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The Real Jimmy Carter
By Steven F. Hayward
REGNERY PUBLISHING, INC.Copyright © 2004 Steven F. Hayward
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Conscience of the World
"America's anti-President: a psalm-singing global circuit rider and moral interventionist who behaved, in a surreal and often effective way, as if the election of 1980 had been only some kind of ghastly mistake, a technicality of democratic punctilio." -LANCE MORROW, Time magazine, on Jimmy Carter
On the surface, it is astonishing that someone whose four years in the presidency are widely judged to have been a horrendous failure continues to attract front-page headlines and exert influence on the world stage-even winning the Nobel Peace Prize-more than twenty years later. Among professional historians, former president Jimmy Carter is enjoying the now-predictable "reappraisal" phase, wherein a "fresh look" shows an apparently failed president to have been better than we first thought.
This book argues, on the contrary, that Jimmy Carter's presidency really was as bad as we thought at the time, or worse; that his lasting and dominant impact on the Democratic Party of today-the party of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton-has been calamitous; and that his supposed status as a "model" ex-president is the reverse of the truth, unless one's idea of a model statesman is Jesse Jackson.
Every leader has some bad luck, and every public figure deserves to have myths and inaccuracies debunked, but Jimmy Carter's failures are rooted in the character and ideology of the man himself. This would be less important were it not for the fact that Carter continues to insert himself in the nation's business, both at home and around the world.
The Smiley-Face Candidate
For many, Carter emblemizes the 1970s, a forlorn decade whose iconography, from rounded typefaces to disco music (but thankfully not leisure suits), is back in vogue. Perhaps the most memorable 1970s icon was the smiley face, so it is not surprising that the smiley-face decade would produce a smiley-face candidate: Carter's most prominent attribute as a politician was a grin toothier than a Cheshire cat's. As with the Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll's story, what lay behind the grin was mysterious and sometimes disconcerting. Hamilton Jordan, one of Carter's chiefs of staff, referred candidly to what he called Carter's "weirdness factor."
In the early stages of Carter's extraordinary campaign for the presidency in 1976, a common response to his candidacy was "Jimmy who?" In some respects, we are still asking that question today, almost thirty years after he emerged suddenly on the national stage. He has a Jekyll and Hyde quality unlike almost any other American politician. He is certainly a better person than Bill Clinton; at least Carter lusted after women only in his heart. Yet there are aspects of Carter's character and political views that are more troubling than Clinton's unprincipled opportunism and lasciviousness.
Carter presents layer upon layer of difficulty to untangle. His onetime speechwriter Patrick Anderson observed that in Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia, neighbors said of him that after an hour you love him, after a week you hate him, and after ten years you start to understand him. He added that anyone who didn't have a personality conflict with Carter didn't have a personality. Anderson also described Carter as a combination of Machiavelli and Mr. Rogers. The Washington Post's Sally Quinn similarly observed: "The conventional image of a sexy man is one who is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Carter is just the opposite." Fellow Southern Baptist Bill Moyers said, "In a ruthless business, Mr. Carter is a ruthless operator, even if he wears his broad smile and displays his southern charm." Part of the mystique of Carter is his careful and successful positioning as someone "above politics." He gives off an air that he is too good for us, or certainly better than the rest of his peers in politics. Carter exemplifies the paradox of taking pride in denouncing the sin of pride. He also displays a talent for combining self-pity and self-righteousness, sometimes in the same sentence.
He is a maddeningly contradictory figure. He first achieved statewide office in Georgia with a cynical race-baiting campaign, and then immediately proclaimed that the time had come for the South to repudiate its racist ways. An avatar of morality and truthfulness, Carter bends the truth and has a singularly nasty side to his character that ultimately contributed to his loss in 1980. Longtime NBC and ABC broadcaster David Brinkley observed of Carter: "Despite his intelligence, he had a vindictive streak, a mean streak, that surfaced frequently and antagonized people." Eleanor Randolph of the Chicago Tribune wrote: "Carter likes to carve up an opponent, make his friends laugh at him, and then call it a joke.... [He] stretched the truth to the point where it becomes dishonest to call it exaggeration." New York Times reporter James Wooten called Carter "a hyperbole addict." And Gary Fink, author of a generally favorable study of Carter's governorship, notes that "Carter usually claimed the moral and ethical high ground" but "practiced a style of politics based on exaggeration, disingenuousness, and at times outright deception."
Carter seldom, if ever, repents of his nastiness or asks forgiveness. Instead, when called out for an egregious personal attack, he displays the advanced skills of evasion that made him such an effective presidential candidate, at least until the public caught on in 1980.
The man with the legendary smile can be unfriendly and cold. "There were no private smiles," said one disgruntled campaign aide in 1976. Carter's personal White House secretary, Susan Clough, recalled that Carter rarely said hello to her as he walked by her desk. Not a "Happy Thanksgiving," or a "Merry Christmas." Nothing, she says. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. judged Carter to be a "narcissistic loner." "Carter was never a regular guy," Patrick Anderson observed; "the sum of his parts never quite added up to that.... Carter talked his way into the presidency, yet in some profound way he never learned the language of men."
Why Not the Best?
Carter's 1975 campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best?, proclaimed that he was "optimistic about America's third century," but he became a tribune of "limits to growth" pessimism, diminished expectations for the future, and a national "malaise." Margaret Thatcher, among others, noted the trouble with this, writing that Carter "had no large vision of America's future so that, in the face of adversity, he was reduced to preaching the austere limits to growth that was unpalatable, even alien, to the American imagination."
Carter campaigned on the slogan of giving us "a government as good as the people," and then, at the climactic moment of his presidency, complained that the people were no good. As a champion of human rights and critic of (at least pro-American) autocratic dictators while president, ex-president Carter compiled a record of meeting with and subsequently praising some of the world's most loathsome dictators, often strengthening their political stature. Yet he was always quick to criticize anyone else who associated with dictators. He is the only person elected to the presidency to have filed a UFO-sighting report with the Air Force. "I don't laugh at people anymore when they say they have seen a UFO because I've seen one myself," Carter said at a 1975 press conference. He is the only president to nearly provoke the resignation of his vice president due to a loss of confidence.
Self-righteousness is another of Carter's obvious hallmarks. Biographer Betty Glad noted that, as governor, Carter "seemed to experience opposition as a personal affront and as a consequence responded to it with attacks on the integrity of those who blocked his projects. He showed a tendency [which will become even clearer as other facets of his career are explored] to equate his political goals with the just and the right and to view his opponents as representative of some selfish or immoral interest."
This aspect of Carter's character cannot be unraveled without looking deeply into the self-proclaimed sources of his political thought, and especially his political religion. In keeping with the biblical injunction to "judge not," one should be cautious about evaluating Carter's faith, but it is clear that the trouble with Carter has to be sought in his peculiar blending of religion and politics.
As we shall see, there is an alarming superficiality to his political religion, which journalists and biographers have noticed but not analyzed with sufficient seriousness. Biographer Kenneth Morris wrote that "when he became governor and then president, Carter continued to show himself bereft of a solid intellectual foundation for his political views." Betty Glad reached a similar conclusion: "He lacks, it seems, a well-thought-out conceptual framework to guide his concrete political choices.... Carter's political views rest on a simplistic moralism."
Some of Carter's critics think he is a religious charlatan. Reg Murphy, editor of the Atlanta Constitution during Carter's years as governor, called Carter "one of the three or four phoniest men I ever met." Despite instances of hypocrisy that can be pointed out in Carter's political career, it is precisely his sincerity and authenticity that are most disturbing. He is sincere about his beliefs, and is an authentic representative of a segment of Christianity that modern liberalism has corrupted and politicized. Douglas Brinkley regards Carter as "the most principled American president since Harry Truman." The core of the problem with Carter is that his principles are wrong.
Giving Peace a Chance: The Legacy
There is a contemporary urgency to understand Carter and Carterism, because Carter's perspective has become the dominant perspective of contemporary liberalism and his Democratic Party successors. While neither Carter nor the leading Democrats today are explicitly pacifist, they have adopted a de facto pacifist bias that believes any conflict can be resolved through negotiations and good intentions. While this strain of thinking always reserves the use of force as "the last resort," in practice there is no point at which certain kinds of contemporary liberals-the Howard Deans, the John Kerrys ... and Jimmy Carter-will give up on "dialogue." Carter always believes that the "peace process" has not been "given a chance." If Carter or his successors were in charge, Afghanistan would still be ruled by the Taliban, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, and Libya's Qaddafi would still be building weapons of mass destruction.
In other words, although the voters decisively dispatched Jimmy Carter in 1980, his legacy lives on in potent form today and is likely to survive his death. It is important that it be understood clearly. His story offers a valuable object lesson into the realities of modern politics and international statecraft. In the century of terrorism, it is crucial that our leaders get the lesson right.
It is obvious that on the international stage, many have gotten the lesson wrong. When Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of 2002, many of his supporters thought it was long overdue, that he should have received it for helping consummate the Camp David peace accord between Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat, who shared the award instead. According to one Nobel insider, Carter was passed over in 1978 for the simple reason that he was not nominated in time. It was an oversight Carter would not let happen again. His repeated nominations were typically sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker pacifist group with decidedly leftist leanings. The nominations arrived early, and (thanks to intense lobbying behind the scenes) his name would be promoted as a short-list candidate.
Up until 2002, all this work was for naught. On the Today Show, Katie Couric once quipped to Carter: "You're kind of the Susan Lucci of the Nobel Peace Prize"-a comparison to the soap opera actress perennially nominated for a TV Emmy that surely made Carter wince.
When he finally won, the prize came surrounded with controversy.
The chairman of the Nobel Prize committee, a leftist Norwegian politician named Gunnar Berge, told the media in announcing Carter's prize that "it should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current [George W. Bush] administration has taken" in the war on terrorism, and particularly Iraq. "It's a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States," Berge added for the benefit of America's British, Polish, Spanish, Czech, and other European allies in the Iraq war. The other four members of the politically appointed Nobel awards committee rushed to say that Berge was expressing only his personal opinion and not that of the committee.
Michael Kinsley has shrewdly defined a "gaffe" as an instance where someone unaccountably tells the unvarnished truth, and the disclaimers of the other committee members fooled no one. Berge's sin was his candor. The Nobel committee's official commendation for Carter used more subtle language to make Berge's point: "In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power, Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international cooperation based on international law, respect for human rights, and international development." The deputy chairman of the Nobel committee told Time magazine that "one should read our statement very carefully," as it "contains clues to our motivation and philosophy."
No need to parse that statement. The New York Daily News editorialized that "The most prestigious award in the world has been tainted.... By extension, it is a slap in the face of the American people, since our duly elected representatives have just voted to fully support the administration's Iraq policies." Even the New York Times understood the anti-American politicization of the prize. Times reporter Michael Wines noted, "Jimmy Carter won [the prize] 'for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts'-and, by the declaration of the prize panel's chairman, for his labors as a critic of the Bush administration's pistols-cocked brand of geopolitics." (Emphasis added.) The Daily Telegraph wrote that "By convention, former American presidents do not criticize their successors, so it could be said that Carter should not have accepted the award if it was going to be taken as a public rebuke of Bush." President Bush took no notice of the ruckus; he promptly telephoned Carter to pass along his congratulations.
Excerpted from The Real Jimmy Carter by Steven F. Hayward Copyright © 2004 by Steven F. Hayward. Excerpted by permission.
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