Ever since the infamous “Killer Rabbit” attack of 1979 I’ve had trouble disassociating Jimmy Carter from Monty Python (“That rabbit is dynamite!”), and yet another flashback occurred during the Bill Clinton-narrated film about Carter preceding Carter’s speech. Clinton’s encomium–”No one has done more than Jimmy Carter, no one has done more than Rosalyn Carter, for the cause of peace”–brought to mind Eric Idle’s send-up of the typical locution of the Academy Awards, in which Idle introduced an Oscar winner with the spot-on neologism: “A man who has only done more than not anyone.”
Or maybe he’s becoming a P. G. Wodehouse character. His line that “our leaders cannot lead if they mislead” recalls Wodehouse’s comical fascist, Sir Roderick Spode, who stupefied his storm troopers with Carteresque lines such as, “Nothing stands between ourselves and victory–except defeat!”
But when Carter wasn’t being unintentionally self-satirical, he was being his old squalid self. Never mentioning Bush by name but making obvious inferences is vintage Carter. Recall how he would call attention to Chappaquiddick in 1980 by saying “I never panicked in a crisis.” His low point in last night’s speech was accusing “the current administration” of fostering “public panic.” Carter no doubt prefers Americans to approach terrorism with malaise instead. He began his speech recalling his 1976 theme of giving us “a government as good as the people,” forgetting that one reason the people decisively rejected him four years later was because he had come around to saying the people were no good. (In fact, Carter used many of the same stiff and awkward looking hand gestures of his famous “malaise” speech.)
And should Carter ever use the word “screeching,” especially in connection with an oxymoron like “Middle East peace process”? (“The current administration,” Carter said, has brought the Middle East peace process “to a screeching halt.”) The old Carter chutzpah was on full display as well, with his precious comment that “the current administration” has let the North Korean nuclear crisis fester. This is the man who aggravated the crisis in the first place, and came back from Pyongyang to tell Americans that Kim Il Sung, the last of the Stalin-era thanatocrats, was the North Korean equivalent of George Washington or Patrick Henry.
But the performance Carter most resembled was not a literary creation of Monty Python or Wodehouse, but his own in the debate with Ronald Reagan in 1980. At least twice in his speech last night Carter used the word “disturbing,” as well as the word “extreme,” to describe the Bush administration. In his 1980 debate with Reagan, Carter called Reagan’s views “disturbing” six times, and “extreme” or “out of the mainstream” several times. One of Carter’s own aides remarked that throughout the debate, “Jimmy looked like he was about to slug him.”
Reagan famously flicked Carter off his sleeve with his retort, “There you go again.” With that one line, Reagan deflated Carter’s relentless attacks on his supposed extremism, reminded voters about Carter’s essential unpleasantness, and made obvious who was the “disturbed” person on stage. But last night’s speech did leave out one important detail from his debate with Reagan. Carter left unanswered the question on everybody’s mind: What does Amy think about the war on terrorism?
–Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Real Jimmy Carter: How America’s Worst Ex-President Undermines Democracy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry.