The ongoing paradox of our political process is the degree to which Americans blissfully ignore it. Political scientists ruefully interpret a 60 percent voter turnout as evidence of a hotly contended presidential contest. Otherwise the electorate remains about equally divided whether or not even to cast a ballot.
For those of us who remain committed to the process, there are a number of books that help delineate the candidates and their views, though most of those dealing with President Carter present a gloomy assessment of his troubled administration.
Clark R. Mollenhoff's polemical "The President Who Failed" is cafeteria-style journalism in the Jack Anderson mold. In assailing the President's foibles (such as the Marston firing, the Bert Lance and Andy Young affairs, and the muddled energy policy), Mollenhoff's a la cartem accusations make for rather thin gruel in the guise of political analysis. This seems less a book than an act of expiation from one who regrets casting his ballot for this incumbent.
Though Bruce Mazlish and Edwin Diamond are more restrained, their psychohistory, "Jimmy Carter: An Interpretive Biography," also fails to satisfy. The psychohistorical genre (and this book is no exception) resembles Chinese cuisine -- at once exotic and ephemeral. The authors' search for the key to this paradoxical President's motivations is largely in vain. Yet their depiction of Mr. Carter as a "contemporary Sisyphus" seems particularly apt for this President, a self-styled political outsider.
They cite his record of auspicious beginnings followed by failures as the pattern also seen throughout the pre-'76 presidential primaries, the 1976 election, and finally his checkered White House years. Generally sympathetic, Mazlish and Diamond view the beleaguered President as a decent man whose historical shadow will exceed the present perception of him.
The best book on the Carter presidency, "In the Absence of Power" is also the most troubling. Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, fuses a historian's sweep with reportorial immediacy. He constructs a compelling narrative that probes the present national disillusionment with government. He perceives a system out of control -- a labyrinthine governmental structure calcified by inbred power, oblivious to electoral mandates.
Pit an outsider against this parochialism, add the political ineptitude that erodes the Carter administration's ambitious expectations, and the result is the frustration of the past four years. Johnson sees a decent, intelligent President unable either to lead a recalcitrant congress or to bestir a national consensus to the realities that demand our united attention. The nagging question persists: Is it his fault or ours?