Midway through the summer, as news of President Carter’s cabinet changes was shaking up the town, I talked with a reporter who once covered the Carter White House. “The problem with these people,” he told me, “is that they don’t know any history. Don’t they remember who the last president was who fired his whole cabinet? Who went around talking with demonstrators in the middle of the night? Who planned trips to China when he was in a jam? These guys learn nothing from history.”

He was right, I thought. But while diagnosing the problem, he had also demonstrated it. In order to indict the administration for its ignorance of history, he was willing to dig in the archives as far back as 1969. In attempting to mark off his distance from those who held power, my friend revealed his fundamental resemblance to them.

When President Carter made his cabinet changes, the only “history” that came to mind was Richard Nixon’s demand for wholesale resignations the day after his election victory in 1972. But there have been cabinet purges throughout our history. Another analogy, for example, and one less automatically damning to President Carter, could have been found in the administration of Andrew Jackson. In 1830, the second year of Jackson’s term, tensions between two factions in his cabinet grew acute. The disputes were personified in the bitter rivalry between Martin van Buren, then secretary of State, and John C. Calhoun, the vice president, to succeed Jackson as president. As the tensions grew intolerable, Van Buren offered his resignation, and Jackson took the opportunity to dissolve the whole cabinet, replacing it with one in which Calhoun’s influence was diluted. Four years later, Jackson had yet another cabinet shake-up, shortly after beginning his second term. To end bickering over economic policy, he fired and transferred half a dozen secretaries. Afterwards, says Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Age of Jackson, “the administration was streamlined for action.”

Neither of these situations was an exact parallel to Carter’s, but they resemble the Carter changes more closely than do any of Richard Nixon’s acts. Had they informed the frantic press commentary in the first days after Carter’s firings (or if the administration had had the wit to steer reporters to anecdotes like these), they might have indicated that changing a cabinet was not necessarily a sign of mental instability or political crudeness.

Similarly, when Robert Strauss went on his mission to the Middle East and Andrew Young spoke with the PLO, the headlines warned: “Split in Middle East Policy.” Indeed there was a split, and anything else would have been a surprise, since American policy toward the Middle East has been divided through all the 30 years of Israel’s existence, and long before. The struggles between Harry Truman and James Forrestal, which eventually led to Forrestal’s refusal to support Truman in 1948, his removal as secretary of Defense in March 1949, and his suicide five days later, can be read in part as a history of disagreement over Zionist rights. Every year some magazine publishes an article on “Arabists in the State Department,” because the Arabists have always been there—just as there has always been deep, substantial support elsewhere in the government for Israel’s cause. The policy has been divided because there is something to be said for the claims of each side; and to present this new disagreement as a sudden shock, or as an indication of chaos in the government and disregard for Israel’s security, is to distort our understanding by ignoring all that went before.

I do not claim that all reporters lack a sense of the history of American government, that it is necessary in every case, or that I am myself so steeped in knowledge of the past as to look good casting stones. But I do believe that the balance in reporting on the government has swung too far away from an awareness of the government’s history, and too near an obsession with current politics; and that in this it mirrors the limitations of those in the administration itself.

The Adolescent Administration

When I speak of history, I do not mean show-off allusions to Shay’s Rebellion or the Tariff of Abominations, nor dissertation topics narrowed to the head of a pin. Rather I mean a prudent awareness that others have walked many of the same paths before and that, from their errors, some of one’s own errors may be spared.

Without such knowledge, a leader, or a nation, is like a teenage boy on the verge of puberty, unaware of the powerful hormones that will soon be coursing through his body. As those hormones take hold and work their predictable changes, the young man will not understand why he is covered with acne, consumed by lust. He will not be able to recognize such signals and remember their consequences in others. Being able to recognize the signals would not alter the symptoms, but it might forestall some of the most harmful results.

If there is a wave of sympathy developing for the Carter administration it may arise from this, very perception: that, like the crack-voiced teenager, the President is simply unaware of the powerful changes going on, and somehow cannot be blamed for their effects. For some future administration that does have an interest in the tutorial value of history, the record of the Carter term may be read as an illustration of how much time will be wasted if one insists on making every mistake anew.

Let’s return to President Carter’s cabinet changes. Two-and-a-half years into his term, President Carter at last acknowledged that “Cabinet government” would not work—that he could not expect coherent policy if he took no steps to offset each secretary’s pull toward the interests of his own department. He acknowledged as well that his White House staff could not really function without a central point of coordination, without the glue of mutual loyalty, reward for excellence and penalty for failure to cement others’ interests to his, and to convince people that they must do their best.

But consider the evidence from not-too-remote history that had been available to him the very day he took office. Three months into his own term, John Kennedy was humiliated by the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was a disaster, but a useful one, for Kennedy learned its lessons. He saw that an entrenched government bureaucracy might have interests different from his own, and that he must leave no doubt in their minds about whose interests must prevail. Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell of the CIA had talked him into the plan; he got rid of them both. Nor would Kennedy rely any further on the “experts” in the usual chain of command for information and advice; their recommendations had done him wrong. Eighteen months later, during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy applied the lessons of his failure. By that time, he was dealing with a bureaucracy that had taken the examples of Bissell and Dulles to heart. It was better to cooperate with the President, to anticipate his needs and interests, to give him honest answers and not try to mislead him about the chances for success, if one hoped to survive. And the Executive Committee with which Kennedy huddled during the “thirteen days” was not confined to those with formal line responsibility for Soviet and Caribbean affairs or the technique of naval blockades, but included others outside the chain of command whose counsel the President valued. Kennedy himself might go even farther outside the chain, calling up a desk office to be sure that he had all the facts he needed, and that he had heard different points of view.

No other president might ever face strategic circumstances identical to those of October 1962, but every one of them would have to contend with the same bureaucratic culture. They might learn, from Kennedy’s record, the importance of digging constantly for information and of giving the scattered bureaus of the government a carrot-and-stick incentive to follow the President’s plans; or they could wait for their own Bay of Pigs to demonstrate the limits of their information and the folly of thinking that cooperation would automatically come.

Eight years after the Bay of Pigs, and eight years before Jimmy Carter took office, Richard Nixon offered another textbook lesson on the mechanics of governing. He began his administration heaping praise on his cabinet; these men were not simply superb, they also possessed “an extra dimension.” He would leave the operations of their departments in their capable hands. Within months, Nixon saw how much the departments’ interests might gyre away from his own; much of his remaining time was devoted to increasingly drastic plans to bring the departments to heel. Gerald Ford took over from Nixon with promises that the departments would be free again, and that his White House staff would be organized like the “spokes of a wheel,” with many independent and equal aides reporting freely to the President.

The plan was designed in revulsion against the “Berlin Wall” of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, but it ignored the organizational reality that had given Haldeman and Ehrlichman their power in the first place. Two-and-a-half years later, as Ford’s team packed up to leave, the chief of staff, Richard Cheney, had a souvenir bicycle wheel, with all but one of the spokes bent and twisted out of shape. Cheney wanted to give the wheel to Hamilton Jordan, wanted to explain to him the lesson it symbolized: that it was essential to have one man coordinating all the others. But Jordan wasn’t interested. Cheney was reduced to making his point to Stephen Hess, nominally the transition consultant (and, ironically, one of the great proponents of “cabinet government”), while Jordan and others sat in a back room drawing up the real plans.

Perhaps Jordan will try to press such a souvenir into the hands of his successor. In all likelihood, he will be talking to a wall. He will find, as Cheney found, that he is dealing with people vain enough to think that the difficulties of others cannot possibly apply to them, and oblivious enough to history not to know that each of their predecessors once felt the same way.

But if the administration was slow to absorb these lessons, the press was rarely able to help straighten them out. A few reporters were suspicious from Day One of the plan to operate without a chief of staff, and some of them explained why in their stories. Apart from that, I recall no article pointing out the evidence that cabinet government would not work, no attempts to pump people like Cheney for what they had learned. With their eyes on the new crowd in town, few reporters get around to mining the rich lode of knowledge in those like Cheney who are just on their way out. Not only are they free to say things they could not say before, but also they can see things to which their previous positions made them unconsciously blind. In the month or so after his departure from the United Nations, Andrew Young is sure to be grilled about blacks-andJews, or his role as a new black leader, or the chances of swinging the black vote for Carter in 1980, but I will give a bottle of champagne to the reporter who asks what Young has learned of the United Nations and the special world of diplomacy. He has moved on to make news elsewhere, and his U.N. experience is now history.

Carter’s Map

It is too much to say that the administration and those who cover it have no sense of history. Rather, their view of American history is like the famous Saul Steinberg map of the world that once ran on the cover of The New Yorker, in which the distance between Fifth Avenue and the Hudson River amounts to about half the total land mass, while thin, pale strips marked “Kansas” and “Russia” are dimly visible in the rear. If Steinberg drew the administration’s map of relevant history, it would consist of two great hulks, one marked “Vietnam War,” and the other “The Mistakes of Richard Nixon.” Barely visible in the background, at least since Carter’s rating in the polls began to fall, would be a small promontory, marked “Truman’s Come-from-Behind Victory in 1948.” All else would be lost in the fog.

This is a history of labels, not reasons. If an action could be called “another Vietnam,” it must be avoided, and if Richard Nixon had done something, it must not be done again, even if it might make sense in other circumstances and with different men in charge. As Lyndon Johnson feared Munich, so this administration has loathed Richard Nixon and has been determined to do nothing that would appear to take a leaf from his book. As Hamilton Jordan told the National Journal shortly after he became chief of staff, “We came here aware of the excesses of the Nixon administration and didn’t want to duplicate them.”

While there is much in Nixon’s record to justify this approach, such automatic rejection has cost President Carter a great deal—including almost losing him the 1976 election. For better or worse, Richard Nixon did figure out how to run a general election campaign in the television era. He knew that, in the two or three months between convention and election, you no longer had to worry about making news, as you did during the primaries. You were going to get all the news you could handle, the most important of which was the two minutes on the network news each night. Your object was to make those two minutes turn out right, to get as much of your own material across as possible with the minimum of distraction. You knew that reporters are obliged to fill that two minutes with your actions each day, but that they’d snap up signs of blunders or arguments if you gave them half a chance.

Knowing these things, you would run a campaign just as Nixon did. You would give one big speech a day to put out your message—and you’d do it no later than early afternoon, in plenty of time for the evening news. Then you’d do nothing else—nothing, since every event increased the danger of its tripping over your own news, making a mistake, or giving the correspondents too much choice about what to use. You wouldn’t give interviews promiscuously, or speak off-the-cuff, or make any unnecessary noise. The people whose town you were visiting might complain, and there would be occasional press snipings about “managing the news.” But these would be dwarfed by your success—like Nixon’s in 1972—in getting your points across. I hated to see Nixon’s approach work that year, but that did not change the fact of its effectiveness, any more than the cause the Panzer divisions defended disproves the lessons of the Blitzkrieg approach.

This was not the way the Carter campaign read recent history. To them, the relevant lessons were, above all else, to avoid doing what Nixon had done, and to stick with the secret of their phenomenal success in winning the nomination—a campaign style based on making news rather than controlling it, and on making personal contact, through endless speeches, town meetings, and rallies, with the largest possible number of voters. The circumstances were different—in a primary, you could visit enough towns and give enough speeches to physically see a significant number of voters, but in a general election you could not and had to rely on TV—but Carter stuck to the same approach. He would make one big speech, but sometimes it would be at nine in the morning and sometimes at nine at night. Whenever it came, it was accompanied by five other pronouncements and performances during the day—brief remarks, impromptu interviews, the “accessibility” and “openness” that were to be Carter’s trademarks. As human traits, these were more appealing than Nixon’s isolation, but as a matter of political salesmanship it nearly lost the election. Whenever someone stuck a microphone near Carter’s mouth and asked him a question, he would get an answer—and since those answers were often so much more juicy than the points Carter wanted to make, they dominated the two minutes on the news. For days and days reporters kept asking—and Carter kept answering— questions about the Playboy interview. Partly as a result, that interview was covered to death, while Carter was able to deliver one speech on inflation, in virtually unchanged form, three different times without any detectable coverage.

In fairness, Carter would probably have been burned by the press if he’d tried anything else, for many of the working reporters shared his view of the recent past. If he’d changed his campaign style, there would have been stories that he was acting “like Nixon.” In the summer of 1978 the President took steps toward a more orderly way of getting his message across, and brought in Gerald Rafshoon to be in charge. The immediate press reaction was that this was Nixon-like (and therefore detestable) management of the news. Shortly after Rafshoon’s arrival, I was interrogated by a friend from one of the networks. Wasn’t this just like Nixon, he asked again and again, this clamping down on the communications business? This plan to coordinate and clear announcements? To have people speak with one voice, to advance the company line? Maybe it was like Nixon and maybe it wasn’t; in either case, it made sense and needed to be done, and would have been done earlier had there been more determination in the Carter White House to read the history of the office.

The Handicapped Press

For most politicians and reporters, ignorance of the history of government springs from a lack of interest in the substance of government, as opposed to its politics. There are very few areas of substantive government policy where reporters possess either the sense of urgency or the feeling of expertise that would enable them to make their own judgments, rather than quoting the opinions of contending experts.

Near the end of July, for example, shortly after President Carter went on television to discuss his energy plan, Senator Edward Kennedy held a press conference to describe an energy program of his own. The major newspapers assigned their crack political reporters, who covered the announcement as yet another warm-up to the 1980 election. “KENNEDY OFFERS $58-BILLION ENERGY PLAN AS PROSPECT FOR 1980 ELECTION SEEMS LIKELIER,” was the headline in The Wall Street Journal. Twelve of the 15 paragraphs in that story were devoted to handicapping the next election, and the other three to the plan itself—a ratio similar to that in many other papers.

In choosing such a slant for their coverage, the papers may have done justice to the story that both the Kennedy and Carter camps saw. But from the public point of view, even for those of us in the public abundantly interested in the election, there was a more important story to be done—or started—that day. It was a story that would compare the two plans, seriously appraise their consequences, dig out the differences between them and the alternatives that exist. In the end, it might be a more profoundly “political” form of coverage; for, unlike another recap of developments in the Iowa caucuses, it would give us more information on which to base our choice between the men.

When it comes to Iowa caucus stories, of course, any good political reporter would laugh at a colleague who interviewed each side’s campaign manager and thought he’d told all there was to tell. The expert political reporter would want to get out there and see for himself, talk to the voters, make judgments about how the candidates come across. These are the tools of appraisal, and they are applied far more often to poll-and-precinct stories than, say, to judging the worth of Kennedy’s energy plan. That is because election news is one of only four areas in which most reporters feel confident to use their powers to observe, inquire, and appraise.

The first of these areas embraces anything suggesting indictable criminal scandal. The regulars of the White House press room, aware that they had been burned by accepting Nixon’s protestations of innocence too quickly, will not let another potential scandal go unexamined—nor will any ambitious young reporter, aware how life has changed for the Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein. Little “judgment” is required here, because of the underlying faith that the standard of criminality will be clear. With enough digging, the reporters feel, they may turn up the incriminating photo, the signed document, the smoking gun. Such expectations—so necessary in the courtroom, so misleading in understanding real political life—were in creased by Watergate, where, contrary to the whole human history of high-level scheming, the smoking gun actually appeared.

But to understand why houses cost so much and cities are so run down, it may be ten times as important to dig out the facts that would permit an appraisal of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, than to know about the personal finances of Moon Landrieu. But the Landrieu story raises hopes of a scandal; and ten times as much energy will be spent there.

The second area includes stories of dissension, internal rivalry, unhappy passengers rocking the boat. This is why Midge Costanza became the most famous member of the Carter administration during its first year, and why Andrew Young was continually in the news. It is also why the first test of loyalty within an administration is to avoid making comments that could prop up an “internal dissent” story. If Vance disagrees with Brzezinski, reporters will quote each party’s complaints about the other side’s approach. But as long as an administration manages to present a publicly united front, reporters will hesitate to draw the same harsh conclusions for themselves.

The third area is the gaffe, whose substance matters less than the fact that an error has been made. No one aware of the history of the Republican party or of Gerald Ford’s mainstream anti-communism could have mistaken his “Poland is free” comment in the campaign debates as anything more than an unfortunate slip of the tongue. What he was trying to say, as anyone could figure out, was that the Poles were proud and independent and didn’t go around stressing their bondage to the East. At the outside, this might have been one more bit of evidence that Ford was not always on his toes. But the debates were seen as zero-gaffe contests, and therefore Ford “lost” this one big. For nearly two weeks afterwards, the Carter campaign reveled in (and encouraged) lurid coverage of the blunder. From Hamtramck to Buffalo, network reporters interviewed Polish-Americans-in-thestreet and asked, in apparent seriousness, whether they were now more concerned about the administration’s commitment to the Captive Nations.

A little more than a year later, Carter went to Warsaw and had his own Polish gaffe. The “mistakes” of the Polish translator were more modest than reported at the time. I got a copy of the Polish transcriptions of his remarks, spoke with Slavic experts, and learned that the worst reading of his worst mistake was nowhere near as glaring as what was reported at the time. The key sentence said in English, “I have come here to understand your desires for the future.” If the English word “desire” has dual connotations, so does the Polish word (pozadania) the translator used, even though it is much more heavily weighted toward the carnal. But the translator never came close to saying what nearly all American papers reported—”I lust after the Poles,” or “I desire you carnally”—and the whole episode was simply silly, since it made no dent in Polish-American relations or the business the President had come to transact. But the unfortunate translator dominated news out of Poland and was pushed off the front page only by the next gaffe on the trip, when President Carter and Secretary Vance were overheard in India making unfavorable comments about their hosts.

Fourth, there is politics, the business of winning elections and gaining points in the polls. Reporters will apply their finest analyses and put their judgments on the line to tell you whether the Connally campaign is picking up or flagging and whether Jimmy Carter really has a chance. Washington journalism boasts three dozen men and women who can tell you with authority, and with hard-won facts, how any politician is doing—in his local campaign organizations, in working the crowd, in buttering up the Congress, in staying ahead of the popular trend. The analyses are acute; the judgments superb. Like other people in Washington, I read these stories first when I open the paper. We all love a horse race. All they leave out is the what—what he’s saying, what happened when that approach was tried before, what effect this proposal will have on the permanent culture of the government or the national culture outside.

The what is missing because most reporters still lack either the interest or the confidence to judge the substance of government as acutely as they judge politics. In place of appraisal, there is quotation—we get quotes pro and con on each great national issue of the day. In theory, this is supposed to equip us to draw our own conclusions; in practice, it denies us the crucial facts necessary for judgment, as would a political story that simply quoted each candidate as saying, “My opponent is a liar; I am going to win.”

When Jimmy Carter’s attacks on the bureaucracy during his campaign won such widespread approval, they raised a hopeful possibility: if elected, Carter might be able to harness some popular pizzazz to the single most enduring problem of government. As it turned out, Carter was not ready for that step. But neither were the reporters. The subtleties of the problem—the grade inflation in the civil service, the way bad news and honest evaluation got filtered out as it moved up the organization, the desire for security that dwarfed all other passions—these things were not part of the reporters’ lore, although their analogies from campaign culture would be. When Carter announced a civil service reform bill, the political side of the story was dutifully covered—who would carry Carter’s water in the Congress, what the feedback was “beyond the beltway.” The other side of the story—the likely effect of the proposal when it encountered the bureaucratic culture—was covered not at all. Most stories matched predictable quotes from administration officials—”we’re going to put the work ethic back in the civil service”—with equally predictable and unenlightening opposition from the leaders of government unions. The real story to be told was that an administration had come in promising to change things from top to bottom, and so far had made precious little difference in any part of the government’s operation. This is a judgment that could not come from quotes, but only from understanding the federal system well enough and going out to see what had and had not changed.

Other reorganization proposals were dutifully covered when the administration put out press releases, and ignored at other times. Nine times out of ten, the stories would be built around an interview with the administration’s reorganization experts or with their critics on the Hill. If there were any stories by reporters who spent time trying to understand the agency being reorganized, so that they could judge the effects of the plans being proposed, I never saw them, and I was looking every day. As the administration’s hope for reorganization grew smaller, the stream of press releases dwindled away, and so did coverage of the subject. It will lie dormant until early next year, when the first Republican candidate denounces President Carter for his failure to carry out his campaign promises. Then reorganization will again deserve sharp-eyed coverage as a live, political story.

The failure is not one of energy or good intentions; reporters can be tireless when on the trail of a scandal, a gaffe, or a bit of political news. Rather it is a question of understanding where to look—knowing that they will learn more about government reorganization interviewing two dozen normal GS-15s than by talking with reorganization officials, that they will be better equipped to appraise health plans if they spend time at hospitals and clinics than by listening to Joe Califano’s speeches. And while administration officials might phone a friendly reporter with a tip about a new political story, they are as unlikely to suggest these bureaucratic angles as the reporters are to pursue them. During my brief time in the government, I saw considerable effort to figure out how to sell proposals to the Congress or present them to the public. Never did I see a glimmer of interest from those on top in figuring out the nature of the government they hoped to control. Jack Germond and Hamilton Jordan may look on each other as creatures of opposite cultures, with opposite loyalties, on different sides of the fence. But in the most important way they are the same: intelligent pros, gifted handicappers, in love with the skill and detail of politics and faintly interested in anything else.

Unwilling to make judgments about the substance of government, White House reporters permit the government to control the topic of serious news, while the reporters control the treatment and tone. Over drinks, at slow moments on the beat, White House reporters complain bitterly about their status as the press room’s trained seals. They describe how confining it all is, how little their editors understand the pointlessness of the beat, how they detest waiting in the press room for Jody Powell to appear with the day’s release. Nonetheless, if you listened to Powell make his morning announcement, you knew— barring scandal or gaffe—what the lead would be on the evening news that night. Within the White House, weekly summaries of the President’s schedule were prepared; for each day, they listed what the likely “news event” would be. Under normal circumstances, that prediction almost always came true; if the President was making an announcement about the U.S. Forest Service, the Forest Service would get one day’s news—and would not be in the news again until another announcement was planned.

But after accepting the government’s chosen topic, the reporters treat it in their own chosen way, with reflexive cynicism about the administration’s plans. The true lesson of Watergate is the value of hard digging, not only into scandal but everywhere else. The perceived lesson of Watergate in the White House press room is the Dan Rather lesson, that a surly attitude can take the place of facts or intelligent analysis. More and more often at the President’s press conferences, one sees reporters proving their tough-mindedness by asking insulting questions; in the daily briefings with Powell, open snarling became the norm long ago. TV correspondents feel they’ve paid homage to the shade of Bob Woodward by ending their reports not with intelligent criticism but with a sophomoric twist. “The administration says its plans will work but the true result is still to be seen. Dan Daring, NBC News, the White House.” Several days after the rabbit-bites-president joke, Leslie Stahl ended a report in the same mock-significant tone: “The President certified that his version of the story is true, but the White House has still not produced the picture. Leslie Stahl, CBS News, at the White House.”

I suppose no surfeit of rabbit stories can do us permanent harm; I suspect we will survive yet another onslaught of politicians who want nothing more than to win an election, and reporters who describe little more than how they won. The real cause for desperation is that we may be getting exactly the sort of leadership and information we deserve. If our politicians are agendaless men, it may be because so few people have educated themselves to know what they want done. If our “leaders” show no inclination to build on lessons of the past, it may be because no one else in the country does either. If the newspapers and TV proclaim cabinet changes and policy strains as startling bolts from the blue, it is probably because they, like the people who learn from them, imagine that the world of public life is created anew each day, or at most every four years.

Some people lament the decline of the teaching profession and the neglect of history in the schools. I have not been near enough to a school recently to know, and I am always suspicious of things-used-to-be-better analyses, which have been a constant of adult lament since the time of Plato. But in order to think that such profound ignorance is a peril it is not necessary to argue that it was ever any different, only that it cripples us today.

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James Fallows, who began his career at the Washington Monthly, is the author of 12 books and writes the “Breaking the News” blog on Substack.