|Jimmy Carter answering questions as president.|
Remember all the good feelings of optiimism and relief in January 1977 when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president of the USA. (You guys not born yet, trust me on this.)
After the house-of-horrors presidency of “Tricky Dick” Richard M. Nixon – his enemies list, spying on his own staff, wiretaps of news reporters, his “plumbers unit,” IRS audits of political enemies, plus Vietnam, the Cambodia invasion, the shootings at Kent State, and all the lying and deceit of Watergate that finally did him in (I won’t pretend to be neutral about RMN) — after all that, Jimmy Carter seemed a breath of fresh air, even after the interlude of Gerald Ford’s relatively calm brief presidency.
Honest Jimmy, he came across as down-home and normal, truthful, grounded, at ease with his wife and cute little daughter, a peanut farmer, nuclear engineer, and Navy submariner, willing to get out of his car and walk on his own two feet during his inaugural parade. Carter was an “outsider” –a one-term governor from Plains, Georgia, with no taint of Washington experience. He promised to deliver “a government as good and honest and decent and compassionate … as its people.” And he said “I will never lie to you.”
Sound slightly arrogant? Slightly smug? Like an accident waiting to happen? By 1980,barely three years later, Carter’s popularity had plummeted, his poll numbers at around 20 percent — close to Richard Nixon’s own lowest point during Watergate.
[Full disclosure: At the time, in the late 1970s, I was a young staff lawyer for Republican Senator Chuck Percy (R-Ill.) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee — scene of much Carter-era action — so I had a nice ring-side seat.]
To his credit, Carter compiled a pretty nice legislative record. He won major deregulations of the airlines, trucking, and natural gas prices, created the Energy and Education Departments, took major energy conservation steps and pushed through the Alaska Lands Act and bans on ocean dumping and strip mining. He negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel, pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, and won a treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama (still a sore point with conservatives).
This was all good. Put it on the plus side of the ledger. Now for the rest ….
So what was the accident waiting to happen?
Almost from the start, things under Carter seemed chaotic, out-of control. In his first year as president, Carter’s team stumbled into a first-rate scandal that forced the resignation of Carter’s long-time crony and OMB Director, Bert Lance. After that, a veritable cascade of toubless followed —
- First, the economy sank into a swamp of high inflation, high interest rates, sagging markets, and low growth — a new phenomenon called Carter “stagflation.” Rubbing sand in the wound were repeated hikes in the price of oil (gasoline) dictated by the OPEC cartel of Arab countries. Then, in late 1979, the Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas, cornered the silver market, driving prices of silver and gold to historic highs before crashing in early 1980. No, the economic mess wasn’t all Carter’s fault. And to his credit, his Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker had plans to fix it. But there’s more;
- Then, as things kept going wrong, Carter decided to closet himself for a week-long, high-profile secret enclave at Camp David after which he (a) first conducted a purge of his staff, sacking five cabinet secretaries, and (b) then followed it with a national televised speech in which he decried the country’s “crisis of the spirit” – known to posterity as the “malaise” speech;
- Then, in late 1979, militants in Iran seized the US embassy there and held 52 American hostages for what would be 444 days. Carter ordered a military rescue (causing his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign in protest) which failed because of a helicopter crash that, costing the lives of eight servicemen;
- Then came the late-1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, causing Carter to (a) cancel US participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (pissing off sports fans all across America) and (b) embargo grain shipments to Russia (causing US grain prices to tank, pissing off farmers all across America);
- Then, finally, just when he needed friends the most, came a revolt from within his own Democratic Party as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) decided to challenge Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination. Carter beat him (he was, after all, an incumbent president), but only after an ugly fight.
By 1980 when the ran for re-eleciton, Jimmy Carter seemed reduced to one last voter appeal: That as bad as things might be under his own leadership, his opponent, Republican Ronald Reagan, was worse — too inexperienced, too right wing, too extreme. Voters didn’t buy it. When Reagan and Carter debated face to face, Reagan came across as calm and reasonable. He won by a landslide.
(Carter managed to bungle even the debates. When third-party candidate John Anderson asked to participate, Reagan agreed and Carter refused. The debate when ahead with just Reagan and Anderson, and Carter’s glaring absence make him again look petty and insecure.)
Lesson for Obama:
How to avoid being like Jimmy Carter? Obama, let’s start with this: Please do not start thinking that you are smarter than everyone else. The minute you do, you’re lost.
Here was Carter’s trap: Being an “outsider” and painting yourself as “better than” Washington might make you popular in the short run, even win an election or two. But those same Washington “insiders” – most just as honest, decent, and civic-minded as you — are the very people whose help you need to accomplish your goals, and whose friendship you need when things get tough. Living in a White House cacoon surrounded by old friends from back home does little good when issues get complicated.
Yes, partisanship today is out of conttrol. But the golden rule of Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunket from 1905 still holds today:: “The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary….”
Jimmy Carter is celebrated today as an admirable former President. Since leaving the White House, he and his Carter Center have helped sooth dozens of world crises, wining him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. This, of course, very nice. But for now, the key fact about Carter is this: 1980 Electoral Votes- Ronald Reagan, 489; Carter, 49. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 22.)
Next up, the final one-term president: George H. W. Bush.