- A Companion to Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Cartered. by Scott Kaufman
The 1970s, a decade once considered lost years when "it seemed like nothing happened," are now receiving considerable attention from scholars. Recent notable works by Thomas Borstelmann, Jefferson Cowie, Michael Stewart Foley, Laura Kalman, Rick Perlstein, Daniel T. Rodgers, Dominic Sandbrook, Daniel J. Sargent, Judith Stein, Francis Wheen, and others have examined the 1970s as a decade of profound change in the United States and the larger world. A Companion to Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, which joins the magisterial Wiley Blackwell Companions to American History series, examines the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate presidencies of Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter through a sweeping collection of essays.
Given their respective political affiliations, Ford and Carter are, at first glance, a strange pairing for a combined volume. Yet both were, as this volume's editor Scott Kaufman argues in his introduction, "unlikely candidates to sit in the Oval Office" (p. 2). Ford remains the only president who was not elected, and Carter was the ultimate Washington, D.C., outsider. The former was an amiable and popular football star who led the University of Michigan Wolverines to back-to-back undefeated seasons and national championships. As a congressman, he aspired to become the Speaker of the House, a goal he was unable to achieve in Democrat-dominated Congresses, and he ascended to the vice presidency in 1973 amid the numerous scandals within the Richard M. Nixon administration. Carter, in contrast, was the son of a peanut farmer and [End Page 227]worked as a naval engineer before entering politics in the 1960s, rising through the Georgia legislature and becoming governor in 1971. Both men are arguably better known for their post-presidency contributions to various causes than for their presidencies, which are often rated by historians as two of the most unpopular administrations in modern history. In its entirety, this volume offers a compelling assessment of the limits of presidential power and the importance of effective communication with the American people by the nation's chief executive.
The collection includes thirty essays and a brief introduction by Kaufman, author of Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration(DeKalb, Ill., 2009). The essays span the entirety of both Ford's and Carter's lives and offer diverse perspectives along with opportunities for future research. The volume begins with two framing essays, one on the limits of détente and the other an overview of politics and popular culture in the 1970s. Vanessa Walker argues for incorporating wider multiarchival research to broaden our understanding of the United States and the world, and Bradford Martin argues that popular culture in the 1970s remains an underdeveloped area of historical research. Two biographical essays discuss Ford and Carter, respectively, before their presidencies, allowing readers to see the evolution of both men as they found their way in the political arena. Intriguing essays on intelligence, various foreign policy issues, and the prodigious post-presidency years of both men follow.
What emerges through these essays is a struggle within the very ethos of the United States to find itself in the wake of the tumultuous 1960s. Ford and Carter epitomize an era when the nation was stumbling in the dark and searching for an identity. The collapse of the Cold War consensus, the status quo challenges of the civil rights movement and the counterculture, the unsettling Watergate scandal, the end of the United States' access to cheap fossil fuels, and the death of U.S. dominance abroad fueled a decade of uncertainty, introspection, and questioning. It is no wonder that Ford's and Carter's presidencies were similarly uncertain, as both men faced numerous crises at home and abroad while negotiating with an increasingly hostile Congress that wished to check presidential power after years of excess and scandal in the executive branch. These two men were the wavering bridge between the idealistic...