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Complicated Commanders: Nixon, Ford, and Carter in Popular Thought and Scholarly Research

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At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, there exists a series of satirical art pieces by Pat Oliphant, caricatures of three specific presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. In these representations, Nixon sits glumly on a horse in a clear reference to Napoleon Bonaparte, Ford is represented by a serenely placid expression covered in band-aids, and Carter sits off alone, buck toothed, in the corner in miniature. While perhaps odd for such representations to exist in the National Portrait Gallery juxtaposed with such artistic landmarks as the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, it is no coincidence that these three all hail from the same decade: the 1970’s. When compared to their epochal brethren, the 60’s and the 80’s, the 1970’s are often pushed aside as a forgettable decade, one full of oddities such as “The perfect Seventies symbol…the Pet Rock, which just sat there doing nothing.”1 Perhaps more salient where the bad memories of stagflation, international crises, and inequality. It is thus easy to write off the decade and its commanders-in-chief as insignificant, unpleasant, or both, but, in recent years, scholars such as Bruce Schulman, Thomas Borstelmann, Laura Kalman, and Daniel Sargent have come forth to explain that the decade and the men who led it are vastly more complicated than first impressions may convey. They do not contend that the 1970’s were a particularly good or profitable time. In this sense, they do not defend the decade in a traditional sense. Rather, works of authors like these serve to show that the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter were rife with challenges that demanded response. They explore just why caricatures like Oliphant’s exist and whether or not they were deserved. 

Discussion of Nixon’s presidency is dominated by Watergate and, while this is most certainly understandable, the prevailing discourse drowns out the fact that he also presided over a major turning point in the history of the United States. Bruce Schulman, in his book, TheSeventies, explains that Nixon’s election year of 1968 was both “an annus mirabilis and an annus horribilus,” and his presidency saw the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, man’s first trip to the surface of the moon, and the effective end of Bretton Woods.2 Schulman further characterizes the Nixon presidency as not just one of “dirty tricks,” but as the tenure of a calculated and careful president with an almost Calvinistic work ethic and a strategy more focused on changing the established order than anything. One example that he gives of this is Nixon’s strategy in regards to the arts. He patronized the National Endowment for the Arts, vastly increasing its budget to over $60 million, seemingly odd for a Republican president with a fiscally conservative agenda, but Schulman argues that this was a very crafty move on his part, as he directly contradicted the liberal elites “who most despised Nixon for his vulgarity, ambition, and toughness.”3 In doing so, however, he also took the arts out of their hands and “shifted arts funding in a new direction,” focusing on local, regional, and youth art.4 Schulman also uses the arguments of Nixon’s seemingly liberal policies on the environment and public housing to show how he could both defy the liberal establishment and shift control of domestic matters where he wanted it to go. This clearly shows a much more complicated man than a simple crook who felt the need to spy on his enemies. 

Schulman further claims that Nixon’s strategies also went beyond simple cunning. Rather, “Every one of these maneuvers advanced Nixon’s larger political objective: his ambition to transform American politics by creating a new majority coalition in the United States.”5 A great deal of this strategy rested upon the “silent majority,” the white, middle-class, suburban populace. By carefully balancing his rhetoric, the president was able to seem sympathetic to both desegregation efforts and those who cried reverse discrimination. Thus, he never alienated many and wooed a great deal of moderate voters. Schulman summarizes that he wanted to “set out to capture the vote of the forty-seven-year-old Dayton housewife,” the average American of the time.6

Thomas Borstelmann, in The 1970s, discusses broad themes, centering upon what he sees as the American contradiction of greater and simultaneously lesser equality during the decade. In his discussion of relevant issues, he too paints a picture of President Nixon that shows a clever, cunning president defined by much more than Watergate. Borstelmann makes note of Nixon’s fateful decision to take the United States off the gold standard in 1972, practically ending the1944 Bretton Woods system. Borstelmann asserts that “this shift to the logic of the market introduced considerable instability and unpredictability into international trade and strongly stimulated the growth of the financial industry…”7 He attributes this move by the president as a major factor in the country’s shift to a system of economic inequality, but it also helped to end an economic system intended for postwar recovery that was causing severe trade deficits in the United States. 

 One of the actions which Nixon is most famous for is his state visit to China in February of 1972, followed by a trip to Moscow. This idea of conversation with the so called “monolith” of communism showed a president who was not afraid to directly challenge the status quo, in keeping with the idea that Nixon aimed to establish a new order. As Borstelmann states, “After a generation of viewing the Soviet Union and China as a monolithic conspiracy straddling the Eurasian landmass, Americans were suddenly free to understand them instead as two complicated nations with often conflicting interests and priorities.”8 Thus, Borstelmann describes actions that moved the country away from the solidified Cold War of the 1950’s and 1960’s and into a new phase, for better or for worse. Importantly, however, actions such as the deregulation of currency and triangular diplomacy as described by Borstelmann did show that PresidentNixon was very much willing to try new things in order to put the country on the path that he wanted it to be on. Nixon’s China trip was an implementation of his strategy of détente, which was his administration’s principle foreign policy objective. Indeed, one cannot discuss the impact of Richard Nixon without foreign policy, as the president himself famously believed that the domestic side of the country could effectively run itself without him. Where Nixon aimed to and did have profound effects was in foreign policy, expounded heavily upon in Daniel Sargent’s book, A Superpower Transformed. Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger were realists, a school of thought which holds a state’s self interests above all other factors. Sargent argues that this entailed flexibility in strategies in order to retain America’s primacy in world affairs and prevent it from being “an old nation in a new world.”9 Sargent claims that Nixon would enact such strategies in order to preserve the “Pax Americana” that he deemed vital to peace. To that end, Nixon put forth the “Nixon Doctrine” which “advocated the delegation of responsibilities to regional allies” while “the United States would expect its allies to assume responsibility for defending themselves against internal enemies.”10 This would color his policiesfor the rest of his presidency.

Sargent displays Nixon’s complicated foreign policy ideas in his descriptions of the Biafran conflict and the Bangladesh independence movement, both in 1971. Both were civil wars in which a marginalized group sought independence from a larger state, which violently reacted with wanton human rights abuses. Nixon had to decide between national interests and human rights in both cases. In Biafra, at least, Sargent shows a Nixon who was willing to bend and “was neither cynical nor self-interested.”11 While one could definitely argue that he was indeed working with self-interest at heart, he did work for “a multi-million dollar increase in US support for the Red Cross and encouraged the international agency to resume relief flights to Biafra.”12

He did not, however, demonstrate the same support for Bangladesh, in part due to Pakistan’s strategic importance to American interests. Still, Sargent’s account shows a president who, while firmly rooted in Cold War ideals, was willing to be flexible in the actual execution of foreign policy. All of this demonstrates that while there certainly are reasons to portray Nixon as a deceitful criminal, he was a complicated president whose legacy should not be wholly defined as such.

President Gerald Ford, on the other hand, has a completely different image than Nixon.  Famous for being the only president never elected to executive office in any capacity, Ford is often portrayed in line with the notion of the 70’s being a forgotten decade. Perhaps best known for his failed Whip Inflation Now campaign and pardoning Nixon, Ford rarely tops lists of the most effective presidents, mostly because he was not. Accounts such as Laura Kalman’s Right Star Rising demonstrate, however, that he was not the simple and well-meaning fool that cartoonists made him out to be but rather in the wrong place at the wrong time, as “just as food shortages seemed to be coming under control, drought struck the American farm belt. The stock market crashed too. By the time Nixon resigned, inflation was at 10 percent, unemployment at 5 percent and rising.”13 These were just some of the less than desirable issues that Ford inherited. Just as well, 1974-77 was no Era of Good Feelings. The Republican Party was in disarray after Watergate, the Democratic Party was having an identity crisis, and the New Right was waiting in the wings. Faced with all of these dilemmas, Ford ended up vacillating hopelessly between options. While no fan of his actions, Kalman does describe a hopelessly complicated situation for the president, arguing that his missteps were “understandable for many reasons.”14 She explains that, while Ford was at first obsessed with inflation, he changed his mind during his 1975 State of the Union Address, claiming that “the state of the Union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work.”15 In response, he proposed a tax rebate in what would be described by Kalman as a “179 degree shift” that ended up just making him look like a waffler on the important issues.

Indeed, the proposed State of the Union tax cut was a direct reversal of Ford’s earlier ideas for a tax surcharge. This would add substantially to the deficit that he had vocally and publicly fought against, but this issue was just as much a Congressional one as it was related to Ford’s decision making. Even through all of her criticisms, Kalman does acknowledge that while “the 1975 tax cut and energy bill could not calm the nation’s psyche, they did help mend the economy…The administration’s war against double-digit inflation bore fruit.”16

Borstelmann as well is not fond of Ford’s decision making but also describes a President who had to deal with the legacies of his predecessor. “Gerald Ford, a decent and likable person, aimed to move the nation forward.”17 In the wake of Watergate, the American people were experiencing a major identity crisis and, according to Schulman “decency seemed to depart with Nixon.”18 It did not help when Ford pardoned him, a move which was lambasted on both sides of the political aisle. Borstelmann quotes pollster Lou Harris as stating that “anyone who tries to get out politically this fall and defend that pardon in any part of the country, North or South, is almost literally going to have his head handed to him.”19 Indeed, in terms of policy, Ford found himself trying to pick up the pieces of Watergate and deal with an extremely hostile Congress where “Democrats now enjoyed majorities of 291-144 in the House and 60-37 in the Senate.” 20 While Borstelmann is largely critical of Ford’s actions, his narration shows that his position was indeed a difficult one and he was perhaps caught in a storm that he was unprepared to deal with.

Foreign policy is another arena in which Ford met with significant difficulties. As mentioned above, President Nixon’s main agenda was foreign policy, and Ford retained his right-hand-man, Kissinger. Thusly, Ford continued Nixon’s attempts at détente in a much more aggressive and proactive fashion than political cartoons such as Oliphant’s may suggest. Sargent suggests that, while it had its positives and negatives, the Helsinki accords of 1975 were “a rallying point for transnational politics of human rights” and “Ford voiced surprising confidence” in their ability to be so.21 This meant that Ford was changing the rhetoric of détente, a policy which was oft criticized for being amoral, even Machiavellian in nature. While Ford did not pursue the results of the Helsinki accords, which had a specific clause dedicated to equal rights and self-determination, his attempts to promote them as shown in Sargent’s text demonstrate a president willing to use détente for his own purposes and not those of his predecessor.

Perhaps no president during the 1970’s has been as universally lambasted as Jimmy Carter. Often depicted with a buck-toothed grin, the last president of the 1970’s has been the butt of many a joke and seemingly an affirmation of the futility of the decade. A great deal of the criticisms directed toward his presidency are perhaps deserved but even his critics had to admit, as Kalman argues, that “perhaps no president, no matter how adroit, could have succeeded in the 1970’s. Perhaps no president, particularly not a Democrat who came to power by running against the troubled post-New Deal liberal order, could have prospered.”22 The late 1970s were perhaps the most turbulent time of the decade, with a host of issues plaguing the presidency. One of those that Carter chose to focus on most was inflation, an issue that had plagued the country since the dawn of the decade and, as Bruce Schulman argues, “inflation became as ominous and unacceptable as unemployment had once been.”23 As such, he took many steps to fight the issue but perhaps tried too hard to please everyone. By 1979, however, “Carter took his first genuinely forceful step to contain inflation” by appointing Paul Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve, a man who “quickly and brutally ironed inflation out of the economy.”24 The only problem was that it did not do so quickly enough and the side effect, severe recession, set in almost immediately. This would be a theme of the Carter presidency, as he would institute several reforms that would only have positive effects during his successor’s administration.

One of these reforms was deregulation. While Ford truly began the deregulation trend by detracting from the power of the ICC, Carter took the first major step in a movement that is today largely attributed to Reagan. Borstelmann argues that an airline industry that was tightly regulated caused “large inefficiencies and high fares in the industry that resulted directly from the Civil Aeronautics Board’s efforts to protect existing airlines.”25 After 1978’s Airline Deregulation Act, however, “there were suddenly eighteen different fares on the New YorkLondon route.”26 In the long run this would successfully lower prices for consumers as well as increase profits for airlines. The Carter years also saw the lifting of regulations on energy, which was part of the president’s principal agenda of energy reform. Further, “Lifting restrictions on competition among telephone service providers resulted in an 85 percent decline in the average price of an international phone call from New York to London.”27

Deregulation was just one part of Carter’s energy agenda. He tackled the energy crisis in America head-on and aggressively, which was a somewhat bold move considering that most Americans in the mid-1970’s did not believe that there really was one. The nation had recovered from the 1973 oil shock and nobody anticipated the Iranian revolution yet. As Schulman states, “The Baptist moralist in Carter found the irresponsible waste of precious resources morally repugnant, while the nuclear engineer in him believed that careful study and, yes, comprehensive action could solve the problem.”28 Thus, Carters issues were largely opposite of Nixon’s. His intent was never in question, but his methods seemed largely ineffective. Kalman expounds on the reasons why this was so, in regards to his comprehensive energy bill. Simply, Carter prized efficiency, which meant producing his energy bill outside the purview of Congress, which backfired immensely, as it “alienated key legislators.”29

President Carter also made moves in foreign policy that, while not serving his reelection campaign well, showed that he was anything but the empty headed peanut farmer that history has made him out to be. Perhaps the most significant move that he would make was rhetorical. Up until his presidency, détente had been prime, with national interests chief among policy goals.

President Carter, however, would change the rhetoric, in a continuation of Ford’s stump for human rights in Helsinki. Sargent argues that Carter was a firm believer in the primacy of human rights for his foreign policy, positing that the United States “would meddle in the internal affairs of foreign countries if human rights concerns warranted it doing so. This was a bold commitment and a striking departure from Washington’s previous diplomatic stance.”30 Schulman, Kalman, Sargent, and Borstelmann all agree that Carter’s moralism was oftentimes a detriment to the enacting of his policies, but it also meant that he was tenacious in pursuing what he believed to be the right thing. He even went so far as to have the Presidential Directive on Human Rights made which, in Sargent’s words, “presumed a capacious, threefold definition of human rights.”31 What this demonstrates is not a bumbling president but a man committed to an ideal. In foreign policy, at least, that ideal would largely be upended by external factors. 

The event that came to define the latter part of the Carter presidency was the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which was largely unexpected. The Shah of Iran had been unpopular for years, but nobody expected a fundamentalist theocracy under the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini to take power and kidnap the staff of the American embassy in Tehran. Kalman brings to light that, when Carter was debating whether to grant the exiled shah amnesty, which would surely have enraged the new government, he expressed doubts. She quotes him as stating that “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?”32 Sure enough, that is exactly what happened. Not long after that, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and, while Carter may have overreacted to this, react was all he could do, as Sargent argues. In his words, “strategic reevaluation and adjustment followed the failure of initial strategic concepts to encompass realities more vexing and diffuse than early strategic designs permitted.”33

Many of the criticisms embodied by Oliphant’s political cartoons are quite easily justifiable. Nixon was indeed paranoid and never happy. Ford was arguably in over his head. Carter approached many scenarios with a certain amount of idealistic naiveté, but such caricatures tend to obfuscate the true nature of their presidencies and thus, the 1970’s. It is quite easy to lambast their situations in retrospect, but each had to deal with monumental issues. In

Nixon’s case, a reorganization of the postwar order was at the fore. Ford was the placeholder president who was saddled with stagflation and the aftermath of Watergate. Carter had to deal with many events that were out of his control. While these themes were not necessarily the prime goals that Kalman, Schulman, Borstelmann, and Sargent had when they wrote their books, the stories that they weave nonetheless tell the tale of three men placed in an unenviable role and forced to do what they could in the circumstances. Each made relatively monumental mistakes, but with scholars showing that the 1970’s were not so simple as many would like to assume, one must take into account that these mistakes, which have been caricatured in works like Oliphant’s, did not make up the totality of their tenures nor the times in which they governed. On the last page of his book, Sargent quotes Reinhold Niebuhr as stating that “Even the most powerful nations and even the wisest planners of the future remain themselves caricatures as well as creators of the historical process.”34 What his and the varying accounts of Schulman, Kalman, and Borstelmann show is that this was undoubtedly true for the leaders of the 1970’s. 


  1. Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2001), xii.
  2. Ibid., 1.
  3. Ibid., 28. 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 35. 
  6. Ibid., 38.
  7. Thomas Borstelmann, The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 152.
  8. Ibid., 31.
  9. Daniel Sargent, A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 37.
  10. Ibid., 53.
  11. Ibid., 80. 
  12. Ibid., 76.
  13. Laura Kalman, Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 42.
  14. Ibid., 43.
  15. Ibid., 50.
  16. Ibid., 61.
  17. Borstelmann, 38.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 110.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Sargent, 218-219.
  22. Kalman, 224.
  23. Schulman, 132.
  24. Ibid., 141.
  25. Borstelmann 149. 
  26. Ibid.
  27. Borstelmann, 151.
  28. Schulman, 126.
  29. Kalman, 204.
  30. Sargent, 251.
  31. Ibid., 253.
  32. Kalman, 337.
  33. Sargent, 291.
  34. Ibid., 310.


Borstelmann, Thomas. The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2012.

Kalman, Laura. Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980. New York : W.W. Norton. 2010.

Sargent, Daniel. A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2015.

Schulman, Bruce. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. 2001.