air.
Gerald Ford was nobody’s fool. He could take a ribbing from Chevy Chase and laugh at himself, but that was no sign of weakness. Ford was a Yale-trained lawyer, a World War II Navy combat veteran, and a college football standout at Michigan.
Ford had a deliberate goal as President of re-unifying the country after Vietnam and Watergate. Yes, he pardoned Nixon, but he also offered amnesty to Vietnam draft resisters. He twice avoided re-engaging the country in Southeast Asian wars, both in 1975, first when Cambodian forces seized the US merchant ship Mayaguez, then again when North Vietnam launched its final assault on Saigon.
Today we appreciate the danger of deficits and wasteful Federal spending; Gerald Ford issued 66 presidential vetoes, mostly of Appropriations Bills, and made all but twelve stick. Today we lament a Republican Party cow-towing to the Ideological Right; Gerald Ford stood squarely with moderates, nominating as his own VP not Ronald Reagan, but rather Reagan’s nemesis, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Today we cringe at how Presidents and candidates too-often treat their families as stage props; Ford gave us his wife Betty, a dancer, free thinker, and outspoken feminist, not shy talking about her human foibles.
All in all, a pretty good legacy. “I’m not a Lincoln, I’m just a Ford,” Ford himself quipped at one point. There are times when a Ford is exactly the right thing. That’s why I rated him #10.

Why James Garfield over LBJ and the Adamses?

James A. Garfield accepting surrender of US Grant at the 1880 Republican convention after 36 ballots.  

Since I posted my Presidential rankings for the C-SPAN 2009 Historians Survey a few days ago, I’ve received pointed questions from friends about some of my choices. (See January 18 post below.)

For instance, how could I put Gerald Ford so high on the list, in the top ten, for God’s sake? And what was I thinking in ranking James Garfield, who served only four months before being shot in the back, above LBJ and both the Adamses? And, in putting George W. Bush at the near-bottom (#41 out of 43), wasn’t I just following a liberal fad that will disappear in a few years, much as Harry Truman has gained popularity over time.

Over the next few days, I will tackle each of these. Yes, Gerald Ford deserves his high spot. Yes, James Garfield outranks LBJ, John Adams, and John Quincy. And no, George W. Bush’s bottom status is no passing liberal fancy. Bush is no Harry Truman. He will be considered as much a bottom-feeder a century from now as today.

I’ll start with James Garfield, only because this was the first challenge to come up. Stick with me.

The basics are simple: James Garfield, a Civil War veteran and career Congressman, was elected President in 1880, inaugurated in March 1881, shot by Charles Guiteau four months later, and died about two months after that. He was mourned by hundreds of thousands, respected for confronting political bosses, and credited with the modern Civil Service system adopted after his death.

During his term, he prevailed over Sen. Roscoe Conkling, dictator of the NY Republican machine, in a high-profile brawl over abusive patronage. His Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, started the country on a strong foreign policy that culminated in TR’s “big stick” approach twenty years later.  Here (above) is my favorite cartoon of Garfield, by PUCK artist Joseph Keppler, showing Garfield accepting the surrender of Ulysses Grant at the 1880 Republican Convention after Grant’s 3rd term movement collapsed on the 36th ballot:

It was my friend David Stewart, author of the terrific book THE SUMMER OF 1787: The Men who Invented the US Constitution, who blew the whistle on me. “Whoa, big fella!,” he wrote, knowing of my own book about the Garfield assassintion, (DARK HORSE). ” James Garfield ahead of Lyndon Johnson and both Adamses? We’re dishing out some home-cooking here. Remind us again, what did Garfield do as president?”

Good question. So let’s deal with it squarely.

Ranking presidents means making choices. James Garfield’s presidency had only a small impact because it was so short. Even giving him maximum credit, he stand mid-pack, slightly above center, which is where I ranked him, at #18.

Now let’s look at the competition.

Lyndon Baines Johnson? We can start and end the conversation with one word: Vietnam. I don’t recall James Garfield ever going out and getting the country stuck in a full-scale land war half-way around the world, commiting half-a-million troops to the effort, most unwilling draftees, all based on bad intelligence and bad advice, then misleading the country as tens of thousands died, then allowing the war to spin out of control and destroy his domestic agenda, causing the country then to react by electing an even worse leader in Richard M. Nixon.

This is LBJ’s legacy. Yes, he had a sterling record on Civil Rights and passed a boatload of Great Society legislation. But his own Democratic Party was ready to kick him overboard when he declined to run for re-election in 1968. Without his Civil Rights record, Vietnam easily would have sunk LBJ to the bottom half of the list. As is, I gave him much credit for his domestic agenda, with an overall rank of #19.  I think he owes me a “thank you.”

Then there are the Adamses. Let’s start with John Adams, the second president, serving from 1797 to 1801, the first to be voted out of office. Yes, he came across wonderfully in that terrific HBO miniseries where he was play by the fine actor Paul Giamatti, based on the biography by David McCullough. And yes, John Adams was a sterling patriot and fine man during most of his life.

But his presidency was a sorry mess. Its emblem was the Alien and Seditions Acts. I do not recall James Garfield ever pushing Congress to pass a law allowing him to throw dozens of newspaper editors in jail for the simple act of publicly opposing his foreign policy, as well as locking up large numbers of immigrants on trumped up claims of disloyalty — as did John Adams. The abuse was flagrant.

Adams showed his bad temperament again after losing re-election in 1800 by refusing to act civilly toward Thomas Jefferson, the person who beat him, at Jefferson’s 1801 Inauguration. I rated Adams the best I could given a bad record. He ranked #31 on my list, just above Rutherford Hayes and William Howard Taft. Once again, I am ready to accept a “thank you” note from the Adams family.

Finally, there is John Quincy, whom I rate well above his father at #25, though still mediocre. Another fine man; another disappointing president. From the moment he entered office, his political opponents branded his Administration the product of a “corrupt bargain,” and for four years the albatross stuck, fair or not.

That’s the explanation. I am very comfortable with where I placed James Garfield, notwithstanding LBJ and the Adamses. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about Gerald Ford.

Thanks for listening. –KenA