The 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, will be trotted out before Democratic-party faithful on Monday night in Boston. Steven F. Hayward has written the book on Carter–literally–in his recent The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry. In anticipation of Carter adulation, NRO chatted with Hayward this weekend to set the record straight on President Malaise.
National Review Online Steve, do you enjoy picking on nice old men who build homes for poor people?
STEVEN F. HAYWARD: Yes, when they use their coveralls and tool-belt to cloak a mischievous agenda of misguided peace-mongering and personal self-aggrandizement at the expense of one’s own country. Carter deserves all the credit he gets for Habitat for Humanity, but that hardly makes him America’s “finest ex-president,” as he is often called. Carter’s bit as the cuddly southern farmer/homebuilder continues to be the greatest political con job since Sam Ervin’s “I’m just a country lawyer” bit during Watergate. Carter is a ruthlessly calculating person.
NRO: How was Carter a failed president?
HAYWARD: Let me count the ways: 18-percent inflation and 20-percent interest rates, Russians on the march all over the globe, and American hostages stuck in Iran. That’s just for starters. But the easiest way is just to recall that Carter ran for president promising us “a government as good as the people,” and then in 1979, in his famous “malaise” speech, essentially said the people are no good.
NRO: Who is it who is reappraising the Carter White House years?
HAYWARD: Carter’s leading cheerleader is Douglas Brinkley (surprise, surprise), who did the clever thing and wrote glowingly about Carter’s post-presidency, though even Brinkley couldn’t whitewash some of Carter’s more egregious escapades (such as clandestinely trying to undermine the first President Bush in Gulf War I). Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, argues that Carter was a better president than we think.
NRO: How is Carter like Jesse Jackson?
HAYWARD: He matches Jesse Jackson (and Ramsey Clark, too) for his anti-American rhetoric on foreign soil, for a “blame-America-first” attitude toward nearly all world problems. This is one way he has shredded the rules for discretion and restraint that all other ex-presidents have observed (including even Clinton for the most part so far).
NRO: So, Carter really is not the model ex-president, is he? Why does everyone seem to think and say he is?
HAYWARD: One is the Habitat for Humanity schtick, as already mentioned; the other is his nonstop peace mongering. If you keep chanting “peace, peace, peace” long enough, many people start to think at least “your heart is in the right place.” I rather like what The New Republic said of Carter in 1995: “Jimmy Carter’s reputation for idealism has been one of the great swindles of American politics for two decades.”
NRO: Carter had a second administration? Was it so bad I blocked it out?
HAYWARD: Yes, it was that bad; It was the first two years of the Clinton administration, where Clinton not only filled his foreign-policy team with Carter retreads (think Warren Christopher and Richard Holbrooke), but also essentially farmed out his foreign policy to Carter directly, leading to such disasters as Carter’s North Korean trip in 1994. Finally even Clinton had enough of Carter, and tried to pull the plug on him.
NRO: How is Carter “maddeningly contradictory”?
HAYWARD: First, he represents himself as a pious born-again Christian (though the media never noticed his very liberal theological influences), but has a mean and vindictive character and is extraordinarily prideful; he represented himself as a conservative Democrat (and annoyed the liberal wing of the party), but governed from the left and revealed himself to have far-left sympathies. He is obviously intelligent, but seems utterly incapable of learning anything.
NRO: What was the Carter straddle on abortion?
HAYWARD: The 1976 campaign was the first national election after the Roe decision, and the politics of the issue were still sorting themselves out. Remember that Gerald Ford was pro-abortion, while many Democrats, including Sargent Shriver, one of Carter’s rivals, were pro-life. In the Iowa caucuses, which Carter put on the map for the first time, Carter told Catholic audiences (and a gathering of bishops) that he opposed abortion and supported legislation to restrict it, thus cutting into Shriver’s support. But he told feminist groups at the same time that he supported abortion rights (indeed, he had done so as governor of Georgia). He flat out pandered. Today he does the “I’m personally opposed but” dodge.
NRO: Jimmy Carter hated Ronald Reagan?
HAYWARD: This is an element of his extreme pridefulness, which ill-fits a supposedly devout Christian. Aside from the understandable disappointment of losing the White House, Carter felt that Reagan was unworthy to be president. The irony here is that, a year before the election, Carter and his team thought Reagan would be the easiest Republican to beat. A parade of California Democrats came to the White House to warn Carter not to underestimate Reagan, but they didn’t listen. Carter’s pollster, Pat Caddell, promised: “It isn’t even going to be close.” He was right–it wasn’t close.
NRO: Carter appears at the Democratic convention Monday night, but is he in any way the kinda guy one wants to drag out during the war on terrorism? What’s wrong with the Democrats?
HAYWARD: It will depend on what he says. I expect that he will reprise what he has been saying in op-ed articles over the last couple of years, namely, that America’s failure to uphold his understanding of human rights is the root cause of terrorism today. Read that twice: That is his argument. Back in 1980, Pat Moynihan said of Carter: “Unable to distinguish between our friends and our enemies, he has essentially adopted our enemies’ view of the world.” That remains the case today.
NRO: How much should Democrats who are lukewarm or worse on John Kerry blame Jimmy Carter for their current state of affairs? Is Carterism in the party easy to spot?
HAYWARD: The Democratic party has been fully Carterized, so to speak. Remember that he won the 1976 election in part because a lot of Democratic-party voters and independent voters thought he represented a return to the older Harry Truman-John F. Kennedy-Scoop Jackson-style Cold War liberal realism. Carter ran to the right of Ford on foreign policy, attacking Henry Kissinger and detente for example. Instead, what we got was, in Bob Dole’s memorable phrase, “southern-fried McGovern.” And so Carter had the effect of killing off once and for all the Truman-Scoop Jackson wing of the party, which had been under attack since the 1960s by the new left. Most of those kind of Democrats became “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, and Republicans in the 1990s. Today, however, there are a lot of new, younger voters who don’t have a direct memory this history. That’s one reason for my book.