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Jimmy Carter: The grand disappointment
Jimmy Carter has taken a swipe against President Bush's war on terrorism. What a pity and what a shame, but how predictable! Little Jimmy Carter - he ought to know better. The most recent Democrat ex-president, Bill Clinton, grew up without any moral anchor in his life. It is easy to imagine the sort of defense that a good attorney would have mounted in defending Clinton from his many alleged crimes. The chaos of Clinton's home life, his deep-seated insecurity always demanding the validation of public attention, the pathological lying - all these "explain" at least in the eyes of politically correct psychology - why Clinton has done so many bad things in his life.
Carter has no such excuses. He grew up in a stable and loving home. Carter went to Annapolis, where he learned seriousness, character and grit from Admiral Hymen Rickover, a genuine hero. Carter married a lovely woman and, by all accounts, has had a happy and normal marriage. And, although often Carter wore his religion on his sleeve, no one seriously questioned that his religious faith was sincere. Carter, the man, should have made a good ex-president.
The Carter Presidency, by contrast, was a failure of vast proportions. The Man from Plains came perilously close to losing the Cold War and his reluctance to confront Soviet aggression or the sort of vile anti-Americanism that we fight today is as much a root cause of our present war as one is likely to find.
The domestic policy of the Man from Plains was just as bad. Energy policy? Wear a sweater. Want consumer confidence problems? Then have the President of the United States get on television and chat to the American people about a future of dwindling wealth and bleak prospects. Carter did not just mangle the economy, but he almost destroyed our will to create wealth.
What made all of these policy train wrecks worse was that Jimmy Carter walked into the White House in 1977 with very high approval ratings, no baggage of scandals, and positioned as a "centrist." Carter could have reached out to Republicans on tax simplification and reduction or on welfare and social security reform, and gained strong bipartisan support. Georgia Governor Carter had boasted of consolidating Georgia's rambling bureaucracy, and President Carter could have abolished federal agencies and made sensible proposals for restructuring the federal executive branch.
This new president, who had won the hearts of leftists by pardoning draft dodgers and the trust of conservatives by his honorable and patriotic service in the Navy, could have used this broad goodwill to construct a foreign policy reliant both upon human rights and upon a strong national defense.
Carter, the temperate, religious, family man could have used the pulpit to make the "Murphy Brown" speech without getting the unwarranted smirks and hoots that Vice President Quayle received when he tried to warn Americans of the dangers of thoughtless sex and fatherless children.
The smashing victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and his magnificently successful Presidency has led many of us to be charitable towards Jimmy Carter. He worked on charitable activities after his one term in office, and it was very hard to find much fault with that. Moreover, Jimmy Carter generally conducted himself with understated dignity as an ex-president.
The good humor of conservatives toward Carter was made easier by the election of President Bush in 1992 and the spectacular victory in Desert Storm, and - of course - the collapse of the Soviet Union, a great boon which overshadowed all the shortcomings of Carter's myopia toward Communism. In short, we conservatives for the last twenty years have given Jimmy Carter a pass: good man with good intentions but flawed ideas and silly policies.
Carter could be lumped generally in with those "good" Democrats, like Scoop Jackson, Mike Mansfield, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and JFK - men who were most often on the other side of the policy issues with us, but whom we could respect much like liberals respected Barry Goldwater when he returned to the Senate in 1968.
That casual attitude was reinforced by the immense good nature of Ronald Reagan, who had no wish at all to personally attack the defeated ex-president and by the upright propriety of George H. Bush, who honored the tradition of civility among all men who have held the Presidency and who doubtless admired, as a former Navy combat pilot, Carter's honorable service on nuclear submarines.
This indifference to the real flaws of Jimmy Carter was good-hearted but wrong-headed, and it is time to de-construct a bad president and a weak man. Jimmy Carter's administration, compared to Clinton or LBJ, the two Democrat Presidents who are sandwiched between him, was a paragon of virtue. But that is damning with faint praise.
Jimmy Carter served four years in the White House and had plenty of ethical problems during those years. Carter lied on national television in January of 1978 about his role in firing David Marston, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania, who was at the time of his firing ready to indict a couple of powerful Democrat Congressmen. Peter Bourne, who Carter place in charge of drug policy, resigned in 1978 after writing illegal prescriptions and, alleging, using cocaine at a NORML Christmas Party.
Andrew Young, Carter's Ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with PLO and then flatly lied about that meeting (he resigned too). Bert Lance, Director of the Office of Management & Budget for Carter was indicted on multiple counts (he resigned, and was later acquitted).
Stated bluntly, Jimmy Carter's Presidency had more ethical problems in four years than Reagan and both President Bush have had in a combined thirteen years in the White House. That does not mean that the Carter White House was comparable to the Clinton White House - Jimmy Carter was much more honorable and decent than Bill Clinton - but it does mean that any notions of St. Jimmy are just untrue.
The failures and the flaws of Jimmy Carter as president are water under the bridge. What Jimmy Carter has chosen to do with all the residual goodwill from Democrats and Republicans like in his post-presidential years, however, is a grand disappointment to all good people and all serious citizens.
Carter's silence as the raw sewage of Bill Caligula overflowed into our national life was deafening. Carter, of all people, was perfectly positioned to come down hard and tough on Clinton. The disgrace of the Democrats in 1996 - not even fielding a token rival to confront the most corrupt president in America history - was compounded by the deafening silence of Carter, who had nothing to lose from being a gadfly to the White House. Carter could have done this without feeling any party disloyalty (hadn't Clinton cost Democrats control of Congress in 1994?)
But Carter, it seems, is not just another politician, but a very shortsighted politician at that. When Barry Goldwater, hero to conservatives, went to the White House to tell Richard Nixon to resign, the Senator from Arizona was not just being characteristically noble, but he was also showing wisdom in his concern for the Republican Party and conservative principles.
There have been liberal Democrats like Humphrey, Stevenson, and McGovern who lost presidential races, but retained an ability to reach the conscience of their party for its own good and the good of the nation. Carter, and Carter alone, could have done that in 1996 when calling for Clinton to not seek re-election would have gone a long way toward rehabilitating the Democrat Party in the eyes of many Americans. But little Jimmy Carter apparently could not look much farther into the future than that most stream of consciousness of men, Bill Clinton.
So now, at last, Carter seems to have found his voice in the public arena - to do what? Criticize an American President in time of war and delicate diplomatic juggling. Another former governor, another happily married man, another southerner, another deeply religious man, but...a Republican!
Oh little, little Jimmy Carter! History has given you so many delicious chances to become a great American, first as President and then as ex-president. The legacy (or rap sheet, if you prefer) of Bill Clinton is written, with revised editions as the aging, chubby creep slowly spirals down a lost life toward certain irrelevance. But "President Carter" - you had another chance or two or three - and nothing during your four years in office kept you from seizing the moment in history to do real good.
History, apparently, is much taller than some men.
Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.
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