In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter suffered from a political malaise and gave a speech about it. In the following days, he fired with one stroke, five cabinet officers — the type of purge that was common in the Soviet Politburo but virtually unheard of here — as if it were their fault. He then met with his White House staff and read the riot act to them, as well. Finally, for good measure, he called in his entire subcabinet for a serious talking to.
He marched alone into the East Wing room, jammed with more than 300 of the most senior people in his government. He took off his jacket and laid it carefully on the floor next to the podium. He then stood before the podium, visibly emotional and pumped.
His words were simple and brief. “You folks are my subcabinet. What I did with some of your bosses, I can do with you, too. Now, if you are not comfortable with supporting my programs, it is the time for you to leave. Any questions?”
The first question came, near where I was sitting, from Cliff Alexander, Secretary of the Army. The substance of it has long been forgotten. It was anodyne, and Carter’s response was equally unmemorable.
The second question came from Gene Baroni, Assistant Secretary of HUD and a Catholic priest. That question was also quickly forgotten was along with Carter’s response.
Both questioners were ‘fire proof’ because of who they were.
Then, from the far side of the room, an unknown man stood and addressed the President with earnest respect. He politely said,“Mr. President, I am afraid you do not understand the problem.”
A deep hush fell over the crowded room at such unprecedented candor and directness addressed, in public, to the leader of the free world.
He went on. “Mr. President, with deepest respect sir, we often work night and day for several months preparing a decision memo for you, and at the end of the day we certainly know more about the substance of that issue than either our bosses or you—with all respect sir.”
“We rarely hear anything more after the memo has gone to you. Then, when your decision is announced and it seems to us, with all respect Sir, that you have missed some very important factors, we feel that it is our duty to help get you and it straightened out. If that is what you mean when you suggest that we are not supporting your program, then that is why I believe, with all respect Sir, you do not understand the problem. For example, Sir, I have never been in the same room with you before. I think it would help the country if you could hear directly from more of us.”
The hush in the room became a collective gasp. Carter stepped back in astonishment and said: “How can that be possible? How many people here have never been in the same room with me before?”
Immediately, about two-thirds of all the hands went up. Carter, realizing his gaffe, said: “Well, you have now! And do not forget it!” Then he picked up his coat from the floor and left the room.
As you can see, I have not forgotten that scene and moment.
The lesson that Carter and his staff apparently never learned was the importance of a President knowing and hearing directly from his most knowledgeable appointees and making sure they know and understand from him how and why he is reaching his decisions. As our current President stumbles, the lesson of 1979 may provide guidance for regaining his footing down the stretch of his political career.