The British ambassador writes home about Jimmy Carter

The British ambassador writes home about Jimmy Carter

Peter Jay offered remarkably acute observations about an unorthodox president and his times

Shortly after Jimmy Carter came to the White House in January 1977, Prime Minister James Callaghan decided that fresh blood was needed, too, in the British embassy in Washington. Peter Jay was designated Her Majesty’s new ambassador. Jay was an unorthodox choice, only forty years old, a journalist, not a diplomat—and he was Callaghan’s son-in-law. His appointment occasioned audible throat clearing among the mandarins of British foreign policy.

For all his perceived deficiencies as a diplomat, however, Jay brought to Carter’s Washington masterful talents of observation and description. Thus his occasional dispatches back to London—interpreting what he was picking up in Washington—contain remarkably acute observations about an unorthodox president and his times. Jay was the proverbial fly on the wall—but one with a first-class honours degree from Oxford and a decade of editorial experience with The [pre-Murdoch] Times.

Because Carter lived such a long and productive life after he left Washington, reflections now about his White House years are inevitably distorted in retrospect. Ambassador Jay’s contemporaneous reports (condensed and edited here) help us recall more clearly today a presidency obscured by myth and time. 

(Originals preserved at Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge University.)

The mood of America [during Jimmy Carter’s presidency] has remained recuperative. It would be hard to exaggerate the blows to American self-confidence suffered over the dozen years between [John] Kennedy’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation. The pillars of American self-esteem—morality, invincibility, stability, and growth—were all shaken profoundly by the successive shocks of Kennedy’s death, the race riots, the generation gap, the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam failure, the energy crisis, the supposed amorality of [Henry] Kissinger’s foreign policy and the steady rise of Soviet power. The election of Jimmy Carter, the clean pragmatist with a moral purpose, expressed as clearly as anything the yearning of the American people for a fresh start. The fact that Gerald Ford ran him so close was equally eloquent of the widespread longing for a return to the enduring verities of the Republic, in which God and the American pocket-book march naturally hand-in-hand if only the meddling politicians and malign foreigners are kept under control.

[But] the abuses of the Vietnam war, the scandal of Watergate and the changing structure and attitudes of the Congress in the present decade have all combined to hamper the work of the would-be active President. The most thoughtful Presidential aides in [Carter’s] White House acknowledged privately that they had no idea [when they arrived] how deeply the Presidency has been damaged.

President Carter’s performance has to be judged against this background. Arriving with the reputation of a State politician whose successful populism had carried him to responsibilities beyond his experience and perhaps his capacities, he has proved a better statesman and a worse politician than could have been expected. If the function of the statesman is to set the agenda of the national debate and to alert his countrymen to pressing problems, Mr. Carter has been a bold and successful statesman. If the function of the politician is to create support where and when it matters for the policies he advocates, then Mr. Carter has been – at least as measured conventionally on results so far – an inept and ineffective politician.

Can, then, President Carter successfully lead the United States and the Western world? The experience [to date] suggests that while his leadership is potentially strong, doubt remains whether he has the personal attributes and the political skills needed to realise that potential. …Dr. [Samuel] Johnson’s old friend, Mrs. Carter, “could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus.” It is increasingly doubted in Washington whether Mr. Carter can.

There is no question about his intellectual abilities. Clark Clifford, the close adviser of six Presidents and one of Washington’s very best brains throughout the post-war era, has described Jimmy Carter as the cleverest of all the Presidents he has served. Every visitor to the Oval Office, even Mr. [Andrei] Gromyko [the Soviet foreign minister], is reported to be deeply impressed by the President’s intelligence and grasp of complex issues. [But] it is almost equally widely questioned whether Mr. Carter can put together and successfully mix the ingredients of political success. 

The chief virtue Mr. Carter has so far displayed is his boldness in identifying the difficult issues in foreign and domestic policy. He has put forward a broad agenda of problems which the country must begin to tackle. His main guide in offering solutions is his perception of the national interest, with little regard to short-term or narrow sectional political considerations. "Don’t chicken out" remains his instinctive reaction to conventional political advice. As one sympathetic congressional observer has said, "he is a structural reformer with a keen eye for detail who does not like to deal in partial solutions or the superficialities of problems.” When he has come forward with comprehensive proposals, therefore, they have in the main been based on a thoroughly considered assessment of US interests and have had an intrinsic strategic soundness, although there were certainly some costly mistakes in the manner and timing of some of his early initiatives.   

[But a] very important source of Mr. Carter’s public political failure is that he does not fit, indeed refuses to be compressed, into any of the pre-existing simple categories of popular understanding. However crude the public’s categorization of political philosophies may be, a public man, if he is to make an impact, must present some reasonably clear overall philosophy which is intelligible to the ordinary citizen and must demonstrate his capacity to translate this philosophy into effective action…. It is beginning to be seriously questioned whether Mr. Carter has the stomach, the flair, the grounding in political ideas or, indeed, the intellectual resilience to get across enough bold outline of himself to be captured by the coarse focus of public perception. 

[Too], there is a muffled and uncertain quality about his handling of people and problems which leaves even those who are best disposed to him puzzled, disappointed, and occasionally irritated. Some say Mr. Carter is just too nice, too permissive, too forgiving, impractically fair-minded or even just too busy. Others diagnose straightforward weakness of character and consequent vacillation. A truer insight may be that he lacks imagination, in particular the imagination to see how things will affect and look to others who are less disposed to look at all sides of every issue and less subtle than he is in their appreciation of the choice to be made.

In foreign policy generally the picture is similar in outline: broadly sound goals; some solid achievements; and yet a widespread impression of uncertainty of touch deriving from Mr. Carter’s and the White House’s way of doing things…. The White House has failed to communicate adequately to interested observers the sophisticated domestic and geo-political thinking which may underline their… approach to East-West relations; and this would be another example of Mr. Carter’s dangerous proclivity for believing that truth is its own messenger, that it is enough to have a good reason without needing to explain it…. [Mr. Carter] has to carry his message to the American people; and he has to win the personal trust and confidence of other world leaders by treating them as fellow politicians, not objects of engineering science.

[The president] is currently not much loved in America. Nor has he yet inspired full confidence in other world leaders, friendly or otherwise. He walks alone. He does the unexpected. He has some indifferent lieutenants. He is politically insensitive. He can be diplomatically inept. But he is unmistakably in charge. He is tough and decisive. He shares the reflexes of the typical citizen, who wants his government to keep off his back, to be honest and efficient at home, to be moral and strong abroad, to stand up to the Russians, to avoid foreign adventures, to keep America prosperous and the dollar strong, to resist all special interests but his own and to keep a modest profile. The Americans have at least the President they deserve and on the whole want; and the fact that they are talking less and less about him suggests that most Americans are getting the kind of normality they like, when the White House is far away and its preoccupations do not bother them. True, they are again rating him low in the opinion polls – an indication, perhaps, that the virtues of integrity and caution in the White House are no longer at the premium they were in 1976…. [Yet] he has no foul-weather constituency to which to retreat in a storm.

Mr. Carter [is commendably determined] to take the high road of national leadership, mobilizing the general will of the public as ordinary citizens behind decisions which will benefit the whole society against the sectionalized will of organized interests. He has trodden that road unflinchingly…. Line up any set of options with the most immediately unpopular but, on the merits, correct on the left and the most popular, but, on merits, wrong on the right; and you can rely upon it that Mr. Carter will choose from the left. It is not the facile predictability that comes from being easily labelled “hawk” or “dove”, “liberal” or “conservative”, “idealist” or “realist”. It is the predictability of a subtle, penetrating and ice-cold mind studying the detailed merits of issues and deciding them accordingly. To describe him as a man whose heart rules his head [as some of my fellow diplomats have] is about as apt as calling Aristotle a hysteric or Euclid a pornographer. 

[But] politically Mr. Carter is failing. He has chosen, bravely, a highly unconventional style of Government; and he has failed so far to win sufficiently widespread understanding of the virtue and necessity of this radical departure.  The explanation is not the substance of the policies still less public doubt of his integrity, decency or mental ability. It is rather that, if a leader takes on an entire apparatus of organized political opinion – and so the press and broadcasters who are geared to amplify those special pleadings – then the leader will be widely and vigorously bad-mouthed. His only weapon is his own direct access to public attention; and to use that he must articulate effectively, not just the detailed justification of his individual decisions, but the unifying conception of what he is doing and why. Mr. Carter has never yet managed to do that, his great skills at the quite different art of electioneering notwithstanding. He is, perhaps, too fastidious to trust the generalisations and memorable phrases that a Churchill or a [Franklin] Roosevelt used so skillfully, too proud to fight, as was said of Woodrow Wilson, with rhetoric and ideologies that he intellectually distrusts….

Whatever the prospects of Mr. Carter’s political demise, the United States is most certainly not going to disappear, no matter how much it may be huffed at and puffed at…. Give it only a visible enemy and a fast horse, and you will still see all that old American “can-do”. 

[Ambassador Jay’s term was ended in June 1979 by Callaghan’s successor, Margaret Thatcher. Jimmy Carter lost the presidency in November of the following year to Ronald Reagan – who specialized in fast horses and visible enemies.]