Jimmy Carter was wronged by history

The downside of America’s political memory is that substance often counts for little. If it were taken more seriously, Jimmy Carter would be credited with instigating the fall of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan would not have been canonized as a modern day saint. But marketing is a powerful drug. Conventional wisdom insists that Carter Chamberlain played for Reagan’s Churchill. After four years of Carterian vacillations, Reagan took over in 1981 and the rest is history. Except that it’s a shabby story. Understanding how the US won the last Cold War is key to tackling the next.

America’s distorted memory stems in part from the fact that the right worships Reagan while the left denies Carter. Such was their sense of betrayal that influential Kennedy-era liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, for the only time in their lives, refused to vote for the Democrats in 1980. Carter is thus an orphan of partisan historiography. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went out of their way to ignore him. Joe Biden is the first of Carter’s successors to pay his respects to the 39th President of the United States. This is no coincidence. Biden and Carter have overlapping worldviews.

The source of liberal contempt is twofold. First, Carter ended the Cold War détente of his predecessors. Detente included US recognition of the USSR’s sphere of interest and a pledge not to interfere in each other’s affairs. The détente also allowed the Soviets to achieve nuclear parity with the US. America’s defense spending fell nearly 40 percent in real terms in the eight years before Carter took office. Carter reversed both. He invested in a new class of strategic nuclear weapons and installed Pershing and Cruise medium-range weapons in Europe. He also reversed Henry Kissinger’s neglect of Soviet dissidents and satellite states. Charter 77, Solidarity, and other protest movements emerged during Carter’s presidency. “Human rights are the soul of our foreign policy,” he said.

It is no coincidence that Carter’s first state visit as President was in Poland. Unfortunately, his interpreter garbled his words. Carter said he was happy to be in Poland and wished to have close ties with its people. It turned out that he had left America for good and wanted to have sex with locals. Poland didn’t seem to mind. A US president who preached universal rights helped America turn the tide of its fame during the Vietnam era. Carter’s arming of human rights lit a fuse that contributed to the peaceful implosion of the Soviet Union. He is unique among modern presidents in having no US combat deaths on his watch.

The second liberal charge against Carter is that he lost to Reagan. As the saying goes, Carter was defeated by the three Ks – Khomeini, Kennedy and Koch. The Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led to the hostage situation that fell on Carter like a millstone. After 444 days of captivity, the US hostages were released minutes after Carter left office. There is no evidence that Reagan entered into a backchannel deal with the Khomeini government to hold the hostages until after the 1980 elections. But the evidence is very strong. Carter thinks William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager, got a bargain. Such an unnatural Rolodex would also explain Reagan’s Iran-Contra shenanigans a few years later.

Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge also hurt Carter. Although Kennedy famously couldn’t explain why he wanted to be president, Carter had his own theory: Kennedy saw it as his birthright. The gulf between the rural Georgian peasant who grew up shoeless and the Boston aristocrat is a fault line that still hampers the Democratic Party. Biden is on Carter’s side.

Ed Koch was New York’s Democratic mayor who thought Carter was prejudiced against Israel. Carter’s Camp David deal neutralized Egypt—Israel’s strongest enemy—doing more for Israel’s security than any US president since. No good deed goes unpunished. Carter was the only Democratic president who received less than half of the Jewish vote.

Paul Volcker’s last name doesn’t begin with a K. However, the then Federal Reserve Chairman arguably played the biggest part in Carter’s defeat. With interest rates at 20 percent, Carter had little chance at the ballot box. It is worth noting that Carter picked Volcker with full knowledge of his anti-inflation credentials.

In it, as in so much else, Carter did the right thing but received no credit. The left hated him for it. The rightists acted like it was Reagan’s doing. The same can be said about how America won the Cold War. The moral of Carter’s story is that virtue must be its own reward. History is a biased judge.


https://www.ft.com/content/0bf70e43-45a9-47b2-bdc6-5b2b2392796b Jimmy Carter was wronged by history

Brian Ashcraft

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