This is what comes from procrastinating. I’ve had “Jimmy Carter” as a topic in my list of potential posts for years, waiting for me to get motivated to do a little more research to clarify details, because I felt that his presidency had been badly misrepresented in the media since before he even left office, and now that he’s entered hospice, articles (mostly along the same lines, thankfully) are sprouting up here and there; now such a post looks like opportunism, which I hate even the suggestion of. However, one such article provided me with a slight change in approach, and here we are.
First off, I was there – melodrama aside, I’m old enough to remember his tenure in office firsthand, and was in fact right at that age when I would be soon able to vote; it was the 1980 election that actually cemented in my mind how utterly pointless this was in the face of our asinine and manipulative electoral
christian daycare college system, but that’s a topic for another post. But this also means that I got to see the rather skewed take on things that occurred in the media (including Wikipedia) after Carter left office, which has been going on in the 40-odd years since – that’s one of the (many) reasons why I don’t pay much attention to media, as well. We’re tracing some of the roots of my skepticism as we go along.
The article in question is The Surprising Greatness of Jimmy Carter at Washington Monthly, which is a reflection of how we might get influenced in stupid ways, because it’s surprising only if you have the typical media representation of him, or focus solely on the superficial aspects of a few events during his term. The one that most people remember vividly, explained just a little within the article, is the Iranian hostage crisis, where militant students seized the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage; this lasted quite a long time, and during that period a US military force attempted to enter Tehran and rescue the hostages, bringing the word “fiasco” into public consciousness again when it failed. Public-image wise, perhaps that word is appropriate – certainly it can apply to Carter’s own approval ratings – but from a military exercise standpoint, we have had far worse, hundreds of times over – at least the civilian death count was one in this case. [Note: Had the mission gone largely as planned, the civilian death toll would undoubtedly have been much higher, which would have been completely ignored because it was “successful.”] Long story short: it was a remarkably risky and ill-advised mission, well outside of capabilities at the time, that had a ridiculous number of failure points that would ruin the mission. It had already failed and was scrubbed before a simple mistake caused the collision of two aircraft and a fatal fire. Carter publicly took full responsibility for this and received most of the blame, but a moment’s thought determines quite easily that this wasn’t his plan, his logistics, or his training; for that, we must look to the various military experts that assured him the mission could be accomplished.
Now we get to a little background. The utter shitshow that was US involvement in Vietnam had ‘closed’ only a few years before, tied in very closely with Watergate and a distinct (yet nonetheless appropriate) distrust of elected officials. Carter entered office with a clear plan, visible throughout most of his policy decisions: focus on solving our own country’s problems; lessen our interventions in foreign politics, with “diplomacy” as the keyword; focus on the actual intended functions of politicians in the first place; and try to establish a process of investing in our future. When it came to the Iranian affair, the gung-ho attitude has always been, “Let’s go in and blast them to hell” – which takes very little thought to recognize would be a huge international incident, resulting in countless civilian lives lost, and would rightfully have been considered invading a foreign country; it’s thinking with your dick, nothing more. Even more specifically, it reflects the idea of “our boys” being somehow more valuable than “them,” for any given value of them, which has been the impetus behind most wars, major and minor. Military might almost never solves any problems, it just shifts the focus, and Carter knew that. Resorting to a military endeavor, aimed for as low a body count as possible, was his reluctant admission that diplomacy wasn’t going to work in the face of Iranian zealotry – notice that it was students that took the hostages, never the clearest-thinking group in any society. (Also notice that I never specified, “muslim,” because islam was only a minor factor in the equation – narrow minds coupled with emotional baggage were the primary culprits, which happens all over the place, not-so-subtle hint there.)
By the way, this isn’t just me editorializing, because evidence of all of these factors is clearly on record, including within Carter’s own diaries. What was a surprise to me, within the article, was that in the months preceding the hostage situation, Carter fought against harboring the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fearing it would trigger an adverse response from Iran – which it did, in spades. In several different cases, Carter caved to advice from his cabinet, against his better judgment, and took the blame when it turned out to be shitty advice.
Which leads us to another aspect: Carter was a statesman, which we see almost nothing of anymore. As Chief Executive, it was his responsibility overall, regardless of who it came from beneath him, because he was responsible for those beneath him. It’s a trait of actual leadership, one that we see very rarely anymore even from any aspect of corporate business, much less from our politicians (try to imagine Florida Man taking responsibility for any negative outcomes, much less giving credit where it’s properly due.) The only thing that I can fault Carter for in these circumstances was not immediately firing those cabinet-members or advisors that encouraged these courses of action, and I won’t (publicly) speculate on why – that would be attempting to psychoanalyze someone based on superficial impressions.
There’s a point in that linked article that was key, to me at least, and yet the writers seemed completely oblivious to it. The article is an interview with two authors of works on Carter’s legacy, and in there Jonathan Alter says, of Carter:
Where it hurt him, Kai, I think, is when he let that effort to try to get to the right answer crowd out the politics. He didn’t think of himself as a politician, and that really hurt him.
Getting to the right answer is what a politician is supposed to do – it’s the only reason to have the government structure that we do in the first place. That ‘politics’ is now considered to be playing a manipulative and self-promoting game is the key failure here, and one that too few people recognize. Carter was the last president that we had that knew, and demonstrated, what he was in office to do.
Again, not mere speculation or editorializing: Carter’s actions since leaving office have been overwhelmingly positive as well as humanitarian, a lifetime of accomplishments that defies comprehension, demonstrating that his focus remained firmly in place. He’s made countless diplomatic visits to other countries in the interests of peace and improved relations, among them Egypt, Israel, North Korea, South Africa, Sudan, and Darfur. The Carter Center, which he and his wife founded, partnered with the World Health Organization to combat malaria and virtually eradicate Guinea worm disease. He’s been recognized by several major awards, among them the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights and the Nobel Peace Prize. His and his wife’s volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity wasn’t just administrative; he was personally building houses into his eighties at least.
The disingenuous might argue that this was all a case of conspicuous altruism, yet there remains very few people aware of the scope of his accomplishments, while media appearances were few and far between. The typical ‘lecture circuit’ of post-presidents in the US, commanding tens of thousands of dollars in fees per appearance, is almost non-existent in Carter’s history, and those that did occur were aimed towards his humanitarian goals. The authors within the interview, with the task of educating the public about Carter’s actions and attitudes in office (which would have greatly improved Carter’s own approval within the media and the population in general) were granted a strictly-enforced one hour of his time before he turned back to his duties. This from a man three decades past typical retirement age.
It’s easy to consider the Carter years as marred by numerous issues – it’s quite a bit harder to find those that he actually caused, much less that he had any control over. In the face of an energy crisis, he not only took actions to alleviate this, he fostered an attitude and policies of reducing our energy needs and turning away from petroleum – better than 40 years ago. His administration was notably unburdened by scandals, indictments, investigations, resignations, and above all, deaths from any of his actions, foreign or domestic. Feel free to tally up any US President to see how they compare in those regards alone – none will compare at all to Carter’s efforts following his tenure as President. He deserves a lot more respect than he’s been given, and a lot less attention paid to inept and superficial media representation. And above all, we really need to understand what our politicians are there to accomplish.