Here is Steve-O-in NJ’s Comment of the Day:
Well, I have plenty to say about Carter, and this I will post the moment they announce his death.
I have only very vague recollections of the Carter administration, since I was a kid in single digits at the time. Two things stick out in my memory, though.
One was myself and my brother, also a young kid at the time, bickering in the beltless back seat of a 70s-vintage chartreuse VW beetle while mom sat in line on Paterson Plank Road thirty cars back from the gas station, waiting for gas so scarce it had to be de facto rationed. This car, purchased as a cheap second vehicle (and frequently made fun of by my classmates) had no air conditioning and that line did not move more than five miles an hour, so it was not possible to use the wind to cool off. There was nothing for us kids to do but swelter and nothing for the adults to do but seethe at the fact that Jimmy Carter’s policies regarding the Middle East and the Persian Gulf had landed us in this pickle, and no relief was in sight. The flip side of that was a bitterly cold winter where we set the heat to 65 degrees because that was all we could afford. His answer? Put on a sweater and turn those extra lights off. It’s one thing to try to do more with less in wartime when you face a designated and (hopefully) beatable threat. It’s another to have a diminished lifestyle because the man elected to lead this country was not doing his job anywhere near as well as he could have and should have been.
The other thing that sticks out in my memory was the daily number. No, not the lottery number, we were never fortunate enough to guess that, and not the Sesame Street number of the day either, although for a while that decade that still reached this house on the fat, bunny-eared television in the living room opposite the period covered sofas (featuring a weird pattern of circles in squares in black, off-white, and ginger orange), on which you had to change the seven or so channels manually.
I’m talking about the number that appeared daily behind the anchors on whatever network you got your news on, as they solemnly intoned that today was whatever day it was that the 52 diplomats and other hostages continued to be held in Iran. It ultimately reached 444 days, a full year plus 79 days, counted out day by excruciating day, each of which there was more and more of a feeling that our country, and by extension, we ourselves, could do nothing but wring our hands in anguish and powerlessness. Oh, there was one attempt to rescue them, Operation Eagle Claw, which never even left the staging area due to mechanical issues. Even the withdrawal was a disaster, leaving 5 US airmen and 3 marines dead. It was one of the lowest points in American military history, equaled perhaps only by the failed mission into Bolshevik Russia to kill the Communist serpent in the cradle, of which then-president Wilson said, “the tragedy was that it cost lives even to fail as badly as they did.” It was also the nail that closed the coffin on this utter failure of a presidency. Ironically, Carter has now become the president to escape the actual coffin the longest of any, although the last three presidents to die all made it well into their 90s.
Frankly, he is someone who, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t even have been considered as a candidate, leave alone been elected. He is someone who SHOULDN’T have been considered or elected under ANY circumstances. He was a once-failed, once-elected governor who was supposedly a civil rights idealist, but who tried to please both the civil rights Democrats and the still-powerful old-school southern Democrats. He engaged in symbolic measures like putting up pictures of prominent black Georgians in the state capitol, but opposed race-integration busing and did not hesitate to sign a revised death penalty statute that addressed the then-liberal SCOTUS’ issues with the existing statute in Gregg v. Georgia, which came damn close to throwing the penalty out nationwide. Of course, he later said that he regretted doing that and his position had “evolved,” which is Democrat-speak for flip-flopping. He was not well-known outside of Georgia.
What most folks don’t know is that he made a presidential bid in 1972, trying to use the same triangulation tactics between the civil rights left and more conservative right, that he had used as governor. That bid did not get very far, and the Democratic ticket that year was George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton, which went down in the second biggest defeat the Democratic party suffered in a presidential election, surpassed only by Ronald Reagan’s 49-1 near-clean sweep of the entire country in 1984. Just as John Kasich later planned to do after the catastrophic defeat of the GOP that failed to materialize in 2016, Carter swiftly made a move to “pick up the pieces” and move into the frontrunner slot for 1976. Although he did not succeed in an attempt to become chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association, he did become chairman of both the Democratic National Committee’s congressional and gubernatorial campaigns. Ironically, he warned AGAINST politicizing the Watergate hearings, but a bit more on that later.
His recognition when he announced his candidacy for president a second time was 2%. The better-known Democrats scoffed and said, “Jimmy who?” Conventional wisdom was that he was a regional candidate who would have limited appeal outside the south. However, Carter had two factors working in his favor in the political perfect storm that was the United States political scene in 1976. One was the aforementioned regionalism. Normally, that would have worked against him, as it would have against any candidate in a country where the Northeast, the South, the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the West Coast were all VERY different in many ways. However, he happened to arrive as a Washington outsider just as the country’s trust of Washington and established politicians, as well as of the GOP, was at arguably the lowest point it ever reached due to Richard Nixon’s unnecessary overreach that led to all that followed. In the wake of Watergate and Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon to “close the book” on that episode and move forward, an outsider who promised never to lie to the American people looked like an attractive option. He looked especially so when matched against a man who had never been elected as president or vice-president, whose main act was pardoning Nixon, and whom the media played up as an oafish klutz (when in reality he was a college football all-star AND Phi Beta Kappa) by emphasizing a slip, a golf stroke gone awry, and a tennis serve gone wrong, any of which could have happened to anyone.
That brings me to the second unique, or at least then unique factor that Carter had going for him. The media both pushed for him and tried to discredit his opponent. Why was that? It’s well known that the media and its management have always been liberal, although before this time the only really big political “hit job” was Edward R. Murrow’s assault (mostly justified, but still a targeted attempt to destroy someone) on the overreaching JUNIOR (don’t forget to emphasize junior, since Murrow never forgot) senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. Nixon, a popular (until almost the end) Republican congressman, senator, and later two-term Vice-President (under Eisenhower, during the boring, conventional 1950s) from California, of all places, was strongly disliked by the media. Few except presidential history buffs know now that he was on the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee, mostly now a boogeyman with few specifics known, and it was his persistence that helped break the Alger Hiss case. Probably just as few know that he got his nickname “Tricky Dick” because he was uncharacteristically ruthless, and willing to use the same kind of tactics against the other side that the other side used against him (How dare he, when it was so much easier for Democratic candidates to get elected when dirty tricksters like the slimy operative Dick Tuck went unanswered and unopposed?).
As far as a lot of them believed, he was a criminal who just hid his tracks too well. They thought they’d buried him after his loss to Kennedy in 1960 and his 1962 loss in the California gubernatorial election, after which he’d even said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because this is my last press conference.” However, just as Carter was doing then, Nixon had returned to the political picture to pick up the pieces for a party that had gotten clobbered (1964 was a VERY bad year for the GOP), since he was one of the few Republicans that was not blamed, and could not be blamed, for that fiasco. Now he’d been elected and reelected as president, but put himself (yes, Watergate was almost all of his own making) in a position where the media could finally destroy him, only to slip out of the target zone before they could deliver the coup de grace that would see him not just out of office, but behind bars for the rest of his life.
They were still out for blood. If they couldn’t get it from Nixon, who was now beyond their reach and the reach of law enforcement (no state governor could try to trump up charges to get around the pardon, nor would those of that time be inclined to), they would get it by bringing down his successor, Ford. In Carter they saw the tool to do that, and so they did all they could to give him favorable coverage, which he happily exploited with endless speeches and promises. Carter also campaigned as a moderate, and played up his born-again Christianity to appeal to those of similar faith. In the end, even with all that going for him, Carter only managed to eke out a close victory over Ford, winning 297 electoral votes to 240, and polling a bare majority of 50.1% to Ford’s 48%.
It was quickly downhill from there, as Carter had few of the vices of Washington insiders, but also few of the necessary abilities. Like Woodrow Wilson, his approach to governing was based on moralism. Also like Woodrow Wilson, he had this idea that he would stop conflict around the world and lead it into a new era of peace. Unlike Wilson, he proved to be not just not aggressive, but underwhelming at foreign policy. Listing his failures there could fill a book (in fact it’s filled several). It’s almost easier to say that, apart from the Camp David Accords, which were half successful in that they ended the war between Egypt and Israel but did not settle the West Bank issue, which continues to plague the region to this day, his foreign policy was a total failure, showing lack of practicality, naivete, and an aversion to risk so strong that it bordered on cowardice. Notable individual failures included:
1. The complete inability to reach any comprehensive settlement of issues regarding South Africa and then newly-independent Rhodesia, which ended in the formation of the Marxist and black supremacist nation of Zimbabwe under strongman (and master of the quip only he found funny) Robert Mugabe;
2. Unilaterally pulling the proverbial rug out from under Taiwan by revoking the treaty of mutual defense, leaving a former ally exposed for potential conquest;
3. Handing the Panama canal zone back to Panama with neither quid pro quo nor guarantee of continued access;
4. Weak dealings with the Soviet Union. Although Carter actually signed the SALT II Treaty with the USSR, the breakthrough that made it possible had come under Ford. Otherwise, he was weak and feckless, taking no action as the Soviets imposed martial law in Poland and responding to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with nothing of any consequence beyond dashing the hopes of American athletes who hoped to compete in the 1980 Olympics, and not saying boo as the Soviets began to load Eastern Europe up with nuclear short range and cruise missiles, designed to wipe out NATO’s defensive capabilities with the touch of a few buttons.
There was one other big failure, but I can’t quite remember what it was…let me think…I might have alluded to it above…oh right, the disaster that was the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. I won’t defend the Shah of Iran’s regime or treatment of his own people. However, one thing he was a staunch protector of American interests in the region, which had already been endangered once by socialist expropriator Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. When the Shah was ousted by the 1978 revolution and replaced by the America-hating Islamist Ayatollah Khomeini, Carter took not one step to intervene and protect America’s interests in the region. In fact, so swiftly did things move that more than 60 American embassy employees were captured by the new regime and held as hostages for 444 days.
Carter’s first response to this? To isolate himself for 100 days, essentially abandoning his post. His second response was to embargo oil from Iran, which achieved nothing beyond pushing the price of oil up in the US and causing a crisis in supply as other Islamic nations supported Iran and sold less oil or pushed the price up. Finally, he attempted a half-hearted rescue, which failed and left the US looking like a laughingstock. The hostages were freed soon after Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter in the White House, but Khomeini would rule Iran with a black-veiled iron fist until his death in 1989. To this day his successors rule, seeking regional hegemony, sponsoring both state terror and terrorism around the world, and trying to build nuclear weapons to bolster both those goals.
Carter self-praised several times by saying no American soldiers had been killed on his watch this or that year, and few were except for Operation Eagle Claw. It’s laudable to prevent the pointless loss of American servicemen, but I believe it’s also fully justified to say, “so what?” to that self-praise. The general idea for the American president, and, arguably for anyone anywhere, is to leave things better than he finds them. Carter left the US reputation, power, and position all MUCH weaker than he found them.
In domestic policy he did no better. He came into office with an energy crisis raging. He said it was the equivalent of war. If it had been a war, it would have ended in a disastrous defeat. About the only thing that grew on his watch with regard to energy was the Federal bureaucracy. Arguably the nation was in a worse energy crisis at the end of his presidency than at the beginning. It never seemed to occur to him that when the price of fuel, without which nothing moves anywhere, goes up, the price of everything else goes up with it. So, this nation spent four years watching the price of every blessed thing go up, while wages stagnated. Since folks had less money to spend, they bought less, they put off major purchases, they scaled back or canceled vacation plans, and generally accepted, at least for that time, a diminished lifestyle. In turn, those who provided goods and services bought less of the things they needed to do so, deferred or canceled expansion plans, and in some cases laid employees off. This is Economics 101. Carter’s response? To make a speech about a “national malaise” and tell us to conserve, like it was our fault that this nation found itself in the place it was in. It was, but not because we weren’t working hard enough, or being thrifty enough, or conserving enough. It was our fault for letting ourselves be convinced to vote for this leadership, or maybe I should say non-leadership.
These failures didn’t go unnoticed, and even the media couldn’t hide the price of gas, the price of milk, or the foreign policy failures that stacked up like cordwood. When Carter’s first four years at last came to a close, they became his only four years. Actor turned governor Ronald Reagan ran circles around him on campaign, culminating in a gaffe more damaging than almost any other in presidential history, as Carter said that he had consulted with his then thirteen-year-old daughter Amy regarding ongoing arms control policy. The American public was neither impressed nor amused, and said it with their votes. Although 1980 didn’t sting the Democratic Party quite as badly as 1984 would, Jimmy Carter carried just six states plus the District of Columbia, one of the most embarrassing defeats for a sitting president ever.
You’d think suffering not just a loss, but a BLOWOUT loss would have sent the message loud and clear to Carter that this nation was decisively not interested in buying any more of what he was selling politically, and he should retire to Georgia and grow peanuts for the rest of his days. As pictures emerged of him with hammer in hand, helping build homes for Habitat for Humanity, most of us smiled and wished him well in his good works. Within a year, however, he was in Israel, meeting with the Prime Minister, trying to restart the process he had only half completed at Camp David. Two years after that he was in Egypt meeting with the PLO to try more of the same. As George Bush the elder moved closer to war to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Carter was at the UN, whispering in the ears of the members of the security council and writing letters to Arab heads of state, urging them to oppose the US military effort in favor of some form of negotiated settlement. Three years later Clinton sent him to North Korea to try to avert a potential conflict. Carter went a step further and brought back his own peace agreement, although it never went anywhere. After that he joined with Nelson Mandela and a few other world leader has-beens in a pretentious group called The Elders, who would become some kind of independent agency for peace and human rights.
Between all of this he’d been jetting around the globe, trying to insert himself into all sorts of issues and conflicts, like he and he alone can make the world a better place. Sometimes he has, as his Carter Center has put an end to some nasty deadly diseases in Africa, and he has brokered a few small cease-fires. He even went so far as to offer himself to former president Trump as a potential envoy to North Korea, but Trump said “no thanks.” In 2002 Carter finally received the Nobel Peace Prize he had been campaigning to get since his time in the White House, but he received it as much as a rebuke from the Norwegian awarding committee to George W. Bush, who they did not like, as for anything he had done. If you doubt that, please remember that seven years later they awarded the prize to newly elected Barack Obama, before he had been in office long enough to do anything. At any rate, the prize has been tarnished since 1994, when they awarded it to Arafat, but that’s neither here nor there.
Through it all Carter has, of course, been publishing reams and reams of high-minded rhetoric about how this or that lowlife should be spared execution or this or that Democrat should be elected, or how when you have to choose democracy or peace, choose peace, although he’s written some doozies, like criticizing the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush, while almost in the same breath saying that the contemporaneous reelection of America-hating dictator Hugo Chavez was TOTALLY on the up-and-up.
Now he’s checking out of this world, into the great beyond. No doubt the fulsome tributes are going to pour in about what a great person he was and how he was a humble servant of God and his fellow man who tried to do good all the days of his life. He’s even going to have a building at the Naval Academy named after him, because having a building named after a failed president is apparently better than one named for a scientist, oceanographer and officer who threw in with the wrong side over 150 years ago (but never shed a drop of his countrymen’s blood).
The temptation by many is going to be to hold him up as some kind of saint, you know, not like those heartless tyrants and warmongers and plutocrats from the GOP, who just wanted to amass power and line their own pockets and didn’t care how they did it or who they hurt doing it. No siree, he put doing good above all and he’d have done even more of it if that senile B-list actor turned politician and warmonger hadn’t conned this country into electing him and that other warmonger from that rich family and that other powermonger with the roving eye had actually listened to him. They’ll say he had the most successful post-presidency of the 37 men who have left that office (one hasn’t left yet and eight died in office so they never had a post-presidency).
Here’s the thing: none of that is true. Carter was no more a saint than any other man to be elected to this office, although he did not own slaves (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Grant) have affairs (a good ¼ of the men), groom a child to be his wife (Cleveland), fight duels (Jackson), conceal his medical state (Wilson, JFK, Cleveland), or drink to excess (Grant). So what? The bottom line is that the US presidency is not an office for a saint or a pacifist to hold. When you assume the office, you don’t just become chief nice guy or chief philanthropist or lead peacemaker. You become the chief EXECUTIVE – the commander in chief of the armed forces, the chief law enforcement officer, the chief diplomat, and a whole lot of other roles, chief among which are protecting the people of this nation, guarding their interests, and delivering the services government is supposed to deliver. I think I have laid out a pretty persuasive case as to why Carter was an abject failure at that role.
He was, at least to some degree, a creation of the media and a character in the narrative they wanted to write for the country, where the honest, humble outsider sweeps into office on a wave of popular outrage and sweeps away all the built-up corruption because he’s just that good of a guy, not like that criminal who got kicked out of office, but didn’t go to jail, and his enabler. The fact is that he was, together with James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Millard Filmore, John Quincy Adams, possibly Martin Van Buren, and possibly Herbert Hoover, out of his depth. None of them rose to the challenge, and all of them left this nation in a less wonderful place than it was in when they were elected. I only say possibly the last two because Martin Van Buren got stuck dealing with the aftermath of Jackson’s successful attack on the Bank of the United States and Hoover faced the Great Depression which almost no one thought would hit as hard as it did.
He was dealt a tough hand, no question of it, but a president’s role is not to complain about the tough hand he was dealt, it is to play that hand as best he can. He came to the White House in a nation where morale was touching bottom, public trust was low, the economy was a mess, and the world situation was volatile. What was needed was a leader who would and could shore up morale. He scolded instead. What was needed was a restoration of public trust. He said he’d never lie, but he didn’t really act to show that government could and should be trusted.
What was needed was actions that would tame the inflation and get the economy moving again. He did neither. What was needed was a leader who could put this nation on its feet and ready to lead the free world again. Carter put this nation further down on its back and let it get laughed at as a “helpless giant.” In every way he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time who did exactly the wrong thing. What’s more, he never seemed to grasp that he was doing the wrong thing or just how wrong it was.
The other thing is this: although many like to portray him as this humble, religious man who somehow knows the way to world peace if everyone will listen to him, sort of a Mr. Rogers to the world. However, what makes anyone think that a president who couldn’t achieve much of a peace while in office can achieve one, much less a much bigger one, out of office? More to the point, what makes that former president think he can do so? What makes he think he can do so to the point he tries to interfere with a sitting president’s policies? That’s not humble, that’s hubris. That’s setting yourself up as BEYOND politics and BEYOND your nation and the voters. Campaigning for an award like the Nobel Peace Prize also makes me question his motivations. If you do good deeds in the hopes of getting a shiny award, they really aren’t good deeds. Two presidents who received the award really deserved it: Teddy Roosevelt for successfully mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War and Woodrow Wilson for founding the League of Nations. Obama got it for not being named Bush. Carter got it as a European middle finger to Bush.
One last thing that I’d throw out there, before I end this long dissertation. Since Carter’s time, we’ve buried four other presidents, all Republicans (Lyndon Johnson died three years before Carter was elected, at the relatively early age of 64). All four of them got defined by their failures or errors online and got a fair amount of hate by journalist and poster alike, although Nixon, Reagan, and Ford all died before (in Ford’s case just before) social media was a thing, so hateful hashtags couldn’t trend for their deaths. Those who dared challenge this hateful practice for Bush the elder were told to pipe down, to perform an anatomically impossible sex act, or to shut up in some other rude or vulgar way. After all, they all deserved the hate, Nixon for Watergate, Ford for pardoning him, Reagan for fighting the Cold War aggressively, Bush for the first Gulf War, Panama, and Central America, all for being icky Republicans, and it wasn’t really hate, just well-deserved contempt being poured out on those who deserved it. A man with a brilliant political career until he overreached, the man who had the courage to move the nation forward and out of crisis, the man who won the Cold War, and the man who saved two nations from dictatorships and moved this world into the post-Cold War era, all of them honorable veterans, the last one the youngest pilot ever in the US Navy who put his life on the line and won the Distinguished Flying Cross fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, and they all deserve to be remembered by nothing but a vulgar dismissal or a profane, sexual, or scatological hashtag.
Jimmy Carter was an abject failure as president who did more damage than good, an arrogant would-be world ruler who thought he was just that damn much better than everyone else, a patsy for a media out for blood, and arguably a traitor for violating the Logan Act by running his own foreign policy, and yet he’s some kind of saint, and if someone dares say otherwise, whether by a rude hashtag or by laying it all out as I have, well, that person’s just a horrible person because only a horrible person would do that.
Yet we wonder why this world is in the mess it’s in. Look no farther.
9 thoughts on “Presidents Day Hangover, Jimmy Carter Edition: A Popeye, A KABOOM! And An Epic Comment Of The Day. Part II, Comment Of The Day On The Carter Presidency”
Great COTD, Steve-O, and I have never read a more thorough yet concise summary of his performance. As I have written previously of Carter, he was a pretty good governor (I lived in Georgia then), which made his dismal performance as President all the more surprising and disappointing. His lack of fortitude toward the Soviet Union was scary; I may be wrong, but I believe that during those years the Soviets were just about convinced they could defeat us, and we were all lucky that they never tried. I know that concern about such a war was higher among people I knew than at any other point in my adult life.
I love the term “tour de force” and I try not to use it too often, but this is one of those times when it fits the need.
A tour de force!!
I would like to add a positive thing that did occur under Carter’s administration. On the domestic side, deregulation of the railroad industry as a whole, and the creation of Conrail in the Northeast and Midwest in particular. This set up the railroad industry to be the productive and competitive transportation sector it is today. Prior to this, the rail sector was loaded with archaic government mandated rate setting, predatory union bargaining, and competition from tax subsided highway and air travel. Deregulation set the stage for the industry to compete with various other transportation sectors on more equal footing. Conrail salvaged the rail system in the Northeast and Midwest from complete collapse and set it up to become profitable on its own and ultimately being split in half between NS and CSX in 1999, increasing competition in the Northeast and Midwest rail sector. Amtrak is excluded from this discussion, since it was created under Nixon, and passenger rail in general had been abandoned by private carriers in late 50’s, early 60’s, and has become a mostly government operation, be that state, municipal or federal.
They should have taken the opportunity to abolish the FELA, an outdated statute that allows railroad workers to sue their employers rather than get workers compensation. All it does now is delay compensation and treatment and put money into the pockets of trial lawyers.
Here’s a thought. Does anyone here wonder if they announced him entering hospice care now, before he actually dies, in the hopes that people and the media will say only good things about him knowing that he is still alive?
That could certainly be the wish of many, but the imminent demise of a former President is news and something that should certainly be reported, regardless of what press he does or doesn’t get.
I stopped short of pouring simple-minded venom on him like a few folks who I could name did for Reagan, but I think the point is made – this guy was an incompetent.
As someone who was on active duty at the tip of the spear during his presidency, I thought and felt that we were closer to war in Europe because of his vision of being a “peacemaker” than at any time since.