Jimmy Carter's Last Campaign

White House Diary. By Jimmy Carter. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 570 pp. $30.

A week before the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, Mstislav Rostropovich told Jimmy Carter that the American people had made a mistake in the presidential election of 1980, just as the masses in Europe had erred in rejecting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, La Traviata, and Tosca. Future generations, the great cellist and conductor predicted, would treat Carter's administration "the same way they did Verdi, Puccini, and Beethoven."

It hasn't happened. Historians, political scientists, and the American people invariably rank Carter as, at best, an average president. He gets credit for the Panama Canal Treaty, the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, advocacy of human rights, and for "prescience" in warning Americans about the economic and political consequences of their addiction to oil. He gets low grades, however, for his handling of "stagflation" and the taking of hostages in Iran, and, in general, for his administrative skills, public persuasion, relations with Congress, economic management, and crisis leadership.

With the publication of White House Diary, Carter, who will be eighty-six on October 1, clearly hopes to move up on the charts. An abbreviated version of entries made between 1977 and 1981, most of them never before revealed to the public, the book concentrates on themes that remain pertinent: Middle East peace, U.S.-China relations, nuclear weaponry, energy, health care, inflation, and congressional relations. Explanatory notes, Carter indicates, provide context for his observations.

Clearly, they're also designed to invite Americans to reassess his administration.

Readers of White House Diary, no doubt, will do just that. But many of them may well conclude, as I have, that Carter does not make a compelling case that he was an effective president.

In defense of his policies, Carter engages in special pleading -- and distortion by omission. He claims, for example, that his energy initiatives, including conservation, resulted in a reduction of oil imports from 8.6 million barrels a day when he took office to 4.3 million five years later. True enough. He doesn't address, let alone acknowledge, however, the role of OPEC price hikes, and even more significantly, of the drop in demand for oil caused by the recession at the end of his term. Similarly, Carter points out that since 1953 only Lyndon Johnson had a better record than he had of getting Congress to pass legislation proposed by the White House -- but does not refute critics who conclude that most major bills, like the Humphrey-Hawkins "full employment" act, were watered down -- or eviscerated -- by the time they reached his desk.

In foreign policy, White House Diary documents Carter's tenacity, toughness, and talent. Engineering the ratification of the unpopular Panama Canal Treaty -- and thereby improving the reputation of the United States throughout the hemisphere -- took skill and political courage. Carter risked the wrath of Ronald Reagan and other American "super-patriots;" flattered, pressured, and horse-traded with Republicans and Democrats in the Senate; and beat back crippling amendments. At Camp David, he won the trust of Anwar Sadat, whom he liked, and Menachim Begin, whom he loathed. By sheer force of will -- and imaginative use of diplomatic language -- he kept the Egyptians and Israelis from bolting, bridged differences over Israeli settlements and the rights of Palestinians, and brokered an agreement that for all its imperfections provided a framework for peace in the region.

By contrast, however, Carter's account of the Iranian hostage crisis and the response of the United States to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union demonstrates that even with the advantage of hindsight he does not find it "easy to accept criticism, admit my mistakes, or revise my way of doing things."

Jimmy Carter was a smart, incredibly hard-working, fundamentally decent, yet often inconsistent, inept, and largely reactive president. Confronted, to be sure, by daunting challenges at home and abroad, he never clearly articulated a vision for his party or his country. A sometime cold warrior, Carter supported a robust human rights policy and increases in defense budgets. He felt "more at home" with conservative Democrats and Republicans in Congress than with liberals, but knew that he could depend more on the latter. He endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment but labeled the National Organization for Women a "crazy" association. And he did not understand that Ted Kennedy's opposition to his health care reforms stemmed from profound policy differences more than the Massachusetts' senator's presidential aspirations.

If he had been re-elected, Carter believes that the government of the United States would have balanced its budgets, conserved energy, made peace and human rights the basis of foreign policy, and brought "democracy and global harmony to millions of people."

He may be right. But Carter didn't earn a second term. He left office, the historian Bruce Schulman has written, as a "potent symbol for the futility of government and naiveté of reformist zeal," well-intentioned, but weak-willed, "as much a relic of the despised, disparaged Seventies as yellow smiley faces, disco records, and leisure suits." If they remember him at all, future generations are likely to associate him, as they do now, with sweaters, stagflation, Camp David, Cabinet shuffles, crises of confidence, hostages, and a disaster in the desert of Iran. And, if he's lucky, as a man who redeemed himself by becoming the finest former president in American history.