Jimmy Carter had ‘a certain magic,’ says former aide
James Fallows was 27 when he went to work in Jimmy Carter’s White House and 29 when he left, but the Redlands, California, native is still thinking about Carter. Even more so since the former president, now in hospice care, seems to be in his final days.
Carter was 56 when he left the presidency after a single term. At 98, he has been a former president for an astonishing 42 years.
“He’s been a former president 10 times longer than he was president,” Fallows told me by phone Thursday from his home in Washington, D.C.
“Most of today’s Americans,” Fallows said, “were born after Carter left office.”
(That’s sobering news for someone who just turned 59. I had no clue that being alive during Carter’s presidency meant I was on my way to taking Carter’s Little Pills.)
Because most know Jimmy Carter as a former president, not as president, his so-so record has been eclipsed by his undeniably successful retirement years.
“He has essentially invented what the post-presidency can be,” Fallows said. “There was no template for what Carter would end up doing. He has invented the role of ‘former president’: home builder, peace advocate, disease fighter, election monitor.”
We were talking at my invitation. Head speechwriter for the first half of Carter’s term, and the youngest person to hold that job, Fallows, 73, is likely the only person from the Inland Empire in California who spent substantial time with Carter.
Their interactions were extensive. Not chummy, though. We’ll come back to that.
How did they meet?
Fallows tagged along with former employer Ralph Nader to Plains, Georgia, in summer 1976 to see Carter, a presidential aspirant, and joined his campaign. The common-man former governor of Georgia, a peanut farmer, had captured the public’s imagination.
When Carter’s plane landed on Sept. 25, 1976, at Ontario International Airport in Southern California, a crowd turned out to see him. He moved on to a campaign stop at the L.A. County Fair in Pomona, where he walked through crowds, “shook hands with hundreds” and watched some square dancing, according to an Ontario Daily Report account.
Fallows’ parents drove out to the fairgrounds from Redlands, near San Bernardino, California. Carter gave his aide’s parents a thrill by greeting them.
“He had a certain magic to him,” Fallows reflected. “This was post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. He could connect to people and move crowds. He had a certain charm and power that allowed him to become president out of nowhere.”
After Carter’s victory over incumbent Gerald Ford, Fallows was among the thousands called into service. He led a five- to six-person speechwriting team responsible for crafting official comments about matters from the commonplace to the crucial.
He learned how to write quickly and conversationally, to write in the president’s voice and to develop a grasp of policy and how to explain it to the public.
It wasn’t a career path the journalist had envisioned for himself, but he decided he’d be foolish to pass up the opportunity to see how government worked from the inside.
The two main things he said he learned: “how impossible the job of being president is,” because a president makes decisions that often are the best of two bad choices, and “how completely run ragged everybody is.”
Fallows, like everyone else, was working almost nonstop and he had to be available at almost any time, even with a newborn son at home.
What was Carter like?
“He is a very decisive, clear-minded, confident person,” Fallows said. He added dryly, “He was a firmer leader than his post-presidential image as the leading humanitarian of the world.”
Carter could be blunt in his criticism.
“The worst part of a speechwriter’s job is writing jokes, such as for the Gridiron dinner,” Fallows said. “I remember getting drafts back from Carter saying ‘very poor — see me.’”
Did Carter balance this out by going out of his way to be complimentary? Uh, no.
“He was more restrained in his praise,” Fallows said diplomatically. As he put it, there were thousands of tasks that needed doing and managing people’s feelings was not Carter’s priority.
I asked Fallows how he was treated around Redlands when he returned for family visits. Did people rib him about working for the president, ask for favors, give him messages to pass along?
“I don’t remember anyone giving me a hard time or being overly impressed,” Fallows said. Being a president’s speechwriter, he explained, is an anonymous job.
He left at the end of 1978. “It’s a very high burnout job, even for people in their 20s,” Fallows said. “I knew how to write speeches. I wanted to write things in my own voice.”
One of his first was an analysis of Carter’s presidency at the midway point for The Atlantic, where he became a longtime national correspondent. One insider anecdote from it has been repeated ever since as symbolic of Carter’s micro-attention to detail: that the president personally signed off on the schedule for the White House tennis court.
(Some have disputed that. Fallows told me history can be the judge. He added: “I speak as a member of the RHS tennis team.”)
What Carter stood for — among other things, the environment, peace between Israel and Egypt, and human rights in foreign policy — has gained currency.
“It’s fortunate for him that he has lived to see his presidency re-evaluated,” Fallows said.
On Feb. 18, Carter’s charity announced that after a series of short hospital stays, Carter had “decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention.”
To Fallows, this was in keeping with Carter’s life: a direct, no-nonsense statement of the reality of the situation and a public-spirited gesture that may draw attention to hospice care and thus help others.
One of Carter’s signature lines on the campaign trail was this: “I’ll never lie to you.” He’s giving it to us straight all the way to the end.
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, honest. Email [email protected], phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.