President Biden’s recent visit with former President Carter in Georgia was fitting: The two men are both among the phoniest presidents in our history.
Mr. Biden pulled a colossal bait-and-switch by campaigning as a moderate and now governing as a left-wing president, leading New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to praise him for exceeding progressives’ expectations.
Similarly, Jimmy Carter won the presidency by posing as a compassionate man who cares about the so-called little people, but he actually was such a nasty man that he told Secret Service agents and uniformed officers he did not want them to greet him on his way to the Oval Office.
The presidency “is a place of compassion,” President Carter said in accepting his nomination for a second term at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. “My own heart is burdened for the troubled Americans. The poor and the jobless and the afflicted …”
Behind the scenes, it was a different story.
“Carter was just very short and rude most of the time,” a Secret Service agent recalls. “With agents, he’d just pretend like you were not around. You’d say hello, and he’d just look at you, like you weren’t there, like you were bothering him.”
Mr. Carter would carry his own luggage when traveling to project an image of himself as a man of the people, but that was another charade. When he was a candidate in 1976, Mr. Carter would carry his own bags when the press was around but would ask the Secret Service to carry them the rest of the time.
Mr. Carter — code-named Deacon — repeated the ruse as president.
“When he was traveling, he would get on the helicopter and fly to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base,” says former Secret Service agent Cliff Baranowski. “He would roll up his sleeves and carry his bag over his shoulder, but it was empty. He wanted people to think he was carrying his own bag.”
Mr. Carter regularly made a show of arriving early at the Oval Office to call attention to how hard he was working for the American people.
“He would walk into the Oval Office at 6 a.m., do a little work for half an hour, then close the curtains and take a nap,” says Robert B. Sulliman Jr., who was on Mr. Carter’s detail. “His staff would tell the press he was working.”
“When he was in a bad mood, you didn’t want to bring him anything,” a former Secret Service agent says. “It was this hunkered-down attitude: ‘I’m running the show.’ It was as if he didn’t trust anyone around him. He had that big smile, but when he was in the White House, it was a different story.”
Indeed, agent John Piasecky was on Mr. Carter’s detail for three and a half years. That included seven months of driving him in the presidential limousine. Aside from giving directions, Mr. Carter never spoke to him, he says.
“The only time I saw a smile on Carter’s face was when the cameras were going,” says former agent George Schmalhofer, who was assigned periodically to the Carter detail.
Nor did Mr. Carter have much use for the military. Even though he was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Mr. Carter “talked down to the military, just talked like they didn’t know what they were talking about,” a former agent says.
Perhaps because of his aversion to the military, Mr. Carter refused to let the military aide with the nuclear football stay in a nearby trailer when he was visiting his home in Plains.
“Carter did not want the nuclear football at Plains,” a former agent says. “There was no place to stay in Plains. The military wanted a trailer there. He didn’t want that. So the military aide had to stay in Americus,” a town that is a 17-minute drive from Mr. Carter’s home.
Terrence Adamson, Mr. Carter’s lawyer, denied that Mr. Carter refused to let the military aide stay near his residence. But Bill Gulley, who was in charge of operations as director of the White House Military Office, confirmed it.
In that respect, Mr. Biden mirrored Mr. Carter. As detailed in my book “The First Family Detail,” to make a show of being a man of the people, when returning to his home in Wilmington often several times a week, Mr. Biden as vice president would order the Secret Service vehicle with the military aide who carries the nuclear football to remain at least a mile behind him in the motorcade.
Even in normal traffic, if President Obama had been taken out, the military aide could not have furnished the football to Mr. Biden in time to launch a counterstrike to avoid the obliteration of the U.S.
• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.”
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