A Letter to Biden From Jimmy Carter’s Biographer

A Letter to Biden From Jimmy Carter’s Biographer

A Letter to Biden From Jimmy Carter’s Biographer

Sometimes doing the right thing means not getting reelected.


Dear President Biden,

You know and I know that you could learn a lot from Jimmy Carter’s presidency. You are 18 years younger than our longest-living ex-president, but he was your friend and political ally in the 1970s, when you were a senator in your 30s. You were the first senator to endorse Carter’s miraculous run for the White House from complete obscurity. And when he won in 1976, you found yourself on the same political wavelength with the former Georgia governor. You both started out in politics as pragmatic populists: Democrats, but fiscal conservatives. You both opposed school busing and supported a woman’s right to choose—but opposed using federal funds for abortions.

In January 1978, just one year into Carter’s presidency, you dropped by the White House to warn him that Ted Kennedy was already lining up support from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing to challenge him for the 1980 nomination. You warned Carter that both labor unions and the Jewish community harbored a “deep distrust” of his presidency. Carter was grateful for the warning, but he wasn’t surprised. He told his allies that he was going to “whip” Kennedy’s “ass,” and he did, defeating the Massachusetts senator in a string of hard-fought primaries. But the Kennedy challenge left a weakened Carter to face off against Ronald Reagan in the November election. And, of course, he lost.

There are some lessons here:

§ Never promise to never tell a lie. Carter’s consigliere, Charlie Kirbo, warned him, “We’re going to lose the liar vote.” And after Trump, we know the liar vote is pretty sizable.

§ It’s OK that you don’t drink. But unlike Carter, please do serve hard liquor in the White House. Most politicians and all journalists need to imbibe, and really, it won’t bust the budget.

§ While we’re on the subject, don’t try to balance the federal budget. Facing a $66 billion deficit—how quaint that sounds—Carter tried to bring down domestic spending and only alienated liberal Democrats.

§ Realize that trying to make the US broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians will cost you politically. Carter’s personal diplomacy took Egypt off the battlefield for Israel. But this only earned him the distrust—no, the enmity—of the Jewish American establishment, and consequently he became the first modern Democratic president to lose a majority of the Jewish vote. As for the Israelis, remember what Carter learned: They talk about peace, but all they really want are those West Bank settlements. Also, don’t forget how deft Bibi Netanyahu was at humiliating Barack Obama; he’ll do the same to you, even as he once again “mows the lawn” in Gaza and fans sectarian hatred inside Israel. I know, I know, you want to be “evenhanded” about this dangerous neighborhood. But it turns out Carter was right to warn us that Israel was choosing to become an apartheid state.

§ Beware of dictators. Carter had good intelligence that Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet had ordered the assassination of Orlando Letelier with a car bomb that exploded not far from the White House—and he always regretted not indicting the Chilean dictator. Unfortunately, you’ve already got the same problem with the murderous crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

§ On national health care: Carter’s major mistake here was not to keep Ted Kennedy inside the tent by endorsing his bill for national health insurance. Kennedy’s expensive bill didn’t have the votes anyway—so when it went down in defeat, Carter could have garnered liberal backing for his own, more measured bill, providing all Americans with universal catastrophic health insurance. The lesson here is that you need to give the Squad and the progressive wing of the party no excuse to desert the Biden tent.

§ It’s OK to put solar panels on the White House. But if, like Carter, you try to impose a windfall profits tax on the oil companies, know they will hire thousands of lobbyists to destroy your congressional agenda. Ditto Big Tech. So prepare for a big fight.

§ Carter preserved millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness as a national monument—and Alaskans are still hanging him in effigy. So if you do the right thing for the environment, know that the locals will blame you.

§ When it comes to reshuffling your administration, don’t take any advice from Gerald Rafshoon, Carter’s communications director, who told him to fire his cabinet secretaries en masse. Just fire them one by one on late Friday nights, when the pundits won’t notice.

§ If you take a 10-day retreat at Camp David, don’t come back and warn the American people that “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” Voters will think you are un-American.

§ Carter signed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, and the law triggered a special prosecutor’s investigation of his top aide, Hamilton Jordan, who was accused of buying cocaine at Studio 54—a wholly false accusation fabricated by Roy Cohn. (Yes, that Roy Cohn.) Fortunately, Roy Cohn is long dead, so you won’t have to worry about him. But the lesson here is to keep your administration squeaky clean.

§ Yes, transparency. But maybe you are right not to host too many press conferences. Carter held one every two weeks for the first two years, until he realized it was just annoying everyone. Cultivate influential reporters and be grateful that Sally Quinn writes about religion now.

§ Don’t read 300 pages of memos a day; it’s too much detail. Don’t work long hours in the Oval Office, and never turn down dinner invitations from the publisher of The Washington Post. Jeff Bezos may not be as gracious company as Katharine Graham, but he is even more powerful.

§ Don’t let your staff use the White House tennis court. They will only complain that you are paying too much attention to minutiae when you make them sign in to reserve it.

§ Know that senators from West Virginia stand in a special category. Carter had to listen to Robert Byrd’s bluegrass fiddling—and let him pave any dirt road in the state. Senator Joe Manchin should be given the same perks.

§ Don’t hire a prickly Polish aristocrat who obsesses about the Russians to be your national security adviser. Zbigniew Brzezinski poisoned Carter’s relations with his secretary of state, Cy Vance. Let your secretary of state run your foreign policy.

§ Don’t spend more time on foreign policy than on domestic affairs. Carter was seduced by the illusion that he could get more things done abroad. As James Carville said of the 1992 election, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

§ Embrace the pork barrel. Carter pissed off too many congressmen by vetoing water projects, particularly US Army Corps of Engineers dams that everyone knew were damaging the environment. Let them have their water projects. Get their votes for things that matter.

§ Know the importance of racial justice. As a Southern white man, Carter understood this. During his presidency, he appointed scores of Black and Latinx people to the federal judiciary. Just realize that if you do the right thing on race, sometimes it means you will not get reelected.

§ Also, if you do the right thing, don’t tell people that’s why you’re doing it. Otherwise, the voters will think you are sanctimonious.

§ Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you happen to be attacked by a killer rabbit while quietly fishing in a Georgia pond, never, ever defend yourself with an oar, because most Americans love rabbits—even those that can swim—and they will accuse you of animal abuse. And then you might become a one-term president.

Kai Bird

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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