It was a time when many Americans wondered whether the country was on a downward slide, its better days mostly behind it. Could they still do great things? Could they, in peacetime, be called to sacrifice for the common good? Crises followed crises – and no one had confidence in the president, who seemed to care more for himself than for the nation. The opposition was annoyed, but so were leaders of his own party, who, as his first term drew to a close, spoke more and more about defecting.
Such was the situation in 1979, as Rick Perlstein describes it in his new history “Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980,” the fourth volume in his series on modern conservatism. Perlstein shows how forces of the right were consolidating a politics of grievance during those years, culminating in Ronald Reagan winning the Republican nomination and the presidency; and he does it in tandem with a close and devastating portrait of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when almost nothing seemed to go right for the former governor of Georgia.
When Carter comes up these days, it is usually because Democrats are hailing the 96-year-old as a good man, a decent man, who – if they consider this at all – was done wrong by politics, Republicans, voters and circumstances beyond his control. It is almost the mirror opposite of what emerges from Perlstein’s many pages, which could be called “How Not to Be The President of The United States” – and couldn’t be more timely.
In 1978, James Fallows left the Carter administration, where he had been chief speechwriter, the youngest person to hold the post – and then showed up in The Atlantic the next year with an article about Carter, “The Passionless Presidency.” Writing of an off-the-cuff speech Carter gave in 1978, Fallows says that by then, everyone seemed to be disappointed in Carter’s presidency, but this time was different because Carter “was speaking about the subject that most inspired him – not what he proposed to do, but who he was.
“Where Lyndon Johnson boasted of schools built and children fed, where Edward Kennedy holds out the promise of the energies he might mobilize and the ideas he might enact, Jimmy Carter tells us that he is a good man. His positions are correct, his values sound. Like Marshal Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation. This is not an inconsiderable gift; his performance in office shows us why it’s not enough.”
In 1979, inflation averaged 11.35% (in 2020, it’s about 2.1%); the prime rate, the cost of borrowing money, was 11.5% (today, it’s about 3.25%). And, in 1979, there were gasoline lines, shortages and price spikes (the cost of gas is now at an all-time low).
Carter believed, and he was not alone, that excessive government spending caused inflation by contributing to debt. As Perlstein points out, he had no way of knowing the day would come when we would have record-high debt and record-low inflation, disproving his economics, which turned out be as much voodoo as Reagan’s. Carter even pushed – unnecessarily – to cut a cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security.
One of the more interesting turns in Perlstein’s book is his examination of what became known as Carter’s “malaise” speech, in summer 1979. It is often remembered as the capstone of his failure – but the speech itself was a grand success, Perlstein writes.
The presidency was not.
The jury still seems to be out on whether Americans need their president to be a good person, or a decent one – but we have learned all too well that competence is irreplaceable.