Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter has long been someone I greatly admire.  The world has not always been kind to him, partly because he was ahead of the time and admittedly he had made mistakes.  One is reminded that politics is a very dirty business.  Kai Bird, the award winning author has constructed a fairly comprehensive biography of the former president, but with the focus on his presidential term.  The title "The Outlier" is meant to indicate that Carter was an outsider, a liberal southerner.

Jimmy grew up with black playmates and although his father could be described as a segregationist, his mother was very liberal.  Segregation actually disgusted Jimmy, but to get elected in Georgia one had to avoid racial topics.   As a young man I remember reading the Playboy interview where he admitted he had "lusted" in his heart after other women, an admission that indicated his honesty, but not appreciated by some voters.

This book has made me more conscious that Carter was a power seeking politician.  Not sure of his motive, but would say he felt he could do a better and more humane job.  Unfortunately his base was in the south where segregation was what many of the voters wanted.  He was liberal on many issues and very open, but knew to get power he had to be pragmatic.  Rosalyn, a childhood sweetheart was a very critical part of his success.

He gave his Vice President, Walter Mondale an office at the White House and included him in most discussions believing it was critical that his backup should be fully prepared.  His first act as president was to pardon over 200,000 Vietnam draft dodgers.

In many policies Carter was always concerned about budget.   Read all the details, even taking speed reading to keep up.  One telling example was his decision on liquor in the White House.  He was not a teetotaler and was known to share a bottle of Bourbon in private with guests.  They also offered wine at state dinners.  But he felt hard liquor was an unnecessary expense that hindered serious discussion.  This did not go well with many critics including Ted Kennedy.  Successfully rooted out much waste.

Pushed many policies for consumer protection including legislating seat belts and air bags despite much libertarian opposition.  Personally against abortion, but supported Roe v. Wade and advocated sex education and contraception for teenagers.  Re-opened up market for craft beer.

He made a point to nominate more diverse candidates for the court system.  One notable one was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Females, blacks and hispanics all gained more court appointments.

An early foreign policy controversy came with his decision to give up control of the Panama Canal.  Many financial interests and right wing politicians were adamantly against it.  Was generally an advocate against human rights abuses, but did soften a bit for political concerns.

Against many of his advisors he got involved in Mid East politics.  In the end this cost him the normal Democratic Jewish support.   Looking at today one can appreciate that one huge obstacle was the Israeli insistence on the illegal settlements on the West Bank.  Carter pushed on this at the risk of a Begin walkout.  Both Sadat and Begin said it would not have succeeded  except for the dogged persistence of Carter.

He had been told that Iran was a staunch ally against Communism, but he was well aware of human rights abuses and did mellow them a bit.  To the shah Jimmy Carter once quoted a 13th century Farsi poet, "If the misery of others leaves you indifferent and no feelings of sorrow, then you cannot be called a human being." 

Zbigniew Brzeinskis always advocated that it was important to support Iran against Communism, but overlooked much of violent protests.  Eventually the anti Shah forces succeeded in a Revolution.  Carter was sympathetic, but very reluctant to accept the Shah as an exile, but when it was revealed that the Shah needed urgent medical treatment, among many others Henry Kissinger strongly campaigned and eventually Carter agreed.  This soon led to the hostage taking at the American Embassy.

Again right wingers (and also Brzezinski) were wanting an aggressive action while Carter wanted a diplomatic response.  The rescue attempt was risky to begin with and ran into many technical disasters. m Initially Carter's support improved, but is now symbolic of how weak many felt Carter was.

While the Iranian hostage crisis was in play Russia decided to invade Afghanistan.   Some advisors thought it was due to a miscue between Communists in Afghanistan.  The Americans imposed sanctions, but Carter felt a stronger gesture was required and decided the Americans would boycott the Moscow Olympics.  Personally I felt the Olympics should be beyond politics, but of course it isn't. An earlier blog at the time of the 2016 Brazil Olympics covers some views including political:

Politics is a dirty business.  Ted Kennedy felt he should be president and execute his legislation hi-lited with a universal health program.  After his effort to win the Democratic nomination for the 1980 election he avoided the traditional rituals to project party unity. 

The Republicans were afraid of an "October surprise" The author recalls some unproven (only circumstantial evidence) that there was an effort to delay hostage release until after Reagan's inauguration.  It is not hard to believe, but in actuality it was difficult as the Iranians were divided and American financiers had vested interests in prolonging the process.   Before the one debate the Republicans managed to steal Carter's debate preparation.  Carter, although a Southerner had disappoined many fellow southerners with his advocacy for blacks.  The Republicans wanted to make a statement without being direct and chose to hold their first rally at Philadelphia, Mississippi  near where two black men were murdered.   The Republicans had a big swing from Evangelicals who were racist, but really concerned that a white school was denied a religious tax exemption.

Those trying to bring down Carter left their mark on today's politics.  Roy Cohn, considered to be a mentor to Donald Trump intruded at least twice.  On one occasion the author traces Cohn to a fake scandal with key advisor, Jordan Hamilton involving a cocaine incident at Studio 54.  It turned out Jordan was not even there.  Cohn arranged for a change in endorsements by having Roger Stone distribute money to the Liberal party. 

After a humiliating election Carter learned that his peanut warehouse was bankrupt.  He ended up selling some of his assets and started teaching at Emory University and writing which formed a big part of his income.  He originally planned to take up a new hobby, but before too long he felt himself being drawn into more serving projects.  Expected to fundraise for the traditional presidential library he decided to add on a conflict resolution center and felt more motivated.  He befriended an old foe, Gerald Ford at Anwar Sadat's funeral and together they wrote an article in Reader's Digest criticizing Israel's illegal settlements.  

Carter got involved in many different different diplomatic disputes.  He helped Daniel Ortega to accept an election loss in Nicaragua, using himself as an example.  He got involved in disputes in Haiti and North Korea where he is credited with averting military action.  Supervising elections was a task he took on which gave them more credibility.  He wanted also to improve global health and chose to obliterate the guinea worm disease.  Another major project was Habitat for Humanity requiring some physical effort and at 97 is still carrying on.  

Many commentators praise his humanitarian deeds, but maintain that he was a weak president.   He made his share of mistakes, but few understood his calculations or the circumstances.  Unfortunately he was not as spellbinding an orator as Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump, but he did more for America than either of those two more attention getting presidents.  It is to the detriment of America (and the world) that voters do not really examine the issues, but pay more attention to the rhetoric and ignore the underlying problems. 

An earlier post on Jimmy Carter:

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