Warnings from Hamilton Jordan’s Brilliant Campaign for Jimmy Carter: Amateurish White House Performance Followed

In reading the obituary for Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, and retrospectives on his life, I am reminded what a brilliant primary campaign Jordan and Carter ran, as Washington outsiders. But then, when they got to Washington, the very strengths that got Carter elected proved to be weaknesses. The PBS American Experience website recalls:

The refusal to play by the rules of Washington contributed to the Carter administration’s difficult relationship with Congress. Jordan and Frank Moore, in particular, feuded with leading Democrats like House Speaker Tip O’Neill from the start. Unreturned phone calls, insults (both real and imagined), and an unwillingness to trade political favors soured many on Capitol Hill and tangibly affected the president’s ability to push through his ambitious agenda.

“There was an innocence, and an arrogance, about the idea that you could run the country with your Atlanta statehouse team — you just couldn’t,” concludes historian Roger Wilkins. “Every president brings his people, but most presidents bring people who are seasoned people who really understand Washington and know how to move around the city. That just wasn’t true of Jimmy Carter. You hate to say it, but it was often, it seemed, very amateurish.”

Jimmy Carter lost a 20-point lead in the 1980 presidential campaign. He also lost a wide lead against Gerald Ford in the 1976 campaign. Carter was never accepted by the Washington establishment, and was widely viewed as ineffectual by the time he left office. I remember reading reports that Carter micro-managed the presidency, got mired in details — even taking it upon himself to manage the schedule for the White House tennis courts; he was a hard-taskmaster who stared grimly at his staff and rarely offered praise. He was more feared and respected than liked.

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