For a 'passionless Presidency,' Feelings About Jim Fallows Run Pretty High in the White House

Not since Woodward and Bernstein’s portrait of the Nixon White House has Washington buzzed so loudly over an inside account of the Presidency. Jimmy Carter grows tight-lipped when the subject is raised, his aides are furious—and his critics euphoric. The cause of the furor is “The Passionless Presidency,” a precise and scathing essay on the Carter White House that began in the May Atlantic Monthly and concludes in the issue out this week. Its author is no less an authority than James Fallows, 29, who resigned as chief presidential speechwriter last November to become the magazine’s Washington editor. The reaction from former colleagues in the White House has been bitter. “Goddammit, Jim,” Press Secretary Jody Powell said, “this is the kind of thing you send as a letter to the President. You don’t publish it.” Fallows has no apologies. “Jody knows very well that a letter would not make the slightest difference,” says Fallows. “Carter’s failings are the most fundamental public matter. This is not some mom-and-pop operation we’re talking about—it is the government of the United States.”

Characterizing his ex-boss as “faultlessly decent” to him, Fallows writes: “If I had to choose one politician to sit at the Pearly Gates and pass judgment on my soul, Jimmy Carter would be the one.” But his critique of presidential leadership is one of the toughest ever to emanate from the senior staff. “Carter’s willful ignorance,” Fallows sums up, “could—to me—be explained only by a combination of arrogance, complacency, and—dread thought—insecurity at the core of his mind and soul.”

Fallows insists his exegesis should hardly surprise the Georgians. “Everything in the article was said while I was there,” he maintains. “I didn’t tell Carter that he was arrogant and insecure, but on all the factual points I sent memos to Carter, Powell, Hamilton Jordan and Jerry Rafshoon.” Stung by charges of disloyalty, Fallows argues: “To be politely silent is to be disloyal to the ends the President is supposedly serving.” He adds, “I suppose I could have waited a year to do this piece. We’d be in the middle of the primaries, and any damage would be greatly magnified. Or I could have waited five years—until it didn’t matter.”

Before the storm over his article, Fallows’ life story was an all-American idyll: Harvard (class of ’70, Phi Beta Kappa, president of the Crimson), a Rhodes scholarship and summers in Washington as a Nader’s Raider. He met his wife, Debbie, at Harvard in 1968, married her in 1971, and after honeymooning at a work camp in Ghana they settled in D.C. He began establishing a reputation as a magazine writer. Yet in 1974, when Debbie chose the University of Texas for her Ph.D. in linguistics, he unhesitatingly went along. “It was her turn,” he says. Once she had her doctorate, Fallows signed on as a $1,400-a-month speechwriter for candidate Carter—and was appointed to the White House job, which ultimately paid $47,500, in 1977.

By last fall he had decided to leave. “I wasn’t making any difference,” he explains. “The Georgians had no interest in bringing in better people—they had a DAR vision of newcomers, those who hadn’t been there in the beginning. It wasn’t hostility so much as just not caring. I was brought up to believe that success is more than a big title or a good salary. You have to meet your inner goals.” For Fallows that now means writing a book on social class and politics in America and doing several pieces a year for the Atlantic and other publications. (He may also find time to train for his third marathon.)

As he braces for the next installment of his critique, dealing largely with the White House staff, Fallows takes comfort in a letter from historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an aide to JFK. “Some of your old associates may be trying to make you feel badly about alleged betrayal of loyalties,” Schlesinger wrote. “The higher loyalty, it has always seemed to me, is to truth, public enlightenment and history.”

Conner, like Fallows, is a former White House speechwriter.

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