A review of The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry, by Steven F. Hayward
Perhaps the only offense Steven Hayward does not accuse his subject of in The Real Jimmy Carter is pacifism. Not that Hayward wouldn't have firm ground. Our 39th president is so resistant to the use of force that not only did he oppose both wars in Iraq but it turns out he opposed the Revolutionary War, too. During a television appearance last fall, Carter explained, "I think another parallel [with Iraq] is that in some ways the Revolutionary War could have been avoided. It was an unnecessary war. Had the British Parliament been a little more sensitive to the colonials' really legitimate complaints and requests the war could have been avoided completely, and of course now we would have been a free country now as is Canada and India and Australia, having gotten our independence in a nonviolent way."
Leave aside, if you will, the fact that India achieved its independence through a protracted civil war that left two million dead, and let's move along to the next item: Carter's very peculiar boasting about the use of force. Carter's one brush with the military that he commanded for four years was his failed effort to rescue American hostages in Iran. When consulting with military planners, Carter mandated that there should be no "wanton killing" of Iranians. He even went so far as to explore the use of "sleeping gas" in the mission. Ultimately the rescue failed and cost the lives of eight American soldiers. Yet in a telling footnote, Carter defined the exercise not as a "military operation," but as a "humanitarian mission." Why? So he could continue boasting that he was "the first American president in fifty years who has never sent troops into combat."
Whether Carter was our first pacifist president or simply a Guinness Book narcissist is up for discussion. What seems beyond dispute is that Carter was the worst president of the modern era. Steven Hayward makes an even broader claim: that as an ex-president, Carter is a menace now more than ever.
The Real Jimmy Carter is a natural extension of Hayward's magisterial The Age of Reagan (2001), in which he chronicled the 16 years of American politics leading up to the 1980 election. All of that time spent with '70s liberalism left Hayward with a healthy distaste for America's most famous peanut farmer, making The Real Jimmy Carter more indictment than biography.
While his research is meticulous, it appears at times that Hayward is swatting at mosquitoes with a sledgehammer. He has trouble granting Carter credit for anything at all. He criticizes Governor Carter as a hypocrite for sponsoring anti-busing initiatives—even though Hayward, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the Pacific Research Institute, would likely applaud opposition to forced busing. When President Carter decontrols oil prices—another policy the author supports—Hayward gripes that "Carter, typically, mitigated the beneficial effects of decontrol by phasing it in over a two-year period."
In another section, Hayward suggests that Carter was lobbying the Soviet Union to aid Walter Mondale during the 1984 election. Carter did indeed meet with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in early 1984. Hayward writes: "Dobrynin was too discreet to let on whether Carter said or was hinting that the Soviets should do something to help out Walter Mondale's candidacy against Reagan that year." This is uncomfortably close to asking Carter when he stopped beating his wife.
Hayward attempts to link Carter not just to his own failures, but to every failure of the Democratic Party in the last 30 years. He compares Carter's energy policy to HillaryCare. He pictures Carter with a grinning Howard Dean. He claims that Carter got "a virtual second term with the arrival of President Bill Clinton," which makes little sense, since the rest of that particular chapter is spent explaining how Carter thwarted Clinton policy in Haiti, Bosnia, and North Korea, infuriating the president at every turn.
In casting about for any club with which to beat Carter, Hayward rallies some unsavory allies to his cause. Criticizing Carter's handling of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he notes that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' famously partisan, kooky, and unreliable "Doomsday Clock" was—gasp!—close to midnight. He even quotes bank robber Willie Sutton calling Carter a "confidence man," as if the political musings of a convicted felon are worthy of our consideration.
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Manners dictate that no ex-president deserves, or at least should receive, this sort of treatment. But if—hypothetically speaking, of course—an ex-president could deserve the business end of a Hayward, surely Jimmy Carter would be your man.
It is difficult to think of another president as personally unbecoming as Carter. For starters, there is his general wackiness. He is the only president to have filed a UFO sighting with the Air Force; he has claimed to be a "nuclear physicist" after taking one single-semester, non-credit course in nuclear physics; and his mini-crusades have included tilts against People magazine and in favor of marriage. (He once told his White House staff, "For those of you living in sin, I hope you'll get married. For those of you who've left your spouses, go back home.") But behind the genial eccentricity is a tiny monster.
During his days in state politics, Carter ran campaigns that treaded dangerously close to outright racism. He once attacked his opponent, Carl Sanders, for preventing George Wallace from speaking on state property. (Carter would later write to one constituent, "George Wallace and I are in agreement on most issues.") Sanders was, Carter charged coyly, trying "to please a group of ultra-liberals." His campaign sent out a mailing featuring a picture of Sanders with two black basketball players—Carter's aides were later found passing out copies of this mailing at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Another campaign leaflet explained "that Sanders had paid tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr." In a detail sure to catch the eye of media- bias obsessives, Hayward notes that a Time magazine cover story on Carter's election faced the ugliness with the following gentle formulation: "To get elected, it was necessary to make some gestures toward the past."
Carter was never particularly gracious. His aide Hamilton Jordan remembers Carter telling him, "Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser." He described Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin as a "psycho." After the shah, America's ally, was deposed in Iran, he sought sanctuary in the United States. Approached about this idea, President Carter responded, "F— the shah."
These personal failings would matter less had Carter been a capable president. Hayward demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not. At home, President Carter was something short of a disaster, overseeing stagflation, unemployment, and, of course, malaise. Shunning the overweening optimism most presidents project, Carter tried to lower people's expectations. "We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent," he said in one televised address. Then in 1979 Carter disappeared into seclusion at Camp David to reconceptualize his presidency. Meeting with one group of advisors he lamented, "I think it's inevitable that there will be a lower standard of living than what everybody had always anticipated. The only trend is downward. But it's impossible to get people to face up to this."
With an approval rating in the low 20s, Carter emerged to give his "malaise" speech. (The president, however, never used the word "malaise"; that came from pollster Pat Caddell in the aftermath.) While most of us are well acquainted with Carter's signature moment, his speech still represents something of a singular event in presidential oratory. Carter told his audience that "all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America" and blamed the state of affairs on a "crisis of confidence" as people lost faith in the American way. In the most astonishing passage, Carter said,
The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.
Faced with a challenge from the American people, he decided to do what he had always done against political opponents: go negative.
Yet even this bizarre performance pales next to Carter's work in the realm of foreign affairs; the list of mistakes is unnerving. On the big questions of the day—Communism and how to fight the Cold War—he can only be judged a failure. President Carter lambasted Americans for having an "inordinate fear" of Communism and explained that Russia would "continue to push for communism throughout the world and to probe for possibilities for expansion of their system, which I think is a legitimate purpose for them."
Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, went even further in support of the Soviet Union, defending its trial of Natan Sharansky as "a gesture of independence." "After all," Young said defiantly, "we also have hundreds, if not thousands of people in our jails that I would categorize as political prisoners." (Even Carter's public appointments were disastrous: Young, whom Carter called "the best man I have ever known in public life," also called Britain a "racist" country and predicted that the Ayatollah Khomeini would eventually be regarded as "some kind of saint." Carter dismissed him only under public pressure after Young attended a secret PLO meeting in 1979.)
When it came to the nuclear buildup, Carter was not afraid to attack the American public there, too, saying, "If the American people get the idea, which is mistaken, that a nuclear arms race on our side is going to cause the Soviets to quit building nuclear weapons on their side, they are silly." History, it turns out, can be even meaner than Steven Hayward.
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Carter's silliness cost America the Panama Canal, Iran, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. Yet with all this carnage trailing in his wake, what is Jimmy Carter's own appraisal of his presidency? "Allowing Ronald Reagan to become president was by far my biggest failure in office," he told Douglas Brinkley in 1995.
Here Hayward bears down and assembles an important catalogue of Carter's activities in the years since 1980, beginning with his relentless campaign against Reagan. When not speaking ill of his successor, Carter attempted to undermine other sitting presidents. In 1991 he spoke publicly against the Gulf War and— more unforgivably—went in private to Arab leaders asking them to pull out of the American coalition.
In other adventures, President Carter visited and praised North Korea's Kim Il Sung, saying he admired the "reverence with which [North Koreans] look upon their leader." Smitten with Yasser Arafat, he made fundraising trips to Saudi Arabia on behalf of the PLO. He invited Somali warlord Farah Aidid to visit him in Atlanta, calling the American attempt to capture him "regrettable." He visited Syria and praised the "good humor between" himself and Hafez Assad. Carter was so taken with Assad that when he returned to the Middle East, he submitted a false itinerary to the State Department so that he could meet with the dictator again. Hayward's frightful list goes on.
Hayward believes that Carter's liberalism has infected the Democratic Party establishment, and that this is his principal legacy. He sees Carter as the "transition figure" between the old Democratic Party and "the post- McGovern liberalism." But Carter's true legacy is of greater consequence, and is tied to the one charge Hayward neglects: pacifism.
It was Carter's pacifism that allowed the fall of the shah in Iran, giving fundamentalist Islam a nation-state to control. Subsequently, it was Carter's pacifism that encouraged the Soviets to invade Afghanistan, creating a rallying point for mujahadeen and, as Hayward notes, reviving the idea of jihad. Taken in concert, these two events are the catalysts that have forced the war on terrorism to its present stage. Carter's pacifism, be it de facto or de jure, shaped the modern Middle East and helped Islamic fascism survive its infancy. This is a much more dire legacy than the simple corruption of Democratic ideology.
At the end of the day, the real Jimmy Carter is not quite so bad as Steven Hayward supposes, and yet much, much worse.