Mary E. Stuckey


On her book Jimmy Carter,Human Rights,and the National Agenda

Cover Interview of June 28, 2009

In a nutshell

There is a strong belief in the media and among scholars that the best way to lead is by focusing clearly and consistently on one idea at a time.  That if a president wants to influence policy, he must articulate one clear and coherent argument about that policy until it gets past.  Bill Clinton, for instance, said he would focus on the economy “like a laser beam.”  But I think it’s more complicated than that.  Jimmy Carter, Human Rights, and the National Agenda shows how presidents can influence policy and public opinion in other ways.

Jimmy Carter put human rights at the center of his administration, and was sharply criticized by both the Right and the Left for how he managed human rights policy.  He didn’t get a lot of what he wanted in the short term.  But in the long term, he has proven to be enormously influential, and human rights remain an important component of policy.  So this book offers a different model of presidential leadership, one that focuses on how presidents may be understood as failing in the short term, but actually succeeding in the long term.

Carter put human rights on the national agenda and did so in such a way that human rights are still there.  Carter did this because the issue was already on the agenda in a small way—people had begun to talk about human rights issues when Carter became president.  Second, as president, Carter spoke about the topic all the time, giving it a prominence it could not have had without him.  Third, he spoke about human rights in particular kinds of ways.  Fourth, the term itself resonated so well with long-standing American values and beliefs.  Fifth, Carter established an administrative bureaucracy for human rights that meant human rights would live on in the executive branch after he left office.

I argue that presidential leadership is about more than giving speeches or signing laws; it’s a complicated combination of both.