Politics & Policy

Back to The Sage of Plains, &C.

As longtime readers know, I’ve commented on Jimmy Carter a lot, and some time ago–oh, maybe a half-year ago–I swore off. I mean, how much can you say about a perpetually vexing ex-prez? I placed him in the Thomas Friedman/Maureen Dowd category: You can only listen to them for so long, decry them for so long. Then, you yourself become a repetitive nuisance.

But let me revisit the 39th president, may I? I thought of something when reading his recent op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times–a piece apparently drawn from his new book, Our Endangered Values: Americas Moral Crisis. The op-ed is titled “This Isn’t the Real America” (i.e., America as Mr. Carter conceives it).

What I thought of is this: Since he left office in 1981, Carter has opined, written, and pontificated, over and over again. But he’s pretty much never questioned. He’s never challenged. Of course, once in a while he submits to an interview, but it’s not really an interview–it’s more like a fawn-fest. Carter never faces what my colleague Rick Brookhiser calls “comeback.”

As I was reading the op-ed piece, I thought of a whole mess of questions I’d like to ask Carter–or would like to see someone else ask him.

For example, he writes that George W. Bush has implemented “a host of radical government policies that now threaten many basic principles espoused by all previous administrations, Democratic and Republican.” Among these principles is “the rudimentary American commitment to peace, economic and social justice, civil liberties, our environment and human rights.”

Well, that’s quite a list. You could ask questions based on it all day long. (By the way, I warn you, my friends: Never trust anyone who can speak of “economic justice” or “social justice.” Those are just fine-sounding absurdities.) Anyway, let’s take merely Carter’s last item, human rights. Bush is constantly blasted–usually from the right–for placing too much emphasis on human rights. His second inaugural address was widely attacked. Here is a man, Bush, who toppled two of the most murderous, most vicious, most evil regimes known to man: that of the Taliban, and that of Saddam Hussein.

Can Carter muster no applause?

Then Carter says we have “declared independence from the restraints of international organizations and have disavowed long-standing global agreements . . .” Okay. Which ones should we not have abandoned? Would Carter like to argue for the ABM Treaty, signed with a government that no longer exists (no thanks to Carter)? Would he like to argue for Kyoto? Let him–and let him engage in a real debate.

Then he goes after Bush for the doctrine of preemption. Fine, Carter disagrees. But what would he do, when a hostile regime is amassing–or thought to be amassing–weapons of mass destruction? How long would he stand by? Does he regret Israel’s takeout of the Iraqi nuclear facility? (I bet he does.) It would be good to hear him.

Then he writes–and this is typical Carter–”When there are serious differences with other nations, we brand them as international pariahs and refuse to permit direct discussions to resolve disputes.”

Does Carter acknowledge that there is often a difference between a nation’s regime–its rulers–and the people themselves? Does he recognize that we can oppose, say, the Iranian mullahs, but not the Iranian people, whose freedom we advocate? Which nations has the Bush administration branded international pariahs that should not be so branded? North Korea? Cuba? (I have a feeling Carter has those in mind–Syria, too.)

Carter calls Iraq a “quagmire.” Why does he think this? Does he watch MSNBC? He asserts that “every effort has been made to conceal or minimize public awareness of casualties.” How can he think this? What is he talking about? Is he talking about the policy at Dover Air Force Base–the one that has been in place for 15 years? If he thinks the logic and morality behind that policy are poor, let him say so.

It seems to me that I hear of nothing but casualties, as against the progress that the Allies are making in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Carter denounces the Patriot Act as a robber of civil liberties. Which ones?

He writes, “We have now become a prime culprit in global nuclear proliferation.” What has he been smoking? We are an arrester of proliferation, as in Libya. Carter continues, “America also has abandoned the prohibition of ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear nations, and is contemplating the previously condemned deployment of weapons in space.” Again, what has he been smoking? First use aside–and this was always a bogus propaganda point of the Soviets–who previously condemned the deployment of weapons in space? Jimmy Carter, yes. Those who work for him, yes. Reed College and Bennington College, yes. Who else?

Then he says that Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies, that we are a rotten polluter, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and don’t forget the “unprecedented favors to the rich.” What are these unprecedented favors? Dunno. Carter laments that our minimum wage is paltry. How high would he like to see it rise, and how many jobs would he sacrifice to that end?

Then, “I am extremely concerned by a fundamentalist shift in many houses of worship and in government, as church and state have become increasingly intertwined in ways previously thought unimaginable.” What are these ways? Does he oppose Bush’s faith-based initiative? Is that the problem? Is he worried that the Supreme Court has allowed certain, quite limited displays of the Ten Commandments? Was that “previously thought unimaginable”? To disallow the Commandments was “previously thought unimaginable.”

(It could be that Carter answers my questions–or some of them–in his book. I cannot say.)

Finally, “As the world’s only superpower, America should be seen as the unswerving champion of peace, freedom and human rights.” We are, baby–not by you, but by millions around the world, who know that this country, particularly since 9/11, has been a big, big force for good.

As I’ve explained before, one reason that Jimmy Carter can annoy me is that I used to admire him–and would like to admire him now. He was the first president whom I followed avidly. I have always been something of a Carterologist. (For my 2002 Carterpalooza, please go here.) I would like to take my “first president” seriously, even while disagreeing with him. But he makes it very, very hard.

‐How heartening it was to see 50,000 (according to one estimate) in the streets of Hong Kong, protesting for greater democracy. The noose is not yet cinched around that city’s neck. Someone at the march said to reporters, “I just feel there are moments in one’s life when you have to stand up and be counted. And for me, this is one of those moments.”

So let’s hear no more about “Asian values,” which are supposed to eschew liberty. Taiwan, by itself, should have put that lie to bed. And let’s hear a little less, if we can, about how Arabs just like to be oppressed. (It’s usually oppressors–or would-be oppressors–purveying that line.)

‐The other night, the New York Philharmonic presented a new piece: “Berceuse for Dresden,” by the British composer Colin Matthews. I could not help feeling wary about this piece. As you know, Dresden has been the subject of mega-revisionism lately: Brits are apologizing all over the place; many Germans are preening as victims. Matthews wrote his piece in order to commemorate the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, the Dresden church that was flattened and is now reopened.

I was fascinated to see–rather relieved and grateful to see–that Matthews dedicated his piece to, of all people, Victor Klemperer. Why “of all people”? Because Klemperer, the famed diarist, was one of many whose lives were essentially saved by the Dresden bombing. Klemperer and other Jews got away in the chaos.

A fairly complicated, illuminating, multifaceted story, Dresden.

Anyway, while reading the program notes, I marked something to share with you Impromptus-ites. (By the way, if you wish to read my New York Sun review of this particular concert, please go here.) This is what I read: The new bells of the Frauenkirche

peal forth with a message that must touch the hearts of all who hear them. Yet for the members of the New York Philharmonic, the largest bell, Jesaia (Isaiah), sings an especially poignant song. Dubbed the Peace Bell, it bears an image of the World Trade Center towers collapsing on September 11, 2001, accompanied by the words from the Book of Isaiah (II, 4): “Sie werden ihre Schwerter zu Pflugscharen machen” (“They will beat their swords into plowshares”).

Fine, fine, great, great. But there is some sword-wielding still to do, I’m afraid, on account of September 11 and all that motivated it and all that would trigger additional such atrocities.

Count me as one New Yorker (adoptive) who would be slightly more interested in a Self-Defense or Freedom Bell.

And here we get back to that old, old question of what “peace” really is.

‐So, I’m walking to work, and I see this souped-up race car (a redundancy, I guess). It’s all decorated, and it has a corporate sponsor: Crown Royal, the liquor company. Of course, of course. Drinking and driving. What could be a more perfect marriage?

And then as I pass close by to the car, I see that it bears a legend: “To Be a Champion, Drink Responsibly.”

Of course, of course!

Life parodies itself even more than skilled parodists like Chris Buckley can.

‐Reader writes and says, “Jay, this seems like it’s right up your pike. [Down the pike, up the alley, whatever.] A girl is quarterbacking the JV football team at a high school in California. She’s third string on the varsity. Can you believe the character of this girl?”

Here’s a portion of the article:

. . . [Miranda] McOsker is leery about the burst of attention she’s received . . . Her father has fielded calls from the Oprah Winfrey, David Letterman and Ellen DeGeneres shows. She turned them all down.

“I don’t think I really deserve it. It’s just because I’m a girl,” she said. “When I first started getting all this attention, the first person I went to talk about this was my parish priest. I pray to God, ‘Please, your will be done. If this is your plan, then I’m there for you.’”

Holy-moly, what a girl. All Torrance-area teenage boys should propose marriage to Miranda McOsker immediately.

‐A little (further) music criticism, from the New York Sun? For a review of Friday night’s premiere of Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera, please go here. And for a review of a Chanticleer Christmas concert–and a review of a New York Philharmonic performance, with commentary by Peter Schickele–please go here.

‐A reader writes,


Just read your latest Impromptus. Yes, the silence from GWB only seems apparent. My frustration lies in the poll results that are splashed across the headlines. Recent polls regarding the economy and Iraq do not reflect reality. For instance, polls indicate many Americans feel that the economy is in decline, and even that we are in a recession. What a contrast with the facts! Polls also indicate that most Americans feel that GWB does not have a plan for Iraq. Again, what a contrast!

All of this tells me that one of two things is true: The polls are biased and unscientific, or Americans are grossly misinformed.

Either one reflects pretty badly on the press, don’t you think?

No, I would never think that about America’s holy Fourth Estate. Not ever! You must not have been reading this column very long, huh?

‐Another reader:

Dear Jay:

Al Sharpton has been given a new television show. I have just two words for you: Tawana Brawley. [I have two more: Steve Pagones.] Doesn’t Sharpton have any shame?

More to the point–doesn’t television?

‐Another reader:

Dear Jay,

I’ve written you a couple of times, particularly on Cuban matters, and I thought you might like this quote from a story in today’s Star-Tribune (Minneapolis). It’s a profile of the hockey player Sergei Fedorov, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets. You may recall that he defected from Russia in 1990 in a real cloak-and-dagger operation conducted by the Detroit Red Wings. The entire profile can be read here

But the money quote is towards the end: “‘I sacrificed a lot, like my connection with my family,’ Fedorov said. ‘But I had been on my own since 13 playing hockey and living in different cities. And I wanted something better. I’m just lucky America exists and the NHL exists.’”

I’m just lucky America exists. Isn’t that beautiful?


‐My screed against Eddie Bauer on Friday provoked about 8 million responses–boy, do people have trouble with companies, and particularly with phone menus–but I would like to print only one:

Dear Jay,

I have been saying for several years now that it is no longer possible to do business by phone. Since the web can be even more dangerous and business ignores snail mail entirely, the only way to deal with your problems is in person. It is very time-consuming, but it is difficult to ignore a human body sitting in your office. So we have come full circle in 100 years of technological advance.

The amazing thing to me is how much trouble these same companies will go to in order to get your business in the first place. Rather dumb to then run you off by their terrible business practices.

A wise letter, I thought.

‐Also provoking a large response was my suggestion–my contention–that an Eisenhower monument is inappropriate for the Mall, in part because it would sort of let everyone (every president) through the door.

One reader proposed, “You shouldn’t go on the Mall unless your presidency is 100 years in the past.” I might buy that–maybe 75. And I loved this, from a different reader: “The entire Interstate Highway System is named after Eisenhower. Isn’t that the biggest national monument you can think of? They can settle this by putting up more-emphatic signage.”


‐A little language:


You’ve been talking about how difficult English must be for foreigners [not to mention us]. Consider the conjugation of four-letter words that end in “ake”:

Bake, baked, baked.

Make, made, made.

Take, took, taken.

Wake, woke, waken.

Now ask your random foreigner to speculate on the conjugation of fake, quake, rake, shake.

I don’t see how they do it.

‐Finally, deal with this, friends:

Dear Jay,

My mother is a kindergarten teacher. Her class is drawn from a comparatively lower-income neighborhood. After Thanksgiving, she put out the Christmas books (i.e., Night Before Christmas, plus various other “Happy Holidays”-type stuff for diversity’s sake). Yesterday, child comes up to her. “Teacher, there’s a bad word in the new books.” Puzzled, Mom goes to check them out. The bad word he points to? It’s Santa Claus, saying “Ho, ho, ho.”

So, there you go–jolly ol’ Saint Nick’s famous phrase, courtesy of gangsta rap, is now an epithet.

How much should civilization weep for a five-year-old who reads the word “ho” and thinks “whore” instead of “Santa”???

Merry Christmas.

Yeah, you too.


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