Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, by Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $25)
It is the little things that stick in the mind, those transient items that show up on an inside-page paragraph of one’s newspaper for a day or two, then vanish, forgotten by everyone else but oneself. Here is one of those oddities from the Carter years. In mid-September 1980 a Russian soldier sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Astoundingly — this, please remember, was nine months into the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a geostrategic event of the first magnitude — there was no one at the embassy who could understand Russian. After a few days, during which the air in the embassy must have been well-nigh crystalline with embarrassment, a deal was struck — no doubt “assurances” were given — and the unfortunate squaddie was returned to the tender care of the Soviet military authorities. I often wonder what became of him. Better not to know, perhaps.
This little incident has always stood for me as a symbol of the cluelessness and impotence of the Carter administration, by common agreement one of the low points in 20th-century American statecraft.
Now, there is a case to be made that some, at least, of that administration’s misfortunes were not Jimmy Carter’s fault. The man was elected president of an angry, unhappy country, afflicted with major systemic problems and confronted by bold, ruthless enemies. “Stagflation,” with which the Carter presidency will be forever associated, was ten years in the bud, was the fruit of policies taught and approved by most expert opinion at the time, and was vanquished at last by Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee. The hostage-taking in Teheran called for a brisk military response; yet America’s military, reflecting the mood of America herself, was never less keen on, or less equipped for, action of that kind than in 1979. The farcical “killer rabbit” incident might have happened to any president. Let’s face it, the guy had some bad breaks. Yet still, with all allowances made and all excuses listed, there is an inner core of awfulness to Jimmy Carter. Our Endangered Values — it is his 20th book — makes this clear.
It is clear, for example, in the dishonesty with which Carter confronts, or fails to confront, his own record, both as president and as ex-president. Sometimes the sleight of hand is flagrant: “I announced that the protection of [human rights] would be the foundation of our country’s foreign policy, and I persistently took action to implement this commitment. It has been gratifying to observe a wave of democratization sweep across our hemisphere and in other regions . . .” It has indeed been gratifying, but the causal link implied by Carter’s account is, to say the least, not readily apparent. The December 31, 2005, issue of National Review carried a graph titled “Worldwide Poverty and Economic Freedom” clearly showing that the positive trend in those indices began in the mid-1980s as a result of Ronald Reagan’s policies.
At other times Carter paints the picture more skillfully, as in the account of his mission to North Korea in 1994. In Carter’s telling, the wise and pragmatic Kims, responding to Carter’s own earnest sincerity, were all set to “bring peace to the [Korean] peninsula,” until George W. Bush recklessly reneged on Carter’s carefully wrought agreements. In fact the ex-president’s 1994 dealings undercut the Clinton administration so shamefully that the word “treason” was heard around Washington. (Peter Schweizer’s 2002 book Reagan’s War was even more explicit about Carter’s tendencies in this regard, unearthing Soviet records that showed Carter asking the Soviets for help in both the 1980 and 1984 elections — by, for example, permitting more Jews to emigrate — and promising that these favors, if granted, would not be forgotten.)
Carter’s cluelessness is also on open display here. On crime: “Our nation’s almost total focus is now on punishment, not rehabilitation.” And are crime rates lower now than in 1980, or higher? “My cochairs at both conferences were the U.N. Commissioners for Human Rights.” Ah, the U.N., that stalwart champion of human rights! Speaking of one of his Third World projects: “We have been amazed at the response of people to these new latrines, especially in Ethiopia.” Perhaps it is a heartless thing to mock a man for trying to help poor people in faraway places, but my own reflex thought on reading that line was: “Ethiopia? Where your chum Fidel Castro deployed several thousand troops in the late 1970s to support that nation’s Marxist junta?”
As a foreign-born citizen, I have always felt a tad ashamed of my loathing for Jimmy Carter. He is, after all, a very American figure. No other nation but ours could have produced this particular combination of dogged industriousness, earnest religiosity, public spirit, and shameless self-promotion. In externals, there is even something admirable about the man. He served his country, in the military and in public life, very conscientiously. He practiced business with modest success. (I have never felt happy with Republican scoffing at Carter as “the peanut farmer.” What is wrong with being a peanut farmer?) His rise to the highest levels of office was driven at least in part by an earnest desire to do right by his fellow citizens. He claims adherence to a studious and generous style of Christian belief. His private life has been spotless, his administration down at the low end of the corruption scale.
Very American. Yet it often happens that the purest breed of dog, with all the “points” perfectly developed, is sickly and ill-tempered in personality. So with Carter. Under stress, the industriousness collapsed into a futile busyness, the patriotism became inverted into bitter rage toward his country for not being what he wished her to be, the religiosity curdled into a narrow, spiteful self-righteousness. Probably Jimmy Carter was never a very nice person. “Humorless grind” was my own first impression of the man, when he showed up on the national stage. His exceptionally decisive rejection by the electorate in 1980 (with his own party controlling both houses of Congress before the election, Carter won only six states), the migration of his Evangelical flock away from theo-liberalism, and a quarter-century of brooding on those things have turned him into a very nasty piece of work indeed, a peevish liar filled with resentment against his country and those non-Carters she has stupidly chosen to elect.
Possibly there is an element of tragedy in Jimmy Carter’s long fall. To engage with a tragedy, though, you must feel some initial warmth, some liking, for the principal character. Jimmy Carter is an awfully hard man to like.