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When candidate Jimmy Carter ran for the presidency in 1976, it was the age of zero-dollar politics. He and President Gerald Ford, the Republican, raised zero money, none at all, in their contest against each other. What money they had came from public financing, with a $2 checkoff on the annual income tax return.

That age of zero-dollar politics is long gone, of course. Now we’re in the age of Citizens United, which means big-money politics and heavy influencing by outside groups. President Carter said he thought President Obama had fumbled health reform by not pushing his own ideas strongly enough. President Obama has got to find a way to deal with outsized corporate interests. His advice:

“The only way to do that, if there is a way, is to draft what the president thinks is the right proposal, and then completely override the Congress in taking that proposal to the people directly and use a powerful influence, a bully pulpit of the White House to prevail if you can prevail.

“And I think reluctantly and maybe not too late but quite late, President Obama has learned that for the first time with his jobs proposal that was drafted in the White House, and he made the proposal to Congress in a very effective speech — one of his best ones — and now, he’s taken his case to the public to say, ‘OK, this is what I propose, this is what the Congress is likely to do, choose between me and the Congress in the upcoming election in 2012.’ ”

Eventually, Mr. Carter said, Congress will come around on the economy. He thinks President Obama can win that one.

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White House Diary

 

The snarl behind the toothy grin emerges in these acerbic entries culled from the 39th president’s personal diary. Carter vents against everyone, from Congress (“disorganized juvenile delinquents”), to the press (“completely irresponsible and unnecessarily abusive”) and the incoming Reaganauts (“group of jerks”).

By contrast, he comes off as the principled, rational, speed-reading master of policy detail, with a cogent-to him-agenda of human rights, internationalism, and disarmament in foreign policy, and fiscal restraint, deregulation, and energy conservation at home.

His account of the “national malaise” episode reveals a technocrat groping awkwardly toward a political vision. But the hectic, sketchy entries, annotated with after-the-fact elucidations, mainly show President Carter breasting the maelstrom of over-scheduling, mundane politics, and brother-Billy issues, while eruptions like the Iranian hostage crisis sneak up; the Sadat-Begin Camp David negotiations and other summits, where his leadership could be proactive and untrammeled, provoke his most involved and insightful passages.

Carter’s judgments will stir controversy: he tars Ted Kennedy with torpedoing his healthcare reforms and abetting Reagan’s 1980 victory, and paints Israel (“obstinate”) and its Prime Minister at the time, Menachem Begin, as the main obstacles to peace in the Middle East. His tart wit and cutting candor add flavor to a revealing portrait of presidential achievement and, especially, frustration. Illustrations.