The Presidency of James Earl Carter

In This Review

The Presidency of James Earl Carter

By Burton I. Kaufman
The University Press of Kansas, 1993
245 pp. $29.95
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This is the first scholarly assessment of the Carter presidency based on the materials available in the Carter Presidential Library. Kaufman, a professor at Virginia Tech, gives a balanced and sympathetic account but is devastating-and convincing-in his final judgments. Apparently the more one learns about the Carter presidency, and the deeper into the internal documents of his administration one goes, the worse Carter looks.

Kaufman is especially critical of Carter's mismanagement of foreign affairs. He finds Carter "lacking in leadership, ineffective in dealing with Congress, incapable of defending America's honor abroad, and uncertain about its purpose, priorities and sense of direction."

There were some successes, including the Panama treaty and the Camp David accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt, and Kaufman gives them appropriate space and analysis. But in response to the Iranian Revolution, Carter moved from blunder to blunder, culminating in the botched rescue attempt, which according to Kaufman "probably did more to undercut the Carter presidency than any other single event."

In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter exaggerated the threat and grossly overreacted; Kaufman charges that "pique rather than prudence" dictated his actions. The Olympic boycott was just silly. Still, one legacy-since forgotten-of Carter's reaction to Afghanistan was the 1980 arms buildup, begun by Defense Secretary Harold Brown and continued by the Reagan administration.

Kaufman discusses the pros (there were some) and cons (there were many more) of Carter's human rights policy, his never-very-clear policy toward the Sandinistas, and other aspects of his diplomacy, while maintaining his concentration on Iran and Afghanistan. Domestic policy and partisan politics are also covered. The work as a whole is characterized by sound judgments based on the record and will serve as a guide and inspiration for other, more detailed studies. Someday there will be an attempt at Carter revisionism; when it comes, it will have to deal with Kaufman's scathing summary: Carter was a president who was "long on good intentions but short on know-how," a leader who was "smart, caring, honest and informed" but who suffered from "self-righteousness, micromanagement and an inability to influence public opinion. Carter's was a mediocre, if not a failed, presidency." It should be added that Carter also suffered from rotten luck and that his successors are making him look a lot better than he did in 1981-which is why there will be a Carter revisionism.

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