Carter's chief of staff evaluates his boss and rates his first four years
What are the President's pluses as an administrator, as you see them? I know that you've been around him a long while in a different role, so you have had the opportunity to observe him at work.
He is an extremely intelligent man, a man who works hard, who applies his intelligence to the questions and the issues and the problems that are brought to him. You can always rely on the President to read the materials that have been given to him -- not only to have read them but to be familiar with them, to have assimilated them. . . .
He [also] is a man who organizes both himself and his own time, and, therefore, basically by reflection, the time of the people around him . . .
As an administrator, does the President have any weaknesses? Is it true that he does not delegate enough, that he gets into too many details. Is this still a problem?
The President's intellectual curiosity is such that he enjoys understanding, in some cases, more about a particular issue than perhaps he needs to know. . . . To some extent I think the President could be given less to read. And fewer decisions . . . should be brought to him.
It's hard for a man working close to the President to really provide a completely objective analysis, and I wouldn't expect it. But would you take a look at the President as an executive -- as opposed to being an administrator -- and give me as objective an analysis as you probably can?
First, he is not ideological. The President by nature is a problem-solver; he is a man who approaches each set of problems, each set f isues, as an executive, as a leader, wanting to know all sides of the question, having the intelligence t understand and to assimilate the different sides of the question, and then who will make a decision based upon what he thinks is workable.
This is not to say that the President is a total pragmatist. He has some deeply held guideposts and principles and convictions by which he is guided. But it is sometimes difficult to predict how the President is going to come down on something because he is not an idealogue.
I think that's a great virtue for a president to have. It is also, however, or at least can be, a political vulnerability, because a lot of this talk about inconsistency derives from the fact that the President does not deal with every set of problems or every set of questions in exactly the same way ideologically. . . .
As you were starting to talk, it sounded to me as though you were emphasizing the President's managerial abilities. He's been critized sometimes as being more of a manager than really a chief executive, and I think when that criticism is made it is usually accompanied by a comment like this: "He simply doesn't have the vision." Would you comment?
I think that is fundamentally a misconception.
I think the President's vision, for example, about how to revitalize the cities of America is a vision which holds together very well. It's a vision that says the government cannot pay for everything; that the private sector, with its immense resources of investment and job-creating ability, is the sector to which all of us ought to be looking the most; that the government, by the way it invests its money or makes its loans or gives its grants, ought to give maximum incentive to the private sector for the revitalization of the cities.
Similarly, . . . I think the President conceived three and a half years ago that the nation needed a blueprint that would, in the decade of the '80s, take us from this intolerable dependency on foreign oil, which we presently suffer from . . . I think he has systematically pursued that vision piece by piece, element by element, so that now, as a matter of fact with the signing of the Energy Security Corporation bill, he has put together not only a remarkable but an absolutely unprecedented framework for this nation's energy security achievement.
But why is it the public does not perceive him as a President who has put together an energy package that looks anything like the one you are talking about? What is the problem here?
I think the central failure of this administration is a failure of presentation. . . . For a variety of reasons, all of which are not clear to me, we have somehow failed to present what it is the President was doing, the choices that he as President and that we as a country had to make, and the reasons that the President was making particular choices. I think that the failure of presentation or articulation has hurt us tremendously politically.
You know, I asked you that question perhaps a year or two ago and your answer was exactly the same. So obviously it is not a problem you've solve. . . .
It is not a problem we've solved. I think that part of the problem is perhaps due to the way in which we have projected our message though presidential speeches and statements. I don't know. I think that part of it is that we have not done as well as we ought to have done in terms of mobilizing the whole administration, all the major spokespersons in the administration, behind major presidential themes. I think we could have done better, and we need to do better in the months ahead.
I mean no disrespect to the press, but I think there is also an inherent problem in the way information is passed these days. The siuations and the issues and the problems and the questions that confront us, particularly those that rise to a presidential level of resolution, are complicated issues that require thoughtful analysis. They require more than just the back-of-the-hand sort of treatment. So much information is passed these days by 60- and 90 -second and 120-second spots on the evening news that you simply cannot deal with the complexities of the issue in that kind of time frame. And I think a president suffers from that.
I think that someshow, in ways that I'm not able at this moment to outline perfectly, somehow . . . we have to improve, significantly improve, both the level and the quality of the information that is presented to the public about the choices that we have and the reasons for the choices.
You remember how many people blamed the press, not Nixon, for watergate. And you may remember, too, the rebuttal that was often heard -- that the problem was with the message, not the messenger. Couldn't you say that it is still the problem of the message, coming from Carter, and not from the messenger, the press?
Yes. But I think it is a shared responsibility. I do not mean to suggest that we -- in fact to the contrary, I'm suggesting specifically that there are failures on our part. How have we not, and why have we not been more effective in constructing and sending the message that we need to send. I also say that there is a shared responsibility, not only as between the decisionmakers in the government and the press. They are two major players. But leaders at every level in the society, whether they are in a government or a private sector, have a responsibility to see that the level and the quality of public debate and public discussion permit informed judgments to be made, and I think as a country we are falling short on that.
How much of his failure to get his message understood stems from the President's low-keyed, matter-of-fact way of talking?
I think it does to some extent. The President is . . . incapable of demagoguing issues. That is against his nature. . . . [He] has a profound tendency to deal with straightforward statements of fact. The President is a man who deals in issues and questions and political problems with a minimum of rhetorical flourish.
Maybe what I'm saying a little better said, is that sometimes some rhetorical flights would serve us because there is a lot of rhetorical flight on the other side that needs to be counterbalanced somehow.
If this turns out to be a one-term presidency, do you feel that you, this administration, this President, will have made a meaningful contribution toward the progress of this nation?
Well, to begin with I do not think this will be a one-term presidency. But second, I think that in the last four years the President has made contributons to this nation which are solid and long-lasting in their effects. Specifically, I think he has taken this country, for the first time in its history, to a comprehensive energy policy which was long overdue. He has made politically extremely difficult decisions, whether it was with the deregulation of domestic crude oil prices, the lifting of those government controls over a period of time , or with natural gas, or with the whole range of legislation he has submitted and gotten enacted in the area of affirmative action, of appointing men -- black men and other minorities, Hispanic and other minorities -- and women to major positions of authority, to the federal judiciary, to the independent regulatory agencies of the government. His actions in all those areas are very long-lasting, particularly in the judiciary, because when the President makes an appointment to the federal judiciary that is something he is setting into motion which is going to long outlive his own term of office, whether it is four years or eight years. . . .
And he has moved the nation forward significantly in urban policy, in small community and rural development policy.
Also he has made a real difference in foreign affairs. I think, for example, [about] what the President did against tremendous odds with the Panama Canal, with the closing of those issues which had been before us for 14, 16 years, and which had not been resolved because they were so difficult to resolve. . . .
How do you describe his efforts in the Mideast?
Yes, there were his contributions in the Middle East, his contributions internationally in terms of his human rights policy, which has dramatically changed the way a lot of people in a lt of countries and a lot of governments are thinking and acting.
There are some who say that he slowed down the process toward SALT by stressing human rights.
We have taken the SALT II treaty to its conclusion with respect to heads of government, heads of state, between Russia and ourselves. But because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, the President pulled back the SALT II treaty from Senate consideration. . . .
You don't see this man as being very political, do you? And that perhaps this is one of his problems?
Yes, that's right.
And yet, some people say that's what he's best at: politics. But you don't see this?
No, in fact, I think exactly the contrary is true. I think that if the President guided his actions by the political consequences of those actions more we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we have now. The President almost invariably makes his decisions and makes his choices and takes his actions in accordance with what he thinks is a right answer, the thing that works the best. As one of his political advisers, one of his political supporters . . . I'd like for him to be a lot more political than he is.
Yet he does get criticized sometimes for being very political, as some people see it. For example, his providing funds during the campaign in states where he was seeking votes.
I've never, in the three and a half years of his presidency -- nor any time before the presidency, for that matter -- specifically seen the President even consider some abuse of his power or abuse of his office. . . .