America in Carter's Second Term

2023 Best Cold War to Contemporary Timeline

This is not about creating some liberal utopia. If it were, Jimmy Carter would not be my choice. The archetypal “liberal” president deregulated industries at the expense of unions, decided to dramatically increase the Pentagon’s budget while sacrificing an opportunity for national health insurance because of its cost, opposed a minimum wage increase, and formulated an energy policy that relied heavily on the widespread use of coal. None of these would fare well in a Democratic primary today. But, at the same time, Carter seemed far to the left in other ways. He wanted universal same-day voter registration, and he proposed it at the start of his first term. He wanted to tax capital gains at the same rate as wage income. He rejected tax cuts for the rich. That deregulation I mentioned earlier was all part of helping the consumer — at the expense of big business interests (unions were collateral, not the intended object of Carter’s ire). And that energy plan that relied on coal also invested significantly in solar and wind energies. He appointed more women and people of color to the federal bench than all of his predecessors combined.

But beyond this complicated legislative legacy is another stunning fact about our 39th president. He never told a lie. Not once did the press corps catch him in some outright untruth. And they tried. And yes, he was prone to some exaggeration here and there, but he never lied. Whether you read Jonathan Alter’s biography of him, or Rick Perlstein’s account of his presidency, or Kai Bird’s biography of him, that fact isn’t in dispute. He promised the people he wouldn’t lie to them, and he didn’t. He made mistakes — yes. He kept Bert Lance around too long — heck, he appointed him in the first place. He eschewed the norms of Washington, believing he could treat Congress — a legislative body of more than 500 full-time legislators — like the Georgia state legislature that convened for a fraction of the time. He thought he could handle the presidency without a chief of staff. And he worried too little about the political outcomes, rarely considering that particular policies may be popular for a reason.

Jimmy Carter is a lot of things, but he is not the simple caricature I learned about from the history books or from the conventional wisdom when I was growing up. He is not a big government liberal who drove our economy into the ground. He was not a hapless president in over his head watching the world pass him by. He did not spend his presidency prioritizing the White House tennis court schedule over the affairs of state.

Like a lot of us, I hate being lied to. And I grew up learning a certain historical canon — that Jimmy Carter was a failure. But when a car accident happens and a seatbelt saves the driver’s life, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Jimmy Carter wasn’t a total failure. When I sip a drink at a craft brewery, there’s pretty good reason to believe Jimmy Carter didn’t totally screw up on the job. When a family can afford to fly on a plane for their vacation, when impoverished Americans are able to access food stamps without first purchasing a physical stamp, when Americans watched the Soviet Union fall apart — all of these are instances when someone should have said, “Hey. Jimmy Carter wasn’t a failure.” But no one did. And few do today.

We are in the midst of a national reexamination of Jimmy Carter The President. We’ve always appreciated Jimmy Carter The Man. Jimmy Carter The Ex-President. Jimmy Carter The Humanitarian. But now we are reconsidering Jimmy Carter The President, and I think that’s important. Not because he was the best or most successful president. Not because he was a perfect president, or even a nearly-perfect one, but because we’ve been lied to for so long. We’ve been told that Jimmy Carter is synonymous with failure, with disaster. That he is proof positive that liberal ideas don’t work, when, in fact, Carter was one of the last presidents to face a major primary challenge because he wasn’t liberal enough for the Democrats of the day.

No, Jimmy Carter cannot be fit into a box, and that’s precisely why I felt compelled to consider what his second term may have looked like. I’ve read a lot of timelines on this board, but I believe the best ones are when the author makes a controversial decision — one that goes against the standard groupthink — and then is able to convince you to see their premise in a new light. I enjoy the timelines when ‘plausibility’ does not mean a simple straight line. For a man as paradoxical as Jimmy Carter, there is a lot to work with and a lot of decisions to consider. As I’ve written the timeline, I’ve been nervous, wondering to myself, Would Jimmy Carter really do that? But the reason Carter is such a fascinating subject for alternate history is because there are so many ways you could answer. My ultimate hope is that this alternate history shows you something about him that his biographers couldn’t.

Of course, he had some ingrained traits. He was self-assured. He often thought he was the smartest person in the room. But even some of his most characteristically Carter beliefs — his love of peace, for example — were not absolute. He was no pacifist. He considered military intervention throughout his presidency before deciding against it. He wanted to take on big business and expand the social safety net without ballooning government spending. Which side won out with him? Hard to say. Conservatives will tell you the former. Liberals will argue the latter. And this is why his second term deserves a thorough examination. In fact, it deserves multiple thorough examinations.

If there was one North Star I kept while researching this timeline, it would be a quote from @Yes in his introduction of McGoverning: “The best fantasists, on the other hand, weave altered worlds then drop real souls in them, where they behave in the fresh landscape as real souls would. That’s the goal here. Things change, but Things change. People don’t stop being themselves (at least the ones already born when we start.)” There is no better advice for the alternate historian, but it is especially important to keep in mind when dealing with Jimmy Carter. As I tinkered with points of divergence and the 1979-1980 portion of this timeline, I kept going back to this quotation. In some ways, Carter is the best subject for this, and in some ways the worst. He is a man of contradictions, and in showing you other decisions he may have made, I have sought only to illustrate his complexity — not to change his character.

I thought about an early point of divergence — getting rid of Bert Lance. But there’s no way Jimmy Carter goes to Washington without one of his closest personal advisers, especially while Charlie Kirbo stayed home. I considered having Carter embrace Kennedy’s plan for national health insurance, but there is simply no way to persuade Jimmy Carter, in the environment of the 1970s economy, to buy-in to a plan the spent that much money, even though his heart wanted to give healthcare to all Americans. I have enjoyed reading and listening to Walter Mondale recount his time as vice president. He is almost aghast — still — that you were never able to persuade Carter based on political reasoning. It’s not hard to find ways to make George Bush or Gerald Ford two-term presidents. You go back in time, tinker with the advisers, have them include a question in a poll they might have missed and you manipulate it so the president sees the path to the second term. But you can’t do that with Carter, because Carter wasn’t driven by finding a path to a second term — only I was.

All of this is to say, I’ve long believed someone had to do Jimmy Carter justice. And I’m glad that Jonathan Alter and Kai Bird have done their part. Now, it’s time to bring the reexamination of Carter The President to Of course, my version will not be definitive, but I hope it gets us to look at the possibility of a second Carter term in a real way. Again, the goal is not some kind of grand liberal erasure of Reagan. That timeline (which I often dream of) is more about going back to the ’76 election, re-electing Ford or nominating Mo Udall — anything to get a traditional liberal Democrat in office to preside over the prosperity of the 1980s. This isn’t that timeline. Jimmy Carter’s second isn’t going to be fun for Ted Kennedy or most Democrats, and it won’t even be that fun for Jimmy Carter, but I hope it’s fun for all of us as we consider what might have been.


“No one can know what ‘would have been,’ but with a new beginning and the millstone of the captive hostages removed, we would have continued our strong commitment to energy conservation, maintained our nation’s determined effort to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors, and kept our national budgets in balance.”
-Jimmy Carter

"We told the truth. We obeyed the law. We kept the peace."
-Walter Mondale

"But in truth, Carter is sometimes perceived as a failure simply because he refused to make us feel good about the country. He insisted on telling us what was wrong and what it would take to make things better. And for most Americans, it was easier to label the messenger ‘a failure’ than to grapple with the hard problems."
-Kai Bird in The Outlier (2021)
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Author's Note and Acknowledgements


Author’s Note & Acknowledgements

Many of you know that my Amalfi Coast Villa in the test threads forum is littered with crumpled up points of divergences. There’s “Chasing Camelot,” where Kennedy survives, only to be engulfed in scandal. There’s “Nixon: Profile of a Car Salesman.” I’ve always wanted to do this one — a timeline where Nixon is a used car salesman and comments on the alternate timeline he finds himself in. There are more modern takes, like “Havoc” and “The Dog Who Caught the Bus” that deal with the War on Terror. There’s “A Snake At Sky’s Ranch,” the timeline in which Ronald Reagan loses to Gary Hart in 1984. And there are truly countless others.

But three timeline ideas have always stuck in my mind. The first is “Dah,” or “The United States of Amnesia.” It’s a world in which Gore Vidal is motivated to run for Senate in 1964 against Bobby Kennedy. His entry compels William Buckley to get into it as well, and we’re left with a messy Senate race in which Gore Vidal emerges as the next U.S. Senator from New York.

The other two deal with my favorite period of history: the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve already attempted one. “Passkey Down” — the timeline in which Squeaky Fromme is successful, Gerald Ford is assassinated, and Nelson Rockefeller assumes the presidency.

The last one, though, is my real passion, and we’re about to embark on it together.

I’ve always found Jimmy Carter to be a remarkable man — a man of contradictions, a man who so defies the political orthodoxies of our current politics. He was a man who rode into office on the back of the Religious Right, only to find himself swallowed by it in 1980. He was, simply, too honest for the job he had. I really believe he was too good a man to do it well.

I guess part of me has always felt that he got the short end of the stick, and while I am always happy to write a timeline where America is spared the rise of the Religious Right, this is not really that, nor is it some liberal panacea. I didn’t set out to make some ideological point with this timeline. I just think Jimmy Carter got dealt a bad hand, and so I thought I’d deal him a slightly better one and see where it goes.

Before I give thanks to the friends on this site who got this project off the ground, I want to shout out Rick Perlstein, who has influenced my view of history more than any of the textbook authors I stumbled upon in high school or college. His ability to connect the cultural and the political, his ability to draw the line from one event straight through to the Religious Right’s takeover of the Republican Party, inspired this project in many ways, and the publication of Reaganland encouraged me to really take up this project in a more earnest way than I had before.

I also want to take a moment to thank my girlfriend. We’ve just moved in to a new place together, and she has been patient and understanding as I’ve slipped away to feverishly type some 30,000 words in the last month or so. I owe a lot of people on this site for their support and guidance, but I would not have the time to spend here if I did not have a supportive partner in my real life.

Now for those we know a bit more personally, who graciously spent hours discussing and debating aspects of the timeline and offering their counsel.

First, to @Yes, whose McGoverning has influenced and motivated a great many of us. He played two crucial roles in spurring this timeline. The first was by being the first guest of the Villa to speak up and say that he liked what I had to say in my initial brain dump of Jimmy Two — giving me the confidence that I wasn’t alone in seeing a more successful Carter presidency. He also stepped in and showed me the way when I was agonizing over how to resolve the Hostage Crisis. He provided resources and advice that shaped a central tenet of this world.

Then, of course, came @Oppo, who also influenced the final outcome in a great way. While I had considered a different route altogether — having Thatcher accept the Shah and thereby butterflying the Iranian Hostage Crisis — it was Oppo who pointed out what many of the historians of this time did not put so bluntly: Carter needed the Hostage Crisis to defeat Kennedy in the primary. I soon became convinced of this, and for that I owe a great measure of thanks to Oppo, who prevented me from going down a flawed path.

And, finally, to @Wolfram, who finds it in himself to nod approvingly at every hair-brained POD that floats into my mind. Whether it’s a question about Hillary winning the 2008 Democratic primaries, about Al Qaeda assassinating Bill, or a question about the world we are all about to enter, he has provided reasoned advice that has given me the confidence to re-open Scrivener time and time again. You’ll notice his touch on those chapters that mention two of our favorite Texans.

But really, to all of you who comment, message, and post: Thank you. We’ve found ourselves a cool little corner of the internet. I’m humbled to be here.

In conclusion, I can only quote the advice (from whom we do not know, though it is often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway) that most made this timeline possible — yes, even more than messages from Yes about the Hostage Crisis and Oppo about the Kennedy primary:

Write drunk; edit sober.​
My heart is full of joy that this is happening. Full. And that this TL is in the hands that it is.
Welp, that’s a followed thread if I’ve ever seen one. If anyone can do this scenario justice, it’s definitely on you. Real curious how you got here, because really there’s a hell of a lot of ways. Either way, HELL YES, THE GRIN WILL WIN AGAIN
Been lurking in the test threads for some time, very glad to see this timeline come to fruition! So excited to see what you've cooked up!




“We haven't done one thing in this Administration that has gotten us votes. Every issue that Jimmy Carter has taken on has lost us votes.”
-Evan Dobelle, Carter campaign chairman​

January 20, 1985
The White House — Washington, DC

Jimmy Carter entered the Oval Office for his final time as president. Gone were the paintings and photographs that marked his time in this room. The portrait of George Washington that once hung over the fireplace had already been moved. His personal photographs — of Rosalynn, of Amy, of the boys — had been packed away for his return flight to Plains. He approached the Resolute Desk and slowly dragged his fingertips across it. Anyone who had expected it to be empty had learned nothing about the man who occupied this room for the last eight years.

On Carter’s desk stood a gargantuan stack of papers — pardons and commutations all. Most of them involved nonviolent drug offenders. The pardons were for those who had used marijuana. The commutations for more than 50 Americans, many of whom men of color, who had chosen crack cocaine over powder cocaine. Their sentences were adjusted to be in line with the sentences of those who’d used the powder substance, many of whom were white. He sat down at the desk to sign them.

The sun was creeping through the windows behind him, and as he took a deep breath, he thought back to the events that had transpired in this office. Debates over the Panama Canal Treaties. Conversations about healthcare reform — in both terms. He’d sat in this very chair and delivered a speech that, he believed, redefined his presidency: The Crisis of Confidence speech. Some historians would come to call it the moment when Carter secured his second term. In that moment, Carter just thought about the land he’d promised the American people, and the future they’d worked together to achieve.

He came to this room when he learned that Americans in Iran had been taken hostage, and he was here — behind this desk — when he learned they’d been released. He’d discussed energy policy with Congressional leaders, urged them to act on Social Security reform, and pleaded with them to stop racking up the country’s debt. He’d sat in this very room and made decisions about not one but two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court — to say nothing of the countless men and women he’d named to the federal judiciary. In his first term alone, he’d appointed more women, more African-Americans, and more Hispanics to the federal judiciary than all of his predecessors combined. He continued that legacy into his second term.

He’d been the first American president to confront the scourge of AIDS. He’d learned of political assassinations in this room. He’d sought to normalize relations with China and with Cuba. He’d debated Tip O’Neill and O’Neill’s successor, Kennedy and Dole, Baker and Byrd. He’d met newer members of Congress and state officials in whom he placed great hope for the Democratic Party’s future, leaders like Bill Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, and Mickey Leland.

Most of all, he’d addressed the deep dissatisfaction that Americans held about their politicians — about Washington. He showed them it was possible for a president to serve not just four but eight full years without ever telling a lie.

Carter thought of all these accomplishments as he signed the pardons and commutations.

With each signature, he grew more grateful for the American people who had placed him in this office. He had been an improbable president — a president who took advantage of the new nominating process and, after winning two close elections, found himself with the most powerful of offices. Not bad for a boy from Plains. Not bad for Earl Carter’s son.

After he’d finished signing the final one, knowing the headache it would cause his successor, he capped his pen and rose from the desk. With his hands in his pockets, he looked again at the room, knowing it was time to go.

But Jimmy Carter had not been born into privilege. He had not gotten here easily, and he had not held onto the office without difficulty. His years had tried the American spirit. He’d never unearthed the secret to economic miracles. Instead, he sought valiantly to balance the budget and practice the fiscal restraint he thought would set the country on a prosperous course.

His final four years in office were dominated by the thought of what would happen in the Year 2000, when America welcomed a new century — a new millennium. He wondered what the politics of the nation would be, yes, but more importantly, he wondered what the state of the planet would be. He’d touched on this in his 1980 Convention address, his Inaugural address, and just last week in his farewell address to the nation. The boy from Plains was always looking to the future.

He neared the door that would take him along the walkway, beside the Rose Garden, and to the Residence. Rosalynn was getting dressed for the Inauguration of Carter’s successor. They were expected to welcome the president-elect in less than an hour.

Jimmy Carter knew it was time to go, but even he did not understand the extent to which he had shaped the nation in his image. His fiscal restraint and preference for peace had made possible a balanced budget — a reality that would alter the platforms of both major political parties. His defeat of the Moral Majority in 1980 did more to advance the causes of equality than he — or anyone — could imagine. He would live to see another seven presidents inaugurated — including an African-American and a woman. He’d be alive for the national legalization of marijuana for recreational use, witness the legalization of same-sex marriage, watch the fall of Communism, and before he left the Earth, he’d be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Historians would call him one of the most consequential presidents in history. Some would praise his steady hand, others would say he squandered a time period that was ripe for progressive advancement. Environmentalists would say his achievements dwarfed those of Theodore Roosevelt. Conservatives would never forgive him for robbing them of what might have been.

On that bitterly cold day — when the inauguration would be forced inside — Jimmy Carter knew not what history would make of him or his administration, but he knew what he wanted them to say. He wanted them to say that Jimmy Carter had changed Washington. Only time will tell. So, he turned and looked once more at the Oval Office, closing his eyes and breathing in deeply — inhaling eight years of budget negotiations, bill signings, television addresses, and all the rest, and then slowly exhaling. They weren’t his problems anymore. He was about to be a former president. And then he closed the door behind him.

After eight difficult years, he was leaving with the begrudging respect of the American populace. He awaited a brief respite in Plains, but he knew that it would not be long before he launched into his post-presidency. He was excited about what lay ahead for him and for Rosalynn. He believed to his core that there was just one title in the American republic superior to that of President, and he was ready to don it once more: Citizen.

July 2, 1979
R Street — Washington, DC

Like most Americans, Jody Powell was having trouble filling up his car. He sat in line waiting — as did most folks in the summer of 1979 — until he drove to another gas station and then another. Finally, at the third station, he decided Fuck it and chose to wait it out instead of trekking across town to another place. And so he sat. And sat. For an hour. All the while, the radio blasted reports about what a horrible, no-good job his boss — and by extension Jody himself — was doing. In other words, a perfectly pleasant way to spend your Saturday afternoon. With a fury, Powell struck the radio, changing the station and replacing the somber reports on the state of the union with rambunctious music.

Powell was on the way to spend the day at R Street Beach — the bachelor pad (complete with a pool) owned by Pat Caddell, his colleague and the president’s pollster. There was a fratiness to the locale, where coke flowed freely (some wondered if it shouldn’t be named Powder Mountain instead) and buxom blondes and brunettes wandered in scantily-clad bikinis to the amusement of the White House staffers, Congressional aides, young associate lawyers, and other young men who — somehow — had been given the role of steering the ship of state. Some of the women were secretaries, some paralegals, some lawyers or lobbyists in their own right, and some — well, nobody knew where some of them came from. One would be forgiven if they searched (unsuccessfully) for some Greek letters on the door.

When Powell finally got to the pump, he looked at the price and sighed. “Goddamnit, Jimmy,” he muttered to himself before searching to make sure nobody had heard him. The gas flowed. His car started. And off he went — to the R Street Beach.

Powell, 35, showed up and parked his car — hearing the crowd before seeing it. As he opened the door, there was no Caddell to greet him. Caddell was somewhere among the masses. No matter. Powell found his way to the pool, doing a double take as one of those buxom brunettes, talking to the president’s right-hand man, Hamilton Jordan, asked the second-most-powerful man in Washington, “So, what’s your major?” Powell shook his head but grinned. He was married, but Jordan (infamously) was not, and his colleague took the question as a sign to wrap-up the conversation. Probably too young. He called for Jody.

“You didn’t want to tell her it was political science?” the press secretary snickered.

“I think ‘was’ is the operative word in that sentence,” Jordan replied. “Have you seen Caddell?”

“I just got here.”

“What the hell took you so long?”

Powell looked him in the eyes and sighed with his own, “Well, [Hamilton], I hate to tell you this, but I had to sit in line for an hour to get gas.”

Jordan’s smile widened. “Aw buddy! Only an hour! That ain’t too bad these days,” he said, the sarcasm practically flowing onto Powell’s shirt like oil from a well. “You should tell Reagan it only took an hour.”

The pair set out to find Caddell. Their eyes sought out curves and then trailed north, hoping to find Caddell’s face across from the woman holding court. They had no such luck. Caddell was not shirtless by the pool or downing shots at the kitchen counter. He was behind the shut door of his bedroom frantically working on a 107-page memo for the President of the United States — all while Georgetown students ripped shots and dove into the pool just steps away. Caddell was but a few years older (having been born in 1950), but while the co-eds frivolously spent their Saturday, he was putting the finishing touches on what would become one of the most consequential memos ever handed to a President of the United States.

The president had already seen what the original Caddell put together — a 75-page rambling titled “Of Crisis and Opportunity.” He didn’t embrace it, but he didn’t dismiss it outright as Walter Mondale, the vice president, had. In fact, the memo had sent Mondale into such a flurry that he was considering removing himself from the ticket in 1980 or resigning from the office at once.

When Jordan and Powell finally located Caddell, he was muttering the same words he’d been repeating for more than a month. They floated through the air as Caddell paced: “malaise,” “crisis,” “confidence — crisis of confidence,” “reshape,” “Lincoln,” “political and social fabric,” “Roosevelt,” “fundamental.” The final draft, to which Caddell was nearing, would total more than 100 pages, urge the president to deliver a philosophical address to the nation, and — perhaps most outlandishly — call on him to convene a Second Constitutional Convention. Powell, who was with Caddell on a lot of his argument, thought that went a bridge too far.

“Pat, let’s go!” Jordan called. “Come have a beer and talk this all over with us.”

Caddell waved them off. “I’m almost done. I need to get this to the president.”

Jordan rolled his eyes. “Well, we’ll be out there,” he said.

• • •​

While Jordan and Powell enjoyed their Saturday, Caddell remained holed up in his bedroom working on the memo. He’d read the poll numbers more times than he could count. Carter’s personal favorability ratings had been turned on their head. Almost no president had seen such a stunning drop in personal favorability — even as job approval numbers danced along the graph. Simply put, Carter couldn’t win reelection with these numbers. He had to inspire the American people. Validate and direct their anger. Give them a reason to hope again. All of it was too much — the waiting in lines, the talk of inflation, the lack of jobs, the culture wars over the ERA and gay rights. People were tired of all of it and just as Watergate had launched a peanut farmer into the White House, the seemingly permanent distrust of government it sowed threatened to make him a one-term president. Pat Caddell knew he had identified the problem.

He also knew that the president could survive this. The polling in the primary was bad, Kennedy would kill Carter if it were accurate, but when it came to the general election, Carter was somehow performing alright — even with depressing personal favorability numbers. In a May poll commissioned by the DNC, Carter led Ford by 5, Reagan by 8, Connally by more than 30-points, Baker by more than 20-points. If every other number was this bad, but he still beat the Republicans than there was hope yet for the scrappy peanut farmer who had already found his way into the Oval Office once.

Carter needed a reset moment. A bold speech to turn the corner. The problems went beyond the energy crisis or inflation. Voters saw them, but they could overlook them if only they believed in Carter. Mondale and the others who thought Caddell was a loon were the real loons. You didn’t need the best plans or the best policies to win an election. You needed people to believe that you’d do the best job — and they didn’t come to that decision because of policy memos or position papers, they came to that conclusion because they had a feeling inside them that told them to go ahead and trust you. And Carter’s only chance to reset the narrative — to get the American people to trust him in that way — was to deliver a primetime address that was boldly honest.

Caddell even suggested a sort of promotional tour to advertise the speech. The White House should announce the president was going off to an undisclosed location. Powell could tell the press that the president was gone, there wasn’t any crisis, he’d just decided to do something he’d wanted to do for a very long time, and then Powell could refuse to take questions. No American would dare miss such a speech. And then, with the whole nation watching, Carter could talk to them about the crisis of confidence they had and inspire them to overcome it.

The president had already decided to give a speech on July 5th, but it was set to be a traditional address on the energy crisis. Caddell knew what to expect: a speech laden with intricate assessments of the problem, uninspiring legislation to fix it, and an audience that couldn’t care less — even as they waited for hours in line to get gas. No, it wouldn’t do. If Carter wanted to win this upcoming election, he had to give a different speech. Caddell banked everything on the memo, even took a first pass at what the speech might say, and sent it off to make sure the president had it when he arrived at Camp David on July 4th for a day of rest. It would be Caddell’s final chance to convince the president he was right — and for Carter to give the kind of speech that could save his presidency.

As he put the finishing touches on the memo, a young woman - the daughter of an influential lobbyist - pushed her way into the room, begging Caddell to finish the memo and entertain her. Caddell was not conventionally attractive, but he had access to power and in Washington access to power was attractive. As Gore Vidal once famously said, “Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” And so it was for Caddell in those glorious days of the Carter administration, when he brought actress Lauren Bacall to Carter’s inaugural ball (and went home with her afterwards) and went on more than a few dates with Christie Hefner, the daughter of Hugh. As for the young lady currently wrapping her arms around Caddell, the pollster insisted he needed more time to finish the memo. “Please,” he begged, “it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.” But as she persisted, Caddell relented. “Fine,” he said, pulling down his swim shorts and unbuttoning his shirt. Such was the life of this young Carter staffer.

• • •​

When Caddell finally stumbled out of the bedroom an hour-and-a-half later when everything (and everyone) was finished, he found Jordan on the couch in the living room, watching others snort coke while he looked on. “Atta boy, Jordan!” Caddell said. “You can join them, ya know!” Jordan glared at Caddell. The media had (falsely) reported that he’d frequently availed himself of the powdery substance — and it was a source of agony for the young staffer. Caddell put up both his hands as if to say, Hey, I didn’t write Cronkite’s story for him. And he mosied to the kitchen. Jordan got up to join him.

“When are you going to give it to him?”

“He wants to read it on the 4th — when he’s in Camp David.”

Jordan nodded. “You’ve got Mondale pretty fucking pissed, Pat.”

“Mondale has me pretty fucking pissed, Ham.”

“The difference is Walter Mondale is the vice president, and you’re not.”

“The difference is Walter Mondale is never going to be the fucking president, and I advise the one we’ve got now. Goddamnit, don’t you people see? This is a deeper issue. This is a big problem. This is something we’ve gotta do something about.”

“I’m just saying, you’ve got Mondale pretty pissed. He’s talking about quitting.”

“Oh shut the fuck up,” Caddell said, pushing Jordan’s shoulder, “There’s no way that egotistical Hubert Humphrey wannabe is going to quit the vice presidency. Besides, we couldn’t get that fucking lucky in this administration. Without Mondale we could pick someone who’d get us votes.”

Jordan rolled his eyes. He viewed the possibility of a Mondale resignation with doom. It would be a disaster for Carter, he thought, and prove that the president couldn’t handle Washington. No, they couldn’t afford to let Mondale go. And Caddell’s attitude wasn’t helping diffuse the situation.

“Alright, well get the president your memo, will ya?"

“It’s all done,” Caddell said, a grin creeping across his face. “Signed, sealed, delivered — well, not delivered. I’ll do that in the morning.”

Caddell may have sounded crazy — and some of his ideas certainly were — but he had tapped into a reality that the Georgia Mafia had not yet come to terms with. Yes, there were a number of problems in America right now. Gas lines were long. Unemployment was on the rise. Inflation was devaluing people’s savings. But Jimmy Carter had done a lot of things right. He’d been calling for solutions to the energy problem. He negotiated peace in the Middle East. He was pushing for the decriminalization of cannabis. His deregulation of the airline industry had made air travel affordable for the middle class in a way it hadn’t been before. But none of this seemed to matter to most Americans. Instead, they remained at war with themselves.

So while Walter Fucking Mondale and Hamilton Jordan dicked around, Caddell was tapping into a broader problem. They wanted another speech. Another typical speech. Something that identified a problem and proposed a legislative solution. But Jimmy Carter had solutions. He was the smartest goddamn president the country had had in a long while, and people didn’t like him. The country needed to feel something again — like they did with Kennedy.

Carter was not an “Ask not” kind of president, but he did have the potential to talk to the country honestly and ask them to do their part — Hell, maybe he was an “Ask not” president. It was about what people could do for their country. It was about how we were going to overcome these problems together.

But all around people didn’t want to listen. Watergate made them distrust government. The media in the post-Watergate world had become so obsessed with making everything into a scandal (poor Bert Lance) that people were losing faith in it. Churches. Schools. Nobody cared about them anymore. Nobody trusted them anymore. And what was a peanut farmer from Plains to do about it all? Caddell figured he had to give it to ‘em straight. And if they didn’t want to hear it? Well, at least they tried.
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Anyone who had expected it to be empty had learned nothing about the man who occupied this room for the last eight years.

On Carter’s desk stood a gargantuan stack of papers — pardons and commutations all. Most of them involved nonviolent drug offenders. The pardons were for those who had used marijuana. The commutations for more than 50 Americans, many of whom men of color, who had chosen crack cocaine over powder cocaine. Their sentences were adjusted to be in line with the sentences of those who’d used the powder substance, many of whom were white. He sat down at the desk to sign them.
This is an absolutely perfect choice of opening scene.


This is an absolutely perfect choice of opening scene.

High praise. High praise. Thank you!

I have to give credit to Sorkin. I was writing the opening - which I wanted on his last day - and I was like, I should watch Bartlet's last day. Right? That's the closest we could get to really seeing what it was like for them.

So I threw it on the computer with Scrivener opened, and CJ handed him Toby's pardon, and it just sort of came to me. How would Jimmy spend his last day? And it would be exercising his power (his responsibility) until the last second in a way that sends a big message and burdens his immediate predecessor.
Well, at least they tried.
Man, it brings a lil' tear to my eye seeing this project come to start, and start it did! Rocketed off with a bang, indeed!

Oh, Hamilton Jordan, if only you'd remained Carter's political guru and left Jack Watson to be Chief of Staff... but there's still time to shift the course positively.
The Georgia mafia amuse me as much as they irritate me.

Teddy Kennedy is in for a rude awakening in the primary, then, even harsher than OTL.

I hope that mah boi Fritz eventually proves the doubters wrong, Mondale 1984 gang rise up! Heir to the Hump, Norwegian viking of liberalism!

I absolutely loooove that prologue; JIMMEH has been humbled by the presidency, with those 4 more years that OTL (and Jimmy himself, tbf) robbed from us. Such a man of contradictions, indeed, and you've always portrayed that well. Now, now, I would have far preferred a Frank Church or Udall or Bayh type of guy in office in '76, but with the benefit of hindsight Carter was not a bad option that primary year (Scoop would have been worse wrt foreign policy, imo). It deeply impresses me how moral Carter's whole life was, reflected through such a stark contrast in the pardons that warms my heart. Like, compare that to Bush Padre pardoning the Iran-Contra criminals... That is such a great part to think about, how the 80s would shift to more positive consequences long term.

It's really interesting as a thought exercise because Carter only really grew into the office quite late imo, but most of the growing troubles were ironed out and his second term would have been probably rather productive (and tbf, he did pass many things in Congress like the Panama Canal and energy reform and deregulation and etc., just that those were unsexy achievements yet rather important nonetheless in how mundane they are).

I'm so glad you've managed this, pal, it's gonna be a hell of a blast indeed! The Grin Will Win!
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oh, this is gonna be good. might take quite a while for this whole thing to get wrapped up but i can't wait the twists and turns that this'll go through. your work in the test thread is impressive, and if the scrap notes weren't enough to win me over, that opening scene in the White House certainly was! hopefully i'll be able to watch and learn from this too - i'm woefully underread on the late '70s and early '80s beyond the colossus that was the Gipper and the epic realignment he brought upon us all, so this'll be an enlightening experience!
Interested to see where this goes. I’ve always been apathetic towards Carter as a president. Even taking out my progressive bias to the guy I see as the first iteration of the “third way” democrat style I hate so much I just don’t think he’s presidential material. that being said I certainly don’t envy him, 76 is the poisoned chalice of all poisoned chalice. Even in this scenario where he wins in 80. I’ll still feel bad for him a bit because his presidency will be incredibly forgettable and underwhelming.
This? This is good.

interesting premise. An opening scene that gets you hooked. Detailed but not endless prose where things are said but nothing actually fucking happens for 5 paragraphs.

We will watch your career with great interest.