Last summer and fall, President Carter undertook to learn the federal tax system. He had promised during his campaign that he would reform taxes, and the public had responded to that promise. Because he is very strongly a man of his word, the President now was determined to deliver to the American people what he had said he would. On the other hand, he hadn’t given a lot of thought to what, exactly, he was going to do to the tax system. During the campaign there had been tantalizing glimpses of the Carter program, ideas like eliminating the home mortgage interest deduction, but these were not the tip of the iceberg they seemed to be at the time. Many times in 1976 reporters had asked about the specifics of the programs he was promising, and many times he had answered that he didn’t know the specifics yet. At the time people doubted that, thought Carter really knew what he wanted but wouldn’t reveal it for fear of alienating voters; but sincerer words were never spoken.

Two points seemed particularly to irk Carter about the tax system. One was that it was messy, full of loopholes and special provisions. Carter is a man who likes his government programs neat and orderly. The second bothersome point was that the tax system seemed to be set up to benefit unfairly the well-off, to allow them special little deals that would be far out of the reach of average working people. The President has a very keen sense of fairness, and although he is not an eloquent man, the tax situation has driven him to some genuinely impassioned remarks, like this one:

“Last year, one medical doctor, a surgeon, owns a yacht and he took a $14,000 tax credit, tax exemption, for entertaining other doctors on his yacht. This is legal under the present law. Most American citizens don’t have a yacht, and when they do go for a small pleasure ride, if they do have a small boat, they can’t deduct it as an income tax deduction. And when that doctor didn’t pay his $14,000 in taxes, other average American working families had to pay his taxes for him.”

But beyond that, Carter didn’t know much about how the tax system worked or what he wanted to do to it—surprisingly little, for a man who has been in public life for 15 years. So he held a series of meetings in the White House, at least six of them, none shorter than two hours and one four hours long, with officials of the Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House Domestic Policy Staff in attendance. Few people can pay attention to anything for that long, let alone tax policy; Carter’s alertness never flagged. Few presidents would get involved in anything but the broadest decisions on taxes; Carter discussed an endless series of details, matters as minor as why, since meals at country clubs aren’t deductible, meals at downtown lunch clubs are.

While these long, detailed meetings were going on, there was at large in the land tremendous mistrust of government. One important reason Carter was elected is that Americans felt they were paying too much for their government and getting too little in return. In hindsight—the meetings having produced a complicated tax reform program that is not widely understood and is going nowhere—it’s amazing that Carter didn’t think to harness this public sentiment and stood by mutely while the “tax revolt” did so instead. He might have realized the tremendous opportunity he had to use the public’s strongest feelings about politics. He might have had a clear idea of which laws and which organizations most needed changing, all balanced against a sense of the public mood, of the congressional leadership, of the proximity of the 1978 elections, of which interest groups’ oxen would most likely be gored. As it was, he came to office knowing astoundingly little about how the federal government works or what new policies were needed.

Absent this knowledge, Carter’s best course was to gather around him many talented and creative people and plumb them for information and ideas—to argue out the problems of government, to consult broadly, to balance out competing goals and parties, to arrive at a sure sense of what the major problems were and how they could be met.

This Carter is extremely loath, by nature, to do. He is a Navy man, a small businessman, a man whose experience is that of taking over a command, being told what the problems are, weighing the alternatives, then making a decision—giving the order, seeing it carried out down the chain. As is now obvious, that’s not how the presidency works, and hence Carter’s record of missed opportunities, programs that never went anywhere, lack of direction, and misuse of personnel. A close look at how the President prefers to conduct the business of governing—what he considers important, and what he doesn’t—shows a lot about why his administration has been so disappointing.

Mild Degree of Insecurity

Jimmy Carter is in many ways the most admirable man to hold the office of president in years—possibly the smartest, certainly the most honest, the most upright, the hardest working. His White House has barely a trace of the culture that produced Watergate. He doesn’t foster a slavish cult of personality among his staff. He has only a pale shadow of the insecurity and determination to prove himself that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had, perhaps most clear in the intensity of his Calvinism. He has told all of the several Rhodes Scholars on his staff, as a sort of joke, that he tried for the Rhodes his senior year at Annapolis and lost, but that he guesses it didn’t do him much harm in the long run, did it? But compared to Johnson’s and Nixon’s obsessive raving about the Eastern Establishment, that’s a mild degree of insecurity indeed.

It is obviously very important to him to be a good and moral man, a man who always does the right thing. Once he was given a long list of suggested winners of the Medal of Freedom, which under Johnson and Nixon had become an indiscriminately distributed reward to friends. He couldn’t stomach that—this was, after all, the nation’s highest civilian honor—so he tore up the list and gave out just two awards, to Dr. Jonas Salk and (posthumously) to Martin Luther King, Jr.

He is a perfectionist, a man who drives himself hard toward self-improvement and who wants to have every detail right. While doing his paperwork, he has his secretary play classical music and type up the program on a card so he can memorize it—no sense wasting that chance for a musical education. On vacation at Camp David for the Fourth of July, he decided to spend a day visiting the Civil War battlefields, and as preparation had Jody Powell bring in Shelby Foote, the novelist and Civil War historian, to give him a tutorial on the subject.

On matters that he gets personally involved in, he is almost physically unable to allow himself to be cursory, even when he ought to be. He once spent an hour and a half discussing the resurfacing of the White House tennis court. Last fall, his staff put together a lengthy memorandum for him (following lengthy negotiations) on reorganization of the government intelligence agencies—an unwieldy document, but one that all parties involved were satisfied with, except Jimmy Carter. It was illiterate, he said, unintelligible, not good enough. Two young lawyers on the White House staff spent a weekend rewriting it and sent it back in. Still not good enough, Carter said. They had to spend another weekend and do another rewrite before they could get it by Carter, though in substance it was virtually unchanged.

Members of the White House staff say, generally, that it is amazingly easy to get paper in to Carter, and that often he has corrected the spelling, punctuation, and grammar—but seldom the ideas.

Decision Memos

He is an organized man who would like to be remembered as a top-flight manager of the federal government. When a domestic-policy issue comes up, he never deals with it off-the-cuff with aides; he holds a series of meetings. Officials from the relevant Cabinet departments, from the Office of Management and Budget, from the Domestic Policy Staff, from the Council of Economic Advisors—all gather with the President at the White House. Before a meeting he has almost always read a lengthy memo giving him background on the subject, and on those rare occasions when he hasn’t had time to prepare he says so. He is one of the few elected officials in Washington who will take the time to read enough to master complex material about government operations; the Senate and House are full of men who vote on the basis of 30 seconds’ whispered summary from an assistant.

One person who has been in meetings with Carter calls him papal—a small, frail, almost delicate man, waxen in complexion, so soft-spoken that it’s sometimes hard to hear him. He listens intently, sometimes asking a question, sometimes soliciting someone’s views. He doesn’t try to dominate. He talks as a real person would talk, calmly and knowledgeably, not in a politician’s boilerplate phrases. He’s low-key, impassive, and—on this everyone is quite emphatic—extremely intelligent and hard-working.

Meetings are usually followed by “decision memos,” which are the procedural backbone of the White House. For the information of those who have lived lives away from managerial America, a decision memo is a bureaucratic art form in which an issue is presented succinctly and then a series of options and recommendations are offered forth. A simple one, like a cover memo for a minor executive order, might briefly describe the order and then say “Approve/Disapprove.” More elaborate memos are carefully “staffed out” to anyone in the government who has an interest in their outcome, then reassembled with many options, pros and cons, and conflicting recommendations listed.

Very early on, Carter let it be known that he prefers to do business by decision memo, and he spends a good deal of every day (starting as early as 5:30) sitting alone in a small room adjacent to the Oval Office reading them and checking off options, very neatly, in a black felt-tipped pen. Occasionally he adds comments in the margins, such as “proceed with caution” or “move quickly on this.” Carter plainly feels that this is the most useful way for him to spend his time as President. When John Chancellor and an NBC film crew followed him around for a day last year, they caught him saying at dinner, “And then I spent some time talking to Chancellor. Instead of doing an hour and a half’s paperw ork, I had an hour of conversation with him. Maybe it’ll pay off.” Even during those periods when his public relations advisors seem to have him on the road all the time, he still manages—through the exercise of even more than his usual self-discipline—to keep up with the memos.

Whereas his predecessors might have given their aides some broad outlines for a new policy and left the details to them, Carter likes to handle the details himself. He has received decision memos that proposed more than 100 matters for him to decide. The decision memo on urban policy for example (famous for its great length) handles one issue this way:

Under the heading “Program Coordination and Implementation” there are three subdivisions, each followed by a descriptive paragraph:

I. The Problem.
II. Existing Programs.
III. Proposed Initiatives.

Under this third heading come the two options:

1) Secretary Califano has suggested that a Special Representative for Domestic Assistance be created.

2) OMB and IGR have developed a proposal utilizing an inter-agency committee headed by a senior White House or EOP staff person.

The memo then discusses the pros and cons of each option and ends with


  • Support Option 1
  • Support Option 2
  • Do not have coordinating effort.

Thus is policy made in the Carter administration.

In the Cabinet meeting last year when welfare reform was first discussed, Joseph Califano made the opening presentation, explaining in a few minutes that a new welfare program would need so-and-so many dollars to work. Carter turned to him and said, “Joe, I don’t want to spend any more money on this. How can we reform welfare without spending any more money? As far as I’m concerned, what you’ve just told me is that our welfare system can’t get any better.”

This caused in Califano a rare moment of speechlessness, for which Carter must be admired, but otherwise it was a curious performance on the President’s part. It’s noteworthy that he seemed to have little idea what kind of welfare system we need—he was vague enough on the subject that the formulation of the welfare reform policy turned into a war, Califano and HEW vs. Ray Marshall and the Labor Department, negative income tax vs. public service jobs. Carter apparently didn’t know before taking office where he stood on this question, though there is hardly a more pressing one in politics today. He just knew welfare was a mess, wanted very much to make it better, and figured that when he took office he’d make a rational study of the alternatives and choose the best one.

Carter did bring to his job a strong grounding in some broad principles that he applies to program after program. He is admirably concerned with reducing the size and cost of government. In any discussion, he’s likely to ask whether the new policy will create more federal employees, more big government, more complication, more red tape. “If I see a memo saying that there is a unique problem in the area of relations with Puerto Rico,” says one of Carter’s aides, “and that we need a special White House office of Puerto Rican Affairs because the existing agencies can’t handle the problem, I know he’ll say no. Anything that says we need more staff he’ll reject.” The same goes for spending more money. The least believable of Carter’s campaign promises—that he’ll balance the budget—may be the one he most deeply wants to make come true. Hence his injunction to Califano.

What he didn’t do, however, was ask Califano and Marshall what all the federal income supplements—Social Security, unemployment, welfare, food stamps, veterans benefits, pensions, and so on—cost and what they did. The President’s mind does not comfortably embrace the idea of arguing out welfare program by program—inciting the kind of competitive presentation of views that would stimulate him to figure out where duplication exists, where money is being paid to people who don’t need it or need less than they’re getting. For another example, the idea of reforming the civil service came not from Carter but from Alan Campbell, the head of the Civil Service Commission; and while the President has been a dutiful pupil he has not been the originator or the instigator of sparks of insight about how to get control of the government. Occasionally Carter is said to have a firm idea about how a program might be improved, when he has had a directly related experience in Georgia; otherwise his suggestions, when they come at all, are along the lines of across-the-board budget cuts. He makes quantitative judgments where he should be making qualitative ones.

A sign of that lack of the instinctive ability to get to the heart of an issue, to extract the main points from knowledgeable people, and to synthesize them, is Carter’s behavior in the face of enforced disorder. He is said at those times to be uncomfortable and unimpressive. He likes to discuss policy well prepared and outside the realm of what’s politically feasible; he frequently enjoins his staff to bring him the best possible program, the ideal, and let him worry about selling it to the public and Congress. A crisis that precludes systematic consideration throws the President off. One Sunday back in March there was an emergency meeting on the coal strike for which Carter flew in from Camp David. So impressive in other meetings, so cool, so in command, in this one Carter let the discussion drift aimlessly and end with everyone convincing each other, erroneously, that the miners would go back to work if so ordered. The knack of either knowing how the miners might react or of finding that out very quickly, Carter didn’t have.

A president who comes to office relatively undecided about what to do and uninformed about the ways of the federal government has to undertake a self-education, and this Carter has done, resolutely—through reading memos. A course he has avoided is the one Franklin D. Roosevelt (equally uninformed and undirected in 1932) took: surrounding himself with the best talent available, filling the government with it, and using these people, through argument, flattery, and cajolery, to find out what needs doing and to get it done. Carter is singularly unadept at the use of people—his own people no less than his adversaries. Apparently this is a matter of principle: the principle that using people is part of politics and that politics is something you use to get elected but not to govern. Carter’s own view of governing is like a parody of a League of Women Voters pamphlet on efficient public administration. He takes his considerable charm out of the drawer only when he’s in a situation where he can say to himself, “this is politics, not government.”

For instance, at precisely 1:45 on the afternoon of March 16 the President strode into the Oval Office to greet Maury Gladman, a California banker who is president of Kiwanis International. Like most of the men in his organization, Gladman is not of the President’s political persuasion, but he was nonetheless won over. He and Carter talked about service clubs—Carter himself is a past governor of the Lions—and the need for voluntarism and community service. The President mentioned that he was about to visit the aircraft carrier Eisenhower, and Gladman said that was a coincidence, his son was an assistant navigator on the Eisenhower. Well, said the President, you must write a note that I can carry to him, and Gladman did.

Carter has an impressive ability to inspire popeyed devotion in people on first meeting them—in fact, that ability is what won him the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries in 1976 and is why he is president today. Even now there are moments when the Carter magic can be seen. In the manner of a small town patriarch, the President is gracious and solicitous when someone he knows is ill or in trouble, or when he meets someone for the first time. But for the most part he seems to regard skill with people as something necessary to get the job but irrelevant or distasteful in performing it. So with his staff and with competing forces in the political world, such as congressmen and members of interest groups, he turns off the charm.

The Celestial Watchmaker

One departmental official remembers going to the Oval Office for a private meeting with Carter. The President walked in, precisely on time, said hello, and without further small talk asked the official to brief him. Carter sat listening, completely expressionless, leaving his visitor with no clue as to how he was reacting to what he was hearing. When the official was finished, Carter said softly, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” “No,” the official said. “Thank you,” said the President.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times reported that Brock Adams, the Secretary of Transportation, was dissatisfied to the point of thinking about resigning. Adams denied it, but the Times ‘version of his woes rings true. A veteran of Capitol Hill serving a president in trouble on Capitol Hill, a former chairman of the House Budget Committee working for an ardent budget-cutter, Adams was consulted by the White House on narrow transportation issues exclusively. Carter’s ethic is that those who work for him have a specific job—an area of operations, as they say in the military—and should be concerned with only that. If an aide in the Office of Management and Budget should have an inspiration about speechmaking, or an assistant secretary of Defense a brainstorm about welfare reform, it’s possible he can get it to the President or his closest aides, where it will be read and ignored. Among all but the top staff, there’s little sense of ferment, of being on the team, of knowing where the administration is going. Outside of the first and second floors of the West Wing, it’s a government of hired hands. So although Carter’s mastery of the workings of the government is growing with time, time has also brought a more and more restless staff, a staff full of people wondering whether they should get out before the administration’s prestige sinks any lower.

And there’s very little contact with Carter. Last Christmas he sponsored a reception for his staff—the reward for a year of hard work—but neither served any refreshments nor showed up. Carter is said to be bored with personnel matters. Besides the Cabinet secretaries, the political appointees in the departments are people he doesn’t know, didn’t appoint, never sees, and makes no effort to win over—apparently on the assumption that if he, the celestial watchmaker, gives the Cabinet members their orders, then everything will work fine down the line of authority. One department sent one of its assistant secretaries to the White House Columbus Day reception last year on the pretense that he was Italian, because that was likely to be his one and only chance to meet the President face to face.

One result of Carter’s personal inaccessibility (as opposed to his tremendous accessibility on paper) is that any hint of where he stands, such as his scribblings on memos, is accepted as Gospel. An apparent mistake by the President causes a panic because it’s so hard to get back to him and ask whether he really meant to check Option 2, and it’s impossible to ask an aide to decide in lieu of Carter. A few handwritten words cause major tremors. In one department, the senior staff was meeting with the Secretary one day to discuss the recovery of some money the department had lost through fraud, when the secretary’s assistant burst into the room, breathless and excited. The department’s weekly summary memo had just come back from the White House, she said, and next to a brief description of the fraud case the President had written “continue to press on this” and she thought the Secretary would want to know that right away. Once on a memo Carter wrote, “We ought to do something to aid the third world,” and a couple of months later, on another memo, “What ever happened to efforts to publicize aid to Latin America?” Shortly after that a major inter-agency briefing for press officers was held in the auditorium of the Executive Office Building, where John Gilligan, the director of the Agency for International Development, told the assembled masses about the activity swirling around this pressing concern of the President’s.

There are a number of reasons for Carter’s limited contacts. One is a fear of leaks, just as strong in this administration as in past ones (though in this administration, more is leaked). Another is Carter’s faith in Cabinet government. One political appointee in a Cabinet department remembers Hamilton Jordan telling him, “Christ, to think that a campaign organization with few people who had more than a high school diploma could recruit people for key positions in HUD and State was ridiculous.” Also, Carter doesn’t like small talk—it’s almost as if he considers it an abuse of the public trust to spend any of his time as President (as opposed to campaigning) shooting the breeze rather than reading briefing books.

Carter apparently doesn’t see his dealings with his staff as a colossal missed opportunity for information, for the generation of ideas, and for control of the government; that’s just not the way his mind works. So he’s left with little firsthand knowledge or great forethought, relying on the government’s notoriously bad regular channels of information to provide him with that.

On the other hand, the just-do-your-job-and-don’t-expect-any-gratitude atmosphere has meant a White House remarkably free of internal politics, because nobody’s likely to rise or fall. Phil Wise, the appointments secretary, and Rick Hutcheson, the staff secretary, are considered impartial in letting people and paper into Carter’s presence. Carter has no one guru, as many senators and congressmen do, who makes all the decisions for him on some issue. On any domestic issue he will consult Stuart Eizenstat, the chief domestic policy advisor, a steady and reliable man with a surer sense of Democratic Party constituency than Carter has, a man who is sometimes spoken of admiringly as a “neutral broker,” a presenter of ideas, a boiler down; Charles Schultze, the chief economic adviser, older, more intellectual and original of mind, with more influence than he is commonly given credit for; and James McIntyre, the budget director during Carter’s governorship and now his presidency, a nice and earnest young man who is widely felt to be in over his head. Carter is relatively easy on the staff; some complain that he has been too easy and too loyal to old friends from Georgia who are not doing well in top White House jobs, men like McIntyre and Robert Lipshutz, the White House counsel. And among those who are not old friends, the next year will be crucial; if there is an exodus Carter will have little chance of using his increasing knowledge to turn the administration around.

Reminders at Key Moments

With Congress, Carter’s bad relations are usually blamed on Frank Moore, the chief of congressional liaison, just as his bad relations with interest groups were blamed before her demise on Midge Costanza. In fact, the bad blood is largely Carter’s fault. He’s not a man who likes to bargain, to trade favors, to form alliances, to control the Democratic Party—all that may be necessary in a campaign, but for Carter, campaigning and governing are two different matters. He needed until recently to be reminded which key congressmen to call at which key moments, and while his instinct for that is improving he still has to be reminded which interest-group members to call when.

He bewilders and infuriates politicians by casting his pleas to them not on the terms they’re accustomed to—”Can you help me out on this?”—but on the only terms he is comfortable with—”This is for the good of the country.” Political wooing and flattery don’t come naturally to him. He flew back from the West once on Air Force One with Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a powerful politician in a region where Carter needs help—and spent the trip closeted in a private room with his precious memos, leaving Magnuson sitting all alone.

The experience of one first-term Democratic congressman from a Republican district is typical. The congressman (let’s call him John) made his first trip to the White House with the House Government Operations Committee, which Carter was lobbying—via briefing, of course, not small talk or favors—for support on government reorganization. The President greeted him with a warm “Hello, Bill,” and then said, “We followed your campaign and I think we were able to help each other”—though in fact Gerald Ford had carried John’s district.

With the passing months this congressman compiled a record of voting with the administration more than almost any other member of the House—a fact the White House congressional liaison office appreciated but Carter himself couldn’t have cared less about. Once, having never asked a favor of Carter before, he called the presidential appointments secretary and said he needed a letter from the President to read at a banquet in his district. A banquet in his district was small potatoes, he was told; the letter was out of the question. So the congressman called the congressional relations office and complained. The next morning he was awakened at home with a phone call from Frank Moore, who was on Air Force One flying to Panama; Moore just wanted to say he was sorry, and that the letter was on the way.

Similarly, Toby Moffett, a second-term Democrat from Connecticut, compiled an impressive record of support for the President in the early days of the Carter administration. Moffett’s pet cause was an insulation bill—he wrote it, wooed all parties involved, followed its progress in the Senate as well as the House, got himself put on the relevant subcommittee. He worked on it for six months, and when it passed he began to call the White House to see when the President was going to sign it. Moffett figured that he might attend the signing, that some photographers might be there, that a picture of him watching the President signing his bill might grace the front pages in his district. Moore’s office promised to cooperate. One evening Moffett started to get calls from his hometown papers—how do you feel, they wanted to know, about your bill being signed? Apparently Carter signed the bill in a free moment, thus not wasting any time, and didn’t tell the liaison office about it.

With organized groups, Carter, no jawboner, is equally lacking in natural rapport. A few months back he had a meeting with the executive council of the AFL-CIO to discuss labor’s role in his program of fighting inflation through voluntary restraint. Ray Marshall and Robert Strauss had done the spadework with the labor leaders. They had agreed to pledge overall support for the President’s policy, special cooperation in certain areas like health care costs, and restraint on wage demands if prices stayed steady. That was the important word, restraint—the White House has wanted labor to promise wage “deceleration,” but George Meany couldn’t agree to that.

The meeting was held in the Executive Office Building. Carter walked in, smiled, and gave a little speech, saying how important fighting inflation was to him, how glad he was that he could count on the cooperation of labor, how crucial the policy of voluntary wage deceleration was. He then got up as if to go. Meany stood up and said,”Wait a minute, Mr. President, I want you to hear our response.” Carter listened impassively to a lecture by Meany on how deceleration was out of the question, and at the end of it he stood up, said, “If you can’t support me I’d rather not talk,” and left the room.

There are a lot of people in this town who could agree with Jimmy Carter,” says one member of the White House staff. “He could make a coalition with them. Muskie. Udall. Chiles. Nunn. Why aren’t the guys friends? Why does it always have to be Carter against the world? Does Carter have one person who would stick with him to the end? Even Nixon had people like that, and Carter doesn’t. Because you’re not going to get anybody to support an entire 40-point policy just because Carter thinks it’s right and went through the decision memo carefully.” In fact, that mixture of sincere belief and self-interest that constitutes political loyalty doesn’t extend, in Carter’s case, much beyond his immediate family and his four or five closest advisors. Certainly it’s not unusual that Carter has enemies among the country’s politicians—every President does. What’s unusual is the blandness of his friends’ positive feelings about him.

Finding the Morally Superior Position

Another member of the staff remembers having an argument with Carter during the campaign. Carter was accustomed to saying, over and over, that the United States is the first country in history where there is absolute compatibility between liberty and equality. The aide would say, liberty and equality aren’t compatible, Governor, they’re at each other’s throats and the government has to balance them. No, Carter would insist, that may be true in other countries, but it’s not true here in America.

That’s vintage Carter. The President is a man who has an inclination toward, in the words of Joseph Kraft, “finding for each component part the morally superior position.” Rather than compromise between two competing good causes, rather than strike bargains in quest of his goals, rather than carry out all his ideas to their logical conclusions, the President stands by his twin convictions that everything must be right and that everything must be neat. Thus he could in 1977 choose an energy plan that controls consumption through higher prices, and stick by it in 1978 while declaring himself to be battling inflation. Thus he could come out for harmony with the Congress, but refuse to bargain with or flatter its members. He prefers to make each initiative the sum of 40 or 50 small decisions, very difficult to paint in the kind of broad brush strokes that would be understandable to his staff, to Congress, to the public.

To the President and those closest to him, the problem is one of public relations and can be solved by two means. First, Carter can play tougher with his own government, making it clear that appointees should be loyal to him, that the departments should never publicly question his policies, that the Cabinet secretaries should go out and promote the administration’s goals rather than their own pet programs, that congressmen who double-cross the administration will suffer the consequences. The other solution is to manage Carter’s image better—hence the bringing on to the staff of Gerald Rafshoon to coordinate that effort. For the next several months, the staff has decided, every message from the President will concentrate on five key thrusts of his administration—inflation, energy, civil service reform, unemployment, and tax reform. But that attitude implies that a big picture can be imposed on the administration after the fact, so that Carter will not—horror of horrors—have to impose one in the doing of his daily business. Not long ago Rafshoon sent Carter a memo suggesting, among other things, that he address a joint session of Congress. “Let’s do it,” the President wrote in the margin. “We’ll think of a topic later.”

This kind of big-picture veneer won’t change a man with a small-picture soul. The President continues to judge the programs and information his subordinates present to him, rather than arguingthem out, and continues to govern by attention to detail and procedure rather than politics. It will be hard to make the world believe in a forceful, dynamic Jimmy Carter, a man with well-defined broad goals that he’s moving impressively toward accomplishing, when in fact he continues to govern by sitting in his private office, listening to Bach, and checking off dozens of Option Ones and Option Twos, each of them, without a doubt, carefully considered and absolutely right.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.