Ronald Reagan is today viewed as having achieved greatness even by
political enemies. Few disagree that the 40th president brought down
the Berlin Wall, brought America out of its post-Vietnam/
post-Watergate malaise, and brought confidence and vigor back to the
But to the man he beat in the 1980 election, Reagan was a boob whose
"life seems to be governed by a few anecdotes and vignettes that he
That was President Jimmy Carter's thoughts on his final day in the White House, January 20th, 1981, when 52 U.S. hostages would finally be released by Iran, just minutes after Reagan took the oath of office.
The quote comes from Carter's "White House Diary" published this week — over 30 years after he left office, in the apparent hope of capitalizing on the huge success of "The Reagan Diaries," edited by Douglas Brinkley and published in 2007.
Carter followed his harsh assessment of Reagan with the observation, "He doesn't seem to listen when anybody talks to him." And Carter predicted, "I think he'll have to rely heavily on his advisers and subordinates to make the ultimate policy decisions."
That day, Reagan had left Carter unimpressed as they traveled together to the Capitol for the Inauguration; he regaled the soon-to-be ex-president with one of his trademark stories, a habit that often served him well with the American public.
"He told a series of anecdotes that were remarkably pointless," Carter wrote. "The one he considered funniest was about an old man who was asked whether he slept with his beard under or over the covers, and then he couldn't sleep. He suggested this might be a good punishment for Khomeini for seizing our hostages." Carter on that historic day sized up Reagan as "remarkably old in his attitudes."
In describing in his diary their first private meeting in the Oval Office after the election, two months earlier, Carter remarked that Reagan "listened primarily and made a few remarks, apparently excerpted from his basic campaign speech."
In that same Nov. 20, 1980 entry, Carter also seemed to suggest that Reagan had dictatorial aspirations. "The only original statement he made," according to Carter, "was that he was very envious of the South Koreans in the way they handled demonstrators, that when President Park [Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 until his assassination in 1979] was faced with students demonstrating on a campus he closed all the universities and drafted the demonstrators into the army. He described how envious he was of the authority that the president of Korea had."
Carter also denigrated Reagan's slam-dunk performance in their nationally televised debate, in which he famously questioned Carter's veracity with the line, "There you go again."
According to Carter, "Reagan was 'Aw, shucks' this and that. 'I'm a grandfather, and I would never get this nation in a war' and 'I love peace.' He has memorized tapes. He pushes a button, and they come out."
In Carter's accompanying commentary for the diary entry, he claims of Reagan: "As a professional actor, he felt that" having one instead of several debates "would be to his advantage" because "detailed knowledge of issues would be of little benefit compared to an overall image of us two candidates."
His commentary even suggests that Reagan won the debate against him because "a copy of my confidential briefing book had been stolen from the White House and delivered to Reagan's campaign team prior to the debate," and "Reagan's aides had used the notes to prepare my opponent to counteract my planned debate tactics."
Little time was wasted by Carter in writing his presidential memoirs, "Keeping Faith" published in 1982. So the question of why he waited more than three decades to publish his diaries is sure to dog the former president — along with the accusation that his motive was to let enough time pass for the failures of his presidency to be forgotten.
"White House Diary" actually omits "about three-fourths of the diary," according to the book's preface, but Carter promises "to make the entire diary (including my detailed handwritten notes) available at the Carter Presidential Library in the near future."
The full Carter diaries are sure to contain more acid-tongued comments — such as his calling another figure judged great by history, Margaret
Thatcher, "overbearing" after his first meeting with her in the fall of 1977, before her election as prime minister.
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