This article was pulled from the Boston Phoenix archives.
When the Camelot Caucus convenes in Faneuil Hall this Wednesday, the American presidency will once again become the trophy of a personality joust. In 1968 and '72, there was at least the issue of Vietnam to veil the overweening ambitions of competing public men. But even that ambiguous nobility is lacking this year.
Were the object of Senator Kennedy's challenge anybody but Jimmy Carter, the nation's heart might spare a beat or two of compassion for its beleaguered president. But then it is not as a president that Jimmy Carter has presented himself. He has, from the moment he crossed the threshold of public consciousness, comported himself as though simple declarations of personal values should pass for presidential performance. He has thus given the Good Man theory of leadership a very bad name. Seeing no dimension in the office beyond the narrow boundaries of personality, he saw no need to employ the power of the presidency, except as it allowed him to proclaim his decisions "right." With an air of righteous rationalism that recalls Michael Dukakis, he seems to believe that a decision logically arrived at is a problem finally solved. W hat need has a man to marshal support in Congress when he enjoys the knowledge that his decisions are morally correct? What need to rally the national around an energy initiative once you've satisfied yourself by characterizing it "the moral equivalent of war"? Why put clout behind public policies when rationalism has already proved you right?
Six months ago these questions might have left observers doubting Jimmy Carter's understanding of the presidency; today they raise more troubling doubts about the man himself. Had he shown himself ignorant of the practice of jetting congressmen hither and yon to win their support, his legislated ineptitude might be countenanced. Had he remained above dispensing the public purse for personal political ends, his failure to barter federal dollars for support of his policies might be overlooked. Had he left sovereign the islands of Secretarial influence he created in a place of a central government, he might be forgiven as managerially benign.
But now that his future is on the line, Air Force One is flying his congressional advocates about and stranding elected officials less avid about his presidency. Since the Florida Democratic caucuses, that state has blossomed in vivid green, having been landscaped – panhandle to peninsula tip – with the help of federal largess. And the decentralized Cabinet was left in shambles, the reputations of its members sacrificed on the altar of a president who needed to anoint himself a tough decision-maker. When Jimmy Carter's fate is at stake, it seems, any and all political tools are employed to make the federal machinery seem to function. When matters of public concern are the sole product, the rhetoric of righteous rationalism is left to work by itself.
The evidence abounds. Having declared our energy problem the moral equivalent of war, the president retired from the battlefield, apparently holding the "war" in such low regard that he failed to mention it even once in his last State of the Union address. But with his presidency in serious trouble, he descended from his midlife crisis at Camp David to resurrect the energy issue. Even then, however, he failed to mention the urgency of developing mass transit as the centerpiece of any serious attempt at conservation. Indeed, he hadn't even invited Brock Adams up the mountain to offer ideas on what might be done. These days, now that he's discovered the persuasive power of mass-transit grants to mayors, Carter is passing out buses faster than campaign buttons.
When the vaunted urban policy was announced, much was made of his commitment to the cities, a commitment worth $15 billion. But the policy had been drafted by a lonely analyst who had to do without any White House aid in stimulating support among affected constituencies. In fact, at the time the policy was announced, the administration had only one rather minor piece of legislation ready to go to Capitol Hill, where the pump had been primed for a major legislative effort. Now, long after the headlines have faded, Carter's own Office of Management and Budget is seeking to pare the urban proposal down to one fifth of the funding that was announced when the news was hot.
For all these reasons and many more like them, Jimmy Carter will get what he deserves on Wednesday. He will find out what happens to presidential one-man bands. He will reap the rewards of using clout on his own behalf while ignoring its importance to governing. He will learn, if belatedly, that policy sans politics is about as rewarding as sex without foreplay. He will get what comes to a president who has frequently shown himself to be, as one White House staffer put it, "a narrow, petty man without a sense of history." He will be face to face with the distinct possibility of his defeat.