Tom Wicker Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Presidency, the Press, and
the Cold War: Conversation with Tom Wicker; 11/3/83 by Harry Kreisler

Page 5 of 6

Carter, Reagan, and the Search for New Coalitions

The view you just articulated was one that President Carter held and may have even enunciated somewhere, perhaps at Notre Dame. Why did he fail? I mean he was our first president after Vietnam who started an effort to articulate a new vision of the world and had people in his administration who really had learned the lessons of Vietnam.

Well, I don't know if I could give you a full analysis of why President Carter failed, and if I did, it wouldn't necessarily be right. But to begin with, the councils of that administration were divided symbolically between Brzezinski, who was his rather hard-line National Security Advisor, and Cyrus Vance, who took a very different view, more nearly the view, I think, that I've expressed to you this morning, as Secretary of State. President Carter was ambivalent between those two views. His own mind was divided in that way. I think that's probably the first reason I would list.

The second is that President Carter, for all the good qualities that he had, was not, in my judgment, truly a forceful leader in that sense. I've been told that the very speech that you refer to at Notre Dame, when he renounced the inordinate fear of communism that he said, and quite rightly I think, had plagued our foreign policy, had been sneaked past Brzezinski, that Brzezinski never would have agreed to that speech. I don't know that that's historically true, but I've been told that. I think President Carter just simply didn't have the force, the will, the personality, perhaps even the confidence to lead the country fully in that direction. I think that was his instinct; my guess is that his instinct was more nearly with Cyrus Vance than with Brzezinski. But that somehow, just within his own being as president, he wasn't able to take that forceful leap.

And finally, I would say that American public opinion at that particular period of time was scarcely prepared for this kind of approach. When President Carter first, as many Americans saw it, "gave away" the Panama Canal -- I don't think that's a proper way to describe it but that's the way many people saw it, when he gave away the Panama Canal -- and then when he was unable to get the hostages home, those two facts almost destroyed any capacity he had to say to the American people in a way that persuaded them, "We no longer need to have an inordinate fear of communism." Events turned against him. The invasion of Afghanistan turned against him. And I think that, as I say, he was not always as steadfast in his cause as he might have been. I think if you look back into the history of the situation, you will find the first big commitment to the El Salvadoran government was made in the last months of the Carter administration.

How much must we take account of the fact that our last two presidents have really been neophytes to the foreign policy game? Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are babes in the woods, in the sense that they didn't participate in any of the major postwar foreign policy decisions either in the Congress or in some executive capacity. Because the thing that we're walking through, I think, is this problem of education, and if we're, in recent experience, thrusting forward leaders who have to learn the game anew, because they haven't been a part of the foreign policy process, that seems to bode ill for the possibilities of political education.

Well I don't quite agree with that. In the first place, I don't think I would describe either President Carter or President Reagan as a "babe in the woods." For example, President Carter was a very assiduous learner and student, and a hard worker. And so I think that by the time, for example, he reached Camp David with Sadat and Begin, he knew a good deal about the Middle East, as the results tended to show. And President Reagan, while he's by no means such a student or a worker, quite the opposite from President Carter, still he has a native kind of political acumen that makes him anything but a "babe in the woods." He has a capacity for a kind of leadership that's very difficult to put your finger on. But he is better able to get the country to follow him than President Carter was, and that's formidable.

Besides that, I don't necessarily feel that having a president who has been steeped in all the foreign policy crises and decisions of the period is necessarily a good thing. Now, it's good for obvious reasons; it's bad for certain other reasons in my judgment, the first of which is that the American foreign policy establishment has tended to partake of the kind of attitudes that I've suggested here this morning. You don't find the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, which is, I suppose, the wellspring of the American foreign policy establishment, talking about getting rid of our inordinate fear of communism. They are certainly more moderate than the Reagan administration, but if our American foreign policy establishment is one that has been raised in the Cold War ethic and is still steeped in that, then it's very difficult, if one of their own becomes president, to get away from that. I would think, in fact I'd hope very much, that a President coming out of a different atmosphere, like Jimmy Carter, would bring fresh winds into American foreign policy. And I think he tried. But it just didn't work for reasons that we discussed and, no doubt, for other reasons too.

I do think, however, that we've got two real disadvantages in our current political situation in this country. The first is that we have kind of a television politics rather than a party politics, which means, among other things, that we're likely to have for some time a series of one-term presidencies. If Mr. Reagan is re-elected next year that won't change my opinion, he'll just be one of the exceptions. I think we have had and are going to have a series of one-term presidencies for a variety of reasons. Now that has its consequences, the first of which is that the Soviets, who had Mr. Gromyko, lets say, as Foreign Minister since the early 60s I think, had a kind of a continuity of approach that we really can't have in this country. When you go from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter and back to Ronald Reagan in a little over five years, then you have some switches and swerves that are very difficult to deal with, either in terms of our own policy, making a coherent policy, or other people understanding it.

I think we need to have Presidents who are much more nearly products of a party system, instead of presidents elected by television -- presidents who have made alliances and who have worked out networks of support with various interest groups, who have gone through that tortuous process and who, when they come into office, don't merely represent a high rating on the Nielsen scale, but who represent a coalition of interests. Then, when they get in trouble, they've got someone to fall back on. When President Carter got in trouble midway through his administration, he had nobody to fall back on. He campaigned against the party, he campaigned against Washington, he campaigned against Congress, he campaigned against all of those things that, in another day, he would have had to have worked out arrangements with. And therefore, I think our presidents today are quite vulnerable to the same thing that a high-rated, prime time, evening television show is, that at some point, people get tired of it and they start watching something else and the ratings go down, and then you get canceled at the next election.

Isn't it extraordinarily difficult to build a coalition around a new view of the Cold War, if we just look at foreign policy? Our recent presidents, with their populist backgrounds, lacking a coalition, tend to resort to nationalistic, chauvinistic images in confronting the problems of the world.

It's very difficult to build a coalition around that view, and particularly in the kind of politics we have today, because it's so heavily dependent on television, on winning a number of primaries and so forth. Winning a primary in Texas is a very different thing from winning one in New Hampshire, and it's different in the two parties. So it's very hard to build coalitions that way. I don't think anyone has done it. Jesse Jackson may build a coalition around a particular kind of interest because he would be such a symbolic figure for those interests. But to be Jimmy Carter from Georgia and try to build a coalition, which he did not do, but to try to build a coalition around the idea that we no longer suffer from an inordinate fear of communism, I would say that's a fast route to not getting elected.

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