This is a transcript of July 27 episode of Whistlestop, a podcast about presidential campaign history hosted by John Dickerson. Transcripts are provided to members lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
In the space of two days in July, 1979, President Jimmy Carter fired five Cabinet members. Gone were his secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare; secretaries of the Treasury, Transportation, Energy; and his attorney general. The rolling fashion and hectic nature of the departures over two days made it seem vaguely comical. It came to be known as “the purge” in some quarters. What was Jimmy Carter up to?
As President Donald Trump appears to be trying to coax his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to the outer edge of the gangplank, we return to this period two and a half years into the 39th president’s tenure. If you’re a Whistlestop listener or a purchaser of any of the Whistlestop workbooks or vacation wear, you know about Carter’s “Malaise” speech.
President Carter spoke from the Oval Office in early July 1979, gave the country a talking to, and we’ll hear from that speech later in our tale. He never used the word “malaise,” but the message was about a crisis of confidence in the American spirit. The president promised that he would lead the country out of the doldrums. The speech came after the president had cloistered himself for 10 days at Camp David.
He called off his Hawaii vacation and took a steady stream of visitors to the mountain retreat in Maryland—visitors who he probed for advice. Teachers, preachers, politicians, and sages sat with the former Georgia governor, now president, and let him know how he’d let the country down, and how he was failing. Carter dutifully wrote it all down on his legal pad. (You may remember some of this is recounted in Season 1 of Whistlestop, because this all took place as part of the campaign.)
The president had also been reading The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch. He also read James MacGregor Burns’ 530-page tome on leadership. (I recommend both of these books to you. I cannot say that I’ve read them both all the way from cover to cover. Lasch takes a little work because I had to remind myself of all the cultural movements in the 1970s that he talks about. Burns is really at the heart of the Whistlestop project and related projects I’ve been working on over the years.) Anyway, while Carter was in the sweatbox at Camp David, the papers kept talking about malaise, which is why that term became associated with the speech itself, even though the word was not used in Carter’s speech. We should set the context for the speech and this period of time for those who were not alive in it, or those who were alive, like me, but might not have been paying as much attention.
First, the big picture. Quarter of a century of American economic growth had come to an end. Inflation was high and wages were flat. Starting in 1973, basically, wages were flat for the next 20 years. Global trade was hurting American manufacturing. In 1975, Americans started 42 straight years of trade deficits. This hurt those who worked in manufacturing and were in unions. There were other symbolically dreary events as well. New York City faced bankruptcy in 1975. During the ’70s there were two oil shocks, which led to gas lines. People with jeans with lots of room in the ankle waiting by the side of the road while these gas lines snaked through suburban neighborhoods. I say “suburban neighborhoods” because I remember being in those gas lines in suburban neighborhoods. If you were born after this period, just imagine someone taking your cellphone, your iPhone, or your Samsung device, or perhaps whatever other maker you may have, and putting it in the freezer for a few hours during the day just at the time you wanted to answer an email or send Snapchats to your best friend.
During this period, the misery index became a common part of American political conversation: that was the measure of unemployment plus inflation. At the start of the 1970s, the misery index was at 10.8. By 1980, it had doubled. Those are the numbers, but there was a larger pickle in the ointment. The Vietnam War was not that far in the past. Watergate was an even fresher bruise. The post–World War II country that had rebuilt Europe still faced the global threat from the Soviet Union, had been flummoxed by a little country in southeast Asia, and now America was being whipsawed by the oil-market decisions of little countries in the Middle Eastern desert. Carter had come into office in 1977 as a disruptive force. “It was a presidency outside the familiar mold,” writes James Sterling Young in the forward of Edwin Hargrove’s Jimmy Carter As President: Leadership and the Politics of the Public Good, which is quite a good little volume.
Carter had come out of nowhere in the campaign and promised to break the calcified ways of Washington. Jimmy Carter As President: Leadership and the Politics of the Public Good is very good because it really goes through and treats seriously Carter’s experiment here with trying to redo Washington in a super-pure-policy mold, the pitfalls of both his approach and of that approach more generally, but then also where it was successful. Carter was not expanding the welfare state in the policies he supported, but he was trying to shrink it, cutting spending, deregulation. He deregulated the trucking and the airline industries and he supported the Federal Reserve, increasing interest rates as a way to make money more expensive, which would hopefully take on inflation. It had not gone well. After two and a half years, his approval rating was in the mid-30s. Carter had offended the left and the right.
Though he’s used as a punching bag for liberalism by conservatives now, Carter had irritated typical liberal Democrats, like Ted Kennedy, most notably, who would challenge him for the party’s nomination in 1980. Carter ruffled feathers also with those old bulls in Congress, both parties, but particularly Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia. He generally irritated everyone in the city with his talk of doing things as an outsider. In our present political moment, you can bash Washington and not offend the politicians in Washington, because all the politicians in Washington are now trying very desperately to be outsiders too. In the 1970s, even though institutions were facing strain, members of Congress still had some self-respect. They were independent. They didn’t like being blamed for everything. It’s also worth noting that Carter had a difficult time dealing with Congress, in part because Congress was keen to assert its independence from the White House in the wake of Watergate.
Also, the parties weren’t as polarized as they are today. You had conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, so you didn’t have the general same-team boosterism that you have now that keeps everybody in lockstep. To all of this in Washington, Carter brought a high-minded air. Why Not the Best? was the title of his campaign book. I think to be fair to President Carter, what the book meant was, why not the best in terms of, like, the general program, not that he was the best, but people found it a little high in the self-regard category. Carter’s longtime friend Charles Kirbo told Carter’s campaign chairman, campaign treasurer in 1976, “He’s not a politician. As president, he will do what he thinks is right, whether it’s popular or not, and if elected, he may be a one-term president.” Also, Carter’s domestic policy was particularly tricky. He wasn’t just trying to shake things up in Washington, he was operating at a time when conventional wisdom was in flux.
A long period of American peacetime expansion was at an end and, wrote Richard Neustadt, the historian and political scientist, “Carter’s programs reflected the babble around him.” I guess my point, just before we move on, the point there is that the old levers and approaches to things were being called into question. It wasn’t just solving the problem, but the tools you would use to solve the problem were less obvious than they used to be. So why did Carter think he could come into Washington as an outsider, tick off Congress, design a presidency in a totally new way? Well, because he’d just run a tremendously successful presidential campaign. He hadn’t trounced Gerald Ford in the end, although he had gotten more votes. Mandates have been built out of less. He had come out of nowhere, harnessing the public disgust, and was pretty sure his instincts were right about what the people wanted. “I will not lie to you,” he told voters, which is what they wanted to hear. Actually, as an aside, may or may not be a good thing in a president.
In 1972, which was two years before Carter launched his long-shot campaign for president, Hamilton Jordan, his rumpled bed of a political strategist, composed a 59-page memo with a road map to victory. Here’s a little excerpt from that road map: “Perhaps the strongest feeling in this country today is the general distrust and disillusionment of government and politicians at all levels.” They rode this idea to victory in the campaign and wanted to use the version of the same thing in Washington. Here’s how James Fallows puts it in Chris Whipple’s Gatekeepers, the book about White House chiefs of staff that we’ve referred to quite often in the last couple of episodes. Here’s Fallows, who was a speechwriter in the Carter presidency: “Carter, and the people around him had the view, ‘We’re not going to be corrupted by your imperial ways.’” You can see its modern incarnation in the Tea Party Republicans thinking they’ve been elected as a widespread repudiation of business as usual.
This idea that campaigning makes you president is not a new thing. The hubris is so familiar that political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote about it as a warning to all new administrations. This is Neustadt speaking: “Everywhere there’s a sense of page-turning, a new chapter in the country’s history, a new chance, too. With it, irresistibly there comes a sense they couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, but we will.” “They” being—this is me talking now—“they” being the predecessors, “we” being the incoming. Back to Neustadt: “We have just done the hardest thing there is to do in politics. Governing has to be a pleasure by comparison. We won, so we can.” May I make a callout to listeners while I make this point? This is something I’ve long been fascinated with in the presidency. The relationship between campaigning and governing. I wrote a long series about it, for Slate, the idea being that, we test presidential candidates for the wrong attributes.
This is part of a larger interest of mine and also, part of that interest is whether expertise is transferable. Michael Jordan could play basketball, but was not that successful as a Major League Baseball player. Though he was obviously better than Joe off the street at baseball. Joe Off the Street could never really hit the curveball.
There’s a very popular business book called What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Its popularity suggests it has some value in life. The premise is this: Once you achieve the corner office spot you’ve got to learn a whole new set of tasks sufficient to your new job. If you rely on what got you into the corner office, you won’t succeed, so you’ve got to learn the new landscape, adapt, and apply new skills to the task. This is the way the business world works, but no one ever applies this thinking to the presidency. “Oh, he was a good campaigner, so he must be a good president.” It doesn’t work that way, either in politics or in business.
When the president’s new communication’s director, the current president, Donald Trump’s new communication’s director, Anthony Scaramucci says that Trump is a great campaigner, it’s as if that’s all you need to know about him. That doesn’t seem right and it seems axiomatic, in fact, that what got you to be the president isn’t what’s going to make you a successful president. Scaramucci, who’s from the business world, presumably should know this, if not from politics, then from business. I should say one other thing that interests me, is there’s some indication that those people who are experts in one field, going back to the Michael Jordan analogy, OK, here we go, this is going to be a bit of a—stick with me folks. Two things: one, your expertise in some field, there is some indication that basically what happens is people who are experts feel like they can do stuff on instinct because they’ve grown an expertise in a certain area where their instinct is quite valuable. Why is their instinct valuable?
Our favorite topic, pattern recognition. If I’m a chess player— the old chess player analogy—I don’t evaluate every move in front of me that’s possible. I evaluate the 10 possible moves that are going to get me to yes, and then I make my decisions on that, but I know what the 10 moves are and I can differentiate between them. That’s what expertise is, a novice comes in, doesn’t even know the 10 or the most important 10 moves to evaluate, but the novice comes in and evaluates all 2,900 possible moves because they can’t differentiate. Pattern recognition as a business person, and particularly a business person in a certain kind of business, makes you have the great ability to have instinct in that one area, but it doesn’t mean that pattern recognition is usable in some other place. In the same way that pattern recognition in chess doesn’t make you a great pinochle player. I don’t even know how you play pinochle.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t learn, but then what the question is in those previous studies I mentioned, is whether a person who is an expert in one level can go through and is welcoming of the itchy process of learning things from the ground up. It’s no fun. Go teach yourself some instrument you’ve never played before. No matter how competent you are in the rest of your life, that unpleasant feeling of the inability is quite a bummer and then once you’ve achieved a certain level, you are less and less in contact with that elemental helpless experience. How does this work for the presidency, and how we train our presidents, and how presidents should be trained? These are open questions, but I think they’re at play here and they’re at play with our expectations for presidents and how their competence in one sphere, whether it’s business or politics, works in another sphere.
Anyway, my request to those of you out there who are experts in either corporate takeovers, mergers, business restructuring, or the field of whether expertise is transferable, drop me a line with your thoughts on this to Whistlestop@Slate.com and I’d be fascinated.
Anyway, back to Carter. His structural reforms for the presidency. Carter was a disruptor, like Trump. He came out of nowhere, he believed that Washington was the enemy, and he had a different approach, and he could get past the normal gatekeepers. Unlike Trump, Carter had a very hyperfocused interest in the minutiae of legislating and trying to make progress on what he called “my issues.” This, again, from Chris Whipple’s The Gatekeepers. “He was the most supremely self-confident person I have ever encountered,” said his friend Jack Watson, who was Carter’s original sort of chief of staff, but who got bumped out by the campaign team, most notably, by Hamilton Jordan, which we’ll talk about later.
Anyway, more from Watson: “He had an amazing capacity to absorb and assimilate information on a wide range of subjects and to pull the information out in an organized way and apply it.” This is the opposite, of course, of President Trump, who only lightly familiarizes himself with the details of policy. It was a disaster for Trump’s travel ban and his health care pitch, but in the sweep of the presidency it is not necessarily so that a president who dives into the details is successful. Though I should hasten to add that the presidential measurement doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so skill levels and skills that might work in one circumstance don’t work in another. I guess my point is, don’t think of Carter and his deep-dives into the policy papers as being—while necessarily 180 degrees the opposite of President Trump—it’s not axiomatic that somebody who does all their homework is going to be a better decision maker and a better president. Carter organized his White House with two new systematic characteristics.
First, he would dive into the policy details, immerse himself up to his neck, maybe his ears, and he would also let the Cabinet have autonomy. This was billed as “Cabinet government.” He would also not have a chief of staff. He was conscious of the Nixon lesson and that was that Nixon had a chief of staff that shut him off from diverse opinions. Er, you’ll remember, though, from our episode on Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, that Haldeman actually tried hard to convince Nixon to take diverse opinions, but Nixon often didn’t want them. He didn’t want to be with other people, and especially, he didn’t want to hear from his Cabinet officials. At the time that Carter was designing his White House, that wasn’t the understanding of the way the Nixon White House had worked. They thought that his being shut off from other people was a result of the structure. Structure, being destiny in this view of the world, and not because of the man himself. President Carter also thought he could do it himself.
The problem is, that Carter’s de facto chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, didn’t play the role, even though he had the title. Someone has to do the job even if you don’t give them the title of chief of staff and Jordan treated members of Congress with contempt, not returning their phone calls, and not participating in the easy stroking practices that are required to get legislation through. Here are some reviews of the early Carter term, which are withering: The president had not managed Congress and he had tried to do too much, energy policy, government reform, Panama Canal Treaty, which was to say relinquishing the U.S. ownership of the Panama Canal, tax reform, health care reform, inflation curbs, revamping of social welfare programs, social security and welfare. He was a micromanager reading every memo, “150 pages a night,” according to one account, which left him no time for strategy and the other kinds of leadership-focused activities that a freer mind can put itself toward. If you busy yourself with 150 pages a night of reading, you’re not able to do that.
Here are a collection of reviews from the passage in Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power and Modern President. Neustadt writes up all of them, the different early reviews of the Carter presidency at about the time our story is taking place: “Carter, anything but a master strategist, is dealing with a Congress that has grown suspicious. I’ve never heard so many suggestions of ineptness about a new administration.” That’s from a Democratic Senate staff member. “The president decides even the petty questions himself. He attends to minute details to an obsessive degree. There seems to be no raison d’être for this administration. Little imagination or inspiration in 1977.” At the end of two years the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Criticism escalates. Longtime sympathizers grow disillusioned.” “I don’t see him getting ahold of this,” said Fred Dutton. Harry McPherson, another Democratic veteran said, “He needs to convey a stronger sense that there is some fire in his belly.” This from a Democratic pollster, “Stability has to come from the top and I’m not sure he can provide it.” Fred Wertheimer, “He falls short in commanding the attention of the American people.”
Fred Wertheimer, who went on to lead Common Cause, which sought to weed out the influence of big money in politics. The Cabinet government had not exactly worked—well, it had worked and it hadn’t worked. The early energy policy was a good example. Carter let Energy Secretary James Schlesinger work on the policy more or less in secret. Now, this led to a leak-free competent product, but the final product was sprawling and unwieldy. H. R. Haldeman was right, you had to let other parts of the administration in on things, because policy has implications in other areas than just the one that it seems to be governing. In this case, energy. He can’t cook up policy without being aware of the other things that it might bump into, the ricochet effect. Other members of the Cabinet in the Carter years thought the policy on energy cooked up by Schlesinger would be too expensive, but the secret production also irritated their egos. Everybody wants a little place in the sun.
Congress also didn’t like being cut out of the process, especially when Carter was treating members of Congress like an institution that would just take whatever the White House wanted to give it and then dutifully pass the legislation. We’re back here to James Fallows, the extraordinary writer for the Atlantic, who was a speechwriter in the Carter White House. Not long after leaving the White House, Fallows wrote an essay called “The Passionless Presidency” that deconstructed Carter’s failures. The piece has a great billboard paragraph: “Jimmy Carter tells us he’s a good man. His positions are correct. His values sound. That is not an inconsiderable gift. His performance in office shows us why it’s not enough.” That’s a good sentence. Put that sentence on the billboard of maxims of presidencies as we try to figure out the proper place to set the little levels on the equalizer here on each of the gifts of a presidency. Somebody who’s a little lacking in values might have something more in execution than Jimmy Carter didn’t have.
Anyway, you should read Fallows, not because you may agree with his liberal viewpoint, but because he is an agile probing mind who writes very well and doesn’t recline into the certainties and conventional wisdom, or if you think he is, he can make the case using actual evidence and appeals to reason, which are good to have. Anyway, I’m just going to read you what Fallows wrote on the “Passionless Presidency.” It’s so good, and again, it goes right to this question of the Cabinet government.
From the “Passionless Presidency” by James Fallows: Like no other president since Eisenhower, Carter seemed to think that organizations would run in practice, as they did on paper. People would perform their assigned functions and seek no orders. Orders, once given, would be carried out. When people were asked to direct specific bureaus or departments, their loyalties would still lie with the larger interests of the administration. Recent history was taken by Carter to prove this point.
One of Nixon’s worst sins was his abuse of Cabinet departments. He stacked them with political flunkies and destroyed the secretaries’ control over their own shops. With Watergate over and Nixon deposed, “Cabinet government” became a good-government rallying cry. Carter took up the cry, eagerly accepting a naive book by Stephen Hess, which proposed that the secret of efficient government was to give Cabinet secretaries free rein. The book and the policy were wrong because they omitted the necessary caveat: if a president wants to allow Cabinet secretaries full day-to-day control, he must make special, almost daily efforts to find out how that control is being used. Otherwise, when a president declares “Hands off the departments,” a depressingly predictable sequence will begin. The White House staff will defer to the departments, until the first big calamity happens. A secretary might play to the department’s constituents rather than the president’s.
As Patricia Harris of Housing and Urban Development was suspected of doing with her truculent demands for more money for housing programs. A big scandal might arise at the General Services Administration, for example, or at Labor or Health, Education, and Welfare, where they seem to crop up regularly. A secretary might appear to be building his own empire, as Joseph Califano was suspected of doing at HEW, with his LBJ-like determination that everyone in his department work only for him. Deception, inefficiency, a dozen other ills infecting the various government departments, whatever the origin, will make a president angry. He will feel frustrated, he will feel especially frustrated if, like Carter, he has put extra stress on governmental performance and results. If he cares about his policies and his political future, he will feel compelled to act. He will send in his own people, good loyal people, to “Get the job done right.”
There were a number of issues with the early Carter administration along with the management that we won’t go into. OMB Director Bert Lance, who was a Carter intimate, was embroiled in a scandal leftover from his pre-administration time as a banker, so there was a lot of other stuff bedeviling the Carter administration that’s not exactly on our main topic here. One of these things on the side-room that we do want to get into, because it matters with this management question, is the gossip about Carter’s right-hand man, Hamilton Jordan. Imperious with Congress, Jordan’s private behavior supported this idea of a shambolic White House with too much on its plate and not a very good organization. On Dec. 18, 1977, Sally Quinn of the Washington Post reported that Jordan had attended a party where he met the wife of the Egyptian ambassador. As Quinn memorably related it, “Jordan gazed at her ample front, pulled at her elasticized bodice, and was prompted to say, loudly enough for several others to hear, ‘I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids.’”
There was also a story about Jordan, who divorced from his wife during the presidency, pouring a drink down a woman’s blouse when she rebuffed him at a bar. The White House produced a 34-page rebuttal. You think the Trump administration is thinned-skinned, well, this points out an area in which the Trump administration has not had any woes, and that is with any personal scandals or gossipy Washington stuff. If the press was out to get the White House, you would see these kinds of gossipy White House aide stories, and of course, the Carter White House thought that the press was out to get them. The institution of Washington fighting back against the disruptors and so they had the things to say about the press in Washington and the feelings about the local denizens of the swamp-dwelling press rooms that were very harsh and perhaps even harsher than what we hear from the Trump campaign.
On July 12, the president gives this speech and Kevin Mattson, author of What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President, which examines the underlying themes of Carter’s speech, the “Malaise” speech, explains the speech and its attempt this way: “Jimmy Carter had grown increasingly convinced that Americans had to face up to the energy crisis, but they could only do this if they faced up to the crisis in their own values.” Says Madison, “He tried to push the energy crisis onto a kind of moral and civic plane and the speech was used to unify around a sense of civic sacrifice.”
Jimmy Carter: It’s clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper, deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages. Deeper even than inflation or recession. I realize more than ever that as president I need your help.
The president then went on to put his finger on what he said was “wrong with America.”
Jimmy Carter: The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
The speech that has been misnamed the “Malaise” speech was really popular when it was first given. It got good reviews, the president was riding high. “The White House phones lit up,” according to Gatekeepers, “The response was overwhelmingly positive with 84 percent of callers supporting the president. Overnight his approval rating shot up 11 percentage points.” Apparently, snap polls are not a modern convention; they were with us in the ’70s too. An unresolved question overshadowed by later events is whether the public really was OK with this message about their underlying values. They appear to be OK with the scolding, but the political fallout that would come later, unrelated to the speech, has kept any further president from ever trying to scold the public in this way again. The fallout after the speech would come from what happened a few days later.
The president, seeking to capitalize on the momentum he’d created by the Oval Office speech and then going on the road, decided to reshape his Cabinet, make it easier to work with Congress. He said in his speech, “I will act,” and the firings was a showy act to show he was taking control of things. He wasn’t just giving speeches, but he was actually putting things in place to get things done. It wasn’t just a desire to show action for action’s sake, he was actually having trouble with some of the aides who weren’t working very well with his staff. Schlesinger, the energy secretary, was out because he’d bruised too many people creating the new energy policy. Joseph Califano, the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, later that was split into the Education Department and the Health and Human Services, HHS, had a bigger clash with the president. He didn’t get along with Jordan, or the other White House aides. Carter didn’t like Califano’s autonomy.
The New York Times said of Califano, who had been LBJ’s domestic policy adviser, “That he had more connections than the White House switchboard.” Califano regularly went around the White House staff right to Carter. His view was, “Yes, a little experience is kind of helpful in this city. Yes, I have strong views and if you’re going to make it a Cabinet government, let me run my Cabinet.” Califano was also more liberal than Carter on abortion and his anti-tobacco campaign hurt Carter in the South, so Carter fired him and Califano promptly went and held a press conference saying that, “The president had told him he was the best HEW secretary ever and that he had to fire him to remove him as a political liability for the campaign in 1980 where Carter would need conservative Democrats in the South who didn’t like the positions that Califano held.” Carter and his White House—or the White House spokesman for President Carter—contradicted Califano and said, “None of that had happened.” It was a messy, ugly split.
Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal was also out, but he was less combative. He was caught at Sans Souci, which was a famous Washington place to be seen and enjoy expense-account lunches. Elisabeth Bumiller, now the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, caught up with Blumenthal at Sans Souci for the Style Section of the Washington Post. He told Elisabeth Bumiller, “I always wondered whether people went out with me because I was Michael Blumenthal treasury secretary, or Michael Blumenthal, me. Now when people say, ‘Yes, I’ll go out with you,’ I know it’s me because I don’t think a former treasury secretary’s very exciting.” Blumenthal had this rumination while he was drinking a bottle of wine that had been sent over to him while he was having lunch in the middle of the day. He was also enjoying a cigar. Aside: back then lunches, business lunches, were 100 percent deductible, so no wonder everybody went out all day long in Washington.
Anyway, Blumenthal, when asked whether he was shoved out or left on his own, he said, he “felt like a prisoner out on parole.” Carter needed to clean house and prioritize, that’s what this was all about. Here’s what he wrote in his diaries at the time: “It became obvious to me that we’ve had too much of my own involvement in different matters simultaneously. I need to concentrate on energy and fight for passage of an acceptable plan.” Hamilton Jordan told the Times, at this point “I think he’s going to be different in his approach, with less inclination to jump into details and more listening, thinking, and reflecting.” Now it’s funny we’re quoting from Hamilton Jordan because as a part of this new structure, Carter put Hamilton Jordan in office officially as the chief of staff. That’s a post he didn’t want, a post he wasn’t very good at. Anyway, now he’s officially the chief of staff.
The New York Times wrote, “When President Carter made Hamilton Jordan White House chief of staff last week, he entrusted the organization, detail, and negotiation to a man with a reputation for a lack of concern for the traditional ways of doing business in Washington.” Jordan immediately put his foot in the paint bucket when he became chief of staff by asking for performance reviews and for staff to fill out evaluation forms. He sought ratings on punctuality, confidence, and ability to follow instructions. There was no question about penmanship and spelling, but there might as well have been. What the forms turned out to be, however, according to those who analyzed them at the time, were loyalty tests, not really measurements of competence. Those asked to fill them out saw them as such. “In this questionnaire, loyalty is the common thread,” said a management expert interviewed by the Washington Post about this gambit of Jordan’s.
“Loyalty and the extreme can be troublesome and lead to ineffectiveness. The White House is seeking loyalty at all cost. It is making a mistake,” said the expert. Well, then of course, this should resonate with any of the White Houses, including the current one, where loyalty is—there’s such a premium put on it. Loyalty is on the other end of the scale, or is the thing intentioned with getting good, honest advice. You don’t want frank advice from advisers to be seen as disloyal. Question 22 on these forms Hamilton Jordan sent out asked to what extent is this person focused on accomplishing the administration’s goals. Then there were blank lines next to the terms. One was administration goals and the other was personal goals. Presumably, in evaluating the person on the staff there were … Percentages were supposed to be assigned to each one. Well, he’s 37 percent aligned with the administration’s goals and he’s 63 percent aligned with his own personal goals. I suppose they were supposed to both add up to 100 percent.
Although, what if your goals were aligned to a variety of different areas? I mean, sure you’ve got goals for yourself, but for your family, and what about your community? I think it’s an important part of any healthy lifestyle to care about your own community—plus, pets. Jordan also offered other reforms that will sound very familiar to today’s observers. He promised that anyone on the White House staff who uttered any criticism to outsiders about the firings that had just happened would themselves be summarily fired. Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House chief of staff—sorry, that’s a slip-up on my part and yet, possibly telling. He is the new communications director of the White House, but is rumored to be on the on-deck circle to the chief of staff’s office. He recently said that “Anybody caught leaking would be fired.” The [inaudible] of history, forever bright.
This immediately didn’t work. This handing out, and this new structure with Hamilton Jordan, and this whipsaw from a Cabinet government where the president was involved to one where these new walls went up. The first causality with that was Cabinet member No. 5, transportation secretary, Brock Adams. He was told that under the new order the president would be less involved on the details and that he couldn’t meet with Carter. The secretary of transportation couldn’t meet with him. He was told that he also had to fire a top aide and send another over to the White House for a disciplinary talk. Brock Adams did not like this and resigned. “I strongly believe,” he said, “There must be Cabinet access to the president.” He then went on to criticize the new chief of staff, Jordan, who’d been put atop the new structure. “I could not function under those circumstances. I suppose others can.”
“The problem is that while Carter was trying to show that he was in control, he conveyed chaos instead,” wrote the Washington Post. “The White House staff, which was lifted to new heights by Carter’s Sunday speech plunged to new depths of frustration and gloom over the leadership overkill of the mass resignations. The evaluation form and now the random firings that are being handed out on a daily basis,” continued the Post. “It’s also sad,” said one midlevel White House assistant, “That little boost we got from the speech Sunday is all dead now.” The irony is that Carter, who had tried so hard not to be like Nixon, learned the same lesson Nixon did when he asked for mass resignations the day after he won reelection.
Here’s what Nixon wrote in his memoirs: “The call for resignations included the entire White House staff and all Cabinet members. I see this now as a mistake. I did not take into account the chilling effect this action would have on the morale of people who had worked so hard during the election and who were naturally expecting a chance to savor the tremendous victory, instead of suddenly having to worry about keeping their jobs. This situation was compounded by my own isolation in Camp David, where I spent 18 days in the four weeks after the election, holding more than 40 meetings with old and new appointees and making plans for the second term.”
The firings and the Camp David isolation are identical in these cases. Wrote the Washington Post of all this: “Some officials of foreign governments thought the resignation offers meant the collapse of the government.” Carter started to become a laughingstock after all these firings. It wasn’t just the comedians, but they were having fun too. Mark Russell said, “The First Lady is writing an article for Ladies’ Home Journal, ‘How We Turned Our Cabinet Room into a Spare Den.’ ” It was also an invitation for writers like David Broder to really crank up the old Wurlitzer. Here’s the lead of a piece of his at the time. Now, Broder was a very influential and syndicated political observer, so this was a tone that didn’t just show the emotional fancy of the time of his fingers banging it out on the typewriter, but it was reflecting something that would then get into the kind of conventional wisdom.
He refers here in this lead we’re about to enjoy to something called Sky Lab, which was an orbital space station that we were all very focused on at this time because it fell back to Earth and nobody quite knew where it was going to land. Here’s Broder: “Sky Lab missed Washington, D.C., last week, but yesterday the Carter Cabinet fell out of orbit 18 months ahead of schedule, breaking up into red hot chunks of flaming political ego and scattering debris across the bureaucratic landscape.” That’s the lead. After writing it, I’m sure Broder no doubt went to Sans Souci and had a little congratulatory lunch. Anyway, Broder’s piece goes on and continues in this vain. He quoted a Washington lawyer “who had worked,” he said, “in Washington since the New Deal who asked, “Have the monkeys taken over the zoo?’” I’m wondering whether that was either Edward Bennett Williams or Clark Clifford. That would’ve been fun to know.
Broder continued to paint the scene of chaos: “In the White House newsroom, bemused reporters vied in the black humor category. In the brief pauses between the announcements of official executions by Press Secretary Jody Powell, the House Democratic study group was making fun of Jordan’s evaluation forms. They’d invited its group to rate the White House staff on a scale ranging from unfortunate to the best and the brightest. In the House, the Democratic cloakroom, the joke spread: ‘“What do you do when Jimmy Carter comes at you with a pen? You run like hell, because he’s got a grenade in his mouth.’” Robert Strauss, a veteran Democratic operative of politics, was asked about all these firings and he said, “I expect to serve as trade representative for an extended period of time, perhaps until next week.”
These are Democrats making fun of the Democratic president. This is a Democratic trade representative who works for the president making fun of the president.
Minority whip, Bob Michael, Republican, compared Carter to a schoolmarm desperately trying to bring the class to order with spitballs and paper airplanes flying around his head. He doesn’t know it yet, but school is out for the summer. Jimmy Carter’s attempt to adapt, admit mistakes, and redesign his operational structure was a spectacular failure. It created a sense of chaos that squashed his effort to rally the nation. Of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. In November of 1979, Iranians seized American hostages. Carter’s standing went up at first, but then the crisis sapped the energy of his administration. Even before that up-and-down, the crisis and then the impending campaign and primary challenge from dead Kennedy, which those of you who’ve listened to your previous Whistlestop campaign podcasts know all about.
Those of you who’ve bought the book at home and have it by your bedside table have an even better understanding of the political pressure that was on Carter, so even if he had tried this reorganization, not had so many snickers about it, between the hostage crisis and the primary campaign, it’s hard to rewire an entire operating procedure. A White House isn’t like a business in which you can do wholesale changes like this. Not only is it the pressure from the outside, but in any organization, that many changes in midstream while you’re dealing with ongoing issues, I mean, I just don’t know if it can be done. Then to layer on top on that the hostage crisis and the primary, I don’t know. I don’t know how he expected this to work out well for him.
The lesson of the “Malaise” speech has been in popular imagination that you can’t tell the country bad news, but perhaps the real lesson of that period may be a different one. The American people might take a scolding OK, but the lesson may be about something else. It may be about the public’s desire for swift presidential action and the conclusion you might be able to draw is that the public is always desperate for swift presidential action. They want an action-hero president, even though that’s a misunderstanding of the office. They are not undifferentiated in their desire for what kind of action, so a sweeping reorganization launched to show a chief executive on top of events may in the end just look like the chaos that has upended the world outside the White House, has now come inside the White House. There is a fine line between disruption and chaos.