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White House Diary

by Jimmy Carter

Paperback, 570 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $20 |


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Jimmy Carter

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Book Summary

During his years in the White House, President Jimmy Carter kept a diary filled with insights into his presidency, his relationships with friends and foes and his lasting impact on issues that are still important today, and now the diary is available to the public for the first time, with the best entries selected by Carter himself and complemented by his candid reflections.

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Excerpt: White House Diary

Prelude: The Campaign

About the time I announced my candidacy for president in December 1974, Gallup published a poll that included the question "Among Democrats, whom do you prefer as the next nominee?" There were thirty-two names on Gallup's list of potential candidates, including George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, Henry (Scoop) Jackson, Walter Mondale, John Glenn, and even the Georgia legislator Julian Bond. My name was not mentioned.

Our campaign's original presumption was that the major Democratic contenders would be Edward Kennedy on the left and Wallace on the right, and that I could occupy the middle of the political spectrum and prevail with persistence, hard work, and a bit of good luck. I was very disappointed when Kennedy announced his decision to end his campaign in September 1974; his unfortunate experience a few years earlier at Chappaquiddick was frequently mentioned in the news media as the primary reason for his withdrawal. Almost immediately, a number of new candidates announced; the most prominent were Kennedy's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver; Senators Fred Harris, Birch Bayh, Henry Jackson, and Lloyd Bentsen; Governors Milton Shapp and Terry Sanford; Congressman Morris Udall; and of course George Wallace. Later, Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Frank Church entered the race, as did Adlai Stevenson III, who was a favorite son in Illinois. Almost without exception, they were better known and financed than I.

It was obvious to me and my advisors that many Americans were deeply concerned about the competence and integrity of our government. Still fresh in memory were the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the disgrace of Watergate; the failure in Vietnam and the misleading statements about the war from top civilian and military leaders; and the revelation that emerged from the Frank Church Senate committee that our government's intelligence services had condoned assassination plots against foreign leaders. After much thought and discussion, I chose to focus my campaign on three basic themes: truthfulness, management competence, and distance from the unattractive aspects of Washington politics.

To every audience, large or small, I swore "never to tell a lie or to make a misleading statement." I was able to point to my success, as governor of Georgia, in completely reorganizing the state government and instituting an innovative technique that made annual comparisons possible between old and new programs. My campaign literature emphasized my roots as a peanut farmer from the tiny village of Plains, Georgia. The support of Andrew Young, the King family, and other civil rights heroes helped me overcome the potential racist stigma of coming from the Deep South; I was well aware that if I won, I would be the first successful candidate from this region since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

I had very little money, but I began campaigning as soon as I left the Georgia governor's office in January 1975. My former press secretary, Jody Powell, was my traveling companion. In Atlanta, we had a superb team of issue analysts working under the direction of Stuart Eizenstat, who had performed the same service for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. During the succeeding months, our campaign team put together two groups of surrogates that supplemented my full-time effort, an unusual technique that ultimately prevailed. One was a large group of my fellow Georgians, known as the "Peanut Brigade." At their own expense, they traveled to New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and other key states. They walked door-to-door handing out my campaign literature and extolling my record and my views to every citizen they encountered.

Even more effective were the members of my own family. As directed by my campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan, six teams campaigned separately, led by my wife, Rosalynn; my sons, Jack, Chip, and Jeff, and their wives; my mother, Lillian; and her youngest sister, Emily. When we got together, we shared experiences, discussed subjects that seemed most important to prospective voters, and made sure that we would be "preaching the same sermon" during the week ahead. All of us understood that it was critical that we speak with one voice regarding abortion, education, farm policy, Israel, nuclear weaponry, and other important and sensitive issues. To save money, we spent nights with families supportive of (or at least interested in) our campaign.

During most of 1975, the other candidates were campaigning part-time, and they never realized the effectiveness of what we were doing—until it was too late. Rosalynn, for instance, visited 115 towns and cities in Iowa and spent seventy-five days in Florida. We concentrated on the key states with the earliest returns, and in the winter of 1976 I came in first in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida. After that, my opponents cooperated in what became known as ABC—Anybody But Carter. They would choose the most popular person for a particular state and give that candidate their concerted support. This tactic sometimes succeeded, but by the end of the primary season I had a clear majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

My first decision after being assured of victory was to choose my running mate. I decided that I needed to compensate for my lack of experience in Washington, and seriously considered Senators John Glenn, Frank Church, Scoop Jackson, Ed Muskie, and Walter Mondale. After long meetings and interviews, I found that Mondale was personally most compatible with me, and we shared similar ideas on how he and I could work together as a team.

For me, the general election was much more difficult than the Democratic primaries. I had been running as a somewhat lonely and independent candidate—a peanut farmer and former governor who was quite removed from the Washington scene. Now I inherited the leadership mantle of the Democratic Party, including all its negative and burdensome trappings. My opponent, Gerald Ford, was a fine man who had survived a brutal primary challenge from California governor Ronald Reagan. Many Americans felt indebted to President Ford for having salvaged the integrity of the White House after Richard Nixon resigned in political disgrace.

Despite these handicaps, Fritz Mondale and I won a narrow victory. The day after the election, I began to prepare for my inauguration and the responsibility of serving as president of the United States.


I began keeping this diary in part due to an offhand comment by Richard Nixon. Rosalynn and I first met Nixon when we attended the National Governors' Conference in 1971. The president walked up to us at a White House reception, turned to Rosalynn, and asked, "Young lady, do you keep a diary?" Rosalynn replied, "No, sir." Nixon then said, "You'll be sorry!" Since this was our first conversation with a president, it made a lasting impact.

Within a day or two of my inauguration, I began making written notes of my thoughts and activities on the pages of a legal pad, and on February 26 I began dictating into a small tape recorder more frequently and currently.

JANUARY 20 A couple months before the inauguration, I got a letter from Senator [William] Proxmire, who is very interested in physical fitness. He suggested that I walk from the Capitol to the White House on Inauguration Day. I responded without making any promise, and about three weeks before the inauguration I informed the Secret Service that I would do so. I later told my wife, my son Chip, and no one else until the night before inauguration, at which time I told Vice President Mondale and a couple of staff members, including Jody Powell.

I thought it would be a good demonstration of confidence by the new president in the people of our country as far as security was concerned, and also would be a tangible indication of some reduction in the imperial status of the president and his family. We were gratified at the response. Many people along the parade route, when they saw that we were walking, began to weep, and it was an emotional experience for us as well. I was surprised at the enormous attention this act received from the news media and believe it was a good decision.

I think the inauguration speech itself, perhaps one of the briefest on record for the first inauguration of a president, was quite compatible with my announcement speech in December 1974, and also with my acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. It accurately expressed some of the major themes of my administration. Even though I had been preparing to be president, I was genuinely surprised when in the benediction by the bishop from Minnesota, he referred to "blessings on President Carter"; just the phrase "President Carter" was startling to me.

I would say that the quarters at the White House are quite similar to those we enjoyed as the governor's family in Georgia, but I have been constantly impressed—I almost said overwhelmed—at the historical nature of the White House, occupied for the first time by our second president, John Adams. When I see a desk or a writing cabinet or a book or a sideboard or a bed that was used by Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt or Truman or Kennedy, I have a feeling of almost unreality about my being president, but also a feeling of both adequacy and determination that I might live up to the historical precedents established by my predecessors.

That night we had our first of what has been a very relaxed and informal series of meals with our family. Early on, when Rosalynn was visiting the White House, some of our staff asked the chef and cooks if they thought they could prepare the kind of meals which we enjoyed in the South, and the cook said, "Yes, ma'am, we've been fixing that kind of food for the servants for a long time." The meals in general have been superb. The only shock was that for the first ten days our food bill in the White House was six hundred dollars! Part of this was carelessness because we didn't let the cooks know when some of our family members would not be present; part of it was because of the excessive amount of company that we had the first few days. We quickly discovered that the president himself pays for all personal meals, gifts, and travel—for himself and for other family members as well. All official expenses are, of course, paid by the government.

JANUARY 21 We had a series of receptions for people that we cared about, the first one of which was for seven or eight hundred Americans with whom we had spent the night during the long campaign. In some instances this was an emotional meeting because they had meant so much to us when no one knew or cared who I was, and we had formed such close personal friendships with them and had not had a chance to thank them adequately. I was genuinely surprised at how deeply moved I was to see these people. We gave each one of the families a small brass plaque stating that a member of my family had stayed with them during the campaign.

The first couple days we shook hands with literally thousands of people in receiving lines. Quite important to do this—to thank people who had helped us, to cement ties with the members of Congress, the diplomatic officials, and also with the members of the Armed Forces. I was particularly impressed as the leaders of the military branches came by and shook hands with me and Rosalynn to find the extraordinary number who made some reference to their prayers for us or "God be with you"—statements of that kind—much more than had been the case with others during those two days.

My normal, almost unvarying routine is to get up at 6:30, sometimes earlier if I have special work to do, get to the office at about 7:00. Most mornings I spend an hour to an hour and a half by myself reading the paper, writing memoranda to my staff members, and then I have a security briefing by Dr. [Zbigniew] Brzezinski [my national security advisor], read the CIA's "Intelligence Report to the President," meet with Hamilton Jordan and Frank Moore [my liaison officer with the Congress] to go over the day's business with the Congress or other matters, and then I start my regular appointments.

For the first couple of weeks I did all this work out in the Oval Office, but later moved into a more private small office on the west side of the West Wing. The Oval Office is quite impressive, and I've noticed that many of my long-standing friends, quite self-assured and sometimes cosmopolitan, are not urbane when they come into the Oval Office; they become almost completely inarticulate, get nervous and unsure of themselves, impressed greatly by the fact that this is the center of our government. One of the almost routine problems I have is to put them at ease so we can continue with the conversation that brought them there.

JANUARY 22 We continued our series of receptions but had our first National Security Council meeting to get organized. This was an organization that in the past had consisted of, I think, seven different committees, and we cut this down to two different committees.

I've been determined to have Dr. Brzezinski be a constant source of stimulation for the Departments of Defense and State, but always work in the role of a staff person to me. In fact, I've pledged that none of the members of my staff would dominate members of the cabinet. Zbig agrees completely with this, and because of his constant access to me several times each day, perhaps second only to Hamilton Jordan in frequency, his influence over my own thinking and judgment, ultimate decisions, is certainly adequate.

As a college student, Hamilton had volunteered to help me in my campaign for governor in 1966; four years later, after serving in Vietnam, he became my top political leader. He was my executive secretary in the governor's office and the primary strategist in planning and conducting our presidential campaign. In the White House, he continued to be one of my key advisors; although he did not want any title, he effectively served as my chief of staff. Everyone in my administration—and in Congress—recognized Hamilton as the most influential of my advisors in Washington.

In the inner White House office we established a high-fidelity sound system, and for eight or ten hours every day I listen to classical music. Records are changed by Susan Clough, my secretary.

In the evening we watched our first movie in a long time, All the President's Men. I was impressed with the insistence of the press in uncovering information about Watergate and also felt strange occupying the same living quarters and position of responsibility as Richard Nixon, who had brought such disgrace on the White House and the presidency itself. And of course I was determined all anew not ever to let the same thing happen while I was president.


Excerpted from White House Diary by Jimmy Carter Copyright © 2011 by Jimmy Carter. Excerpted by permission.
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