Monday, July 20, 2009

Some Mild Carter Revisionism

I am a bit late coming to the game when it comes to recognizing the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech in which the word "malaise" never actually appeared. Gordon Stewart, one of Carter's speechwriters and an author of that address recounts its origins in this piece in The New York Times. One of his arguments -- that for all of its infamy, the speech was actually very popular -- also seems to be a point echoed in Ohio University Professor Kevin Mattson's new book on the speech, "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country.

My views on Jimmy Carter have come to be much like my views of George W. Bush. Not because they were both epically bad presidents, though they were. But rather because they were bad because they were incompetent more than that they were bad because of their ideas (though Bush and his administration in particular had some catastrophically bad ideas). After all, Carter, not Reagan, began the military buildup that helped bankrupt the Soviets. Carter, not Reagan, set in motion the opposition to the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, with both its successes and its unintended consequences. And as much as he was pilloried for boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics, at least one of the arguments against it seem more and more dubious as the years have progressed: 1) That the Olympics are no place for politics. This is a view so ahistorical it would be laughable were it not still so pernicious. Furthermore, American policy has always been predicated on a balance of not supporting our enemies in either their economies or their propaganda. Going to Moscow in 1980 would have done both. I am not saying that the boycott was a great idea. I am simply arguing that today's conservatives, who believe that any engagement with Iran is tantamount to waving a white flag, in addition to mounting a stupid and also ahistorical argument, nonetheless must either acknowledge their own hypocrisy (fat chance) or that maybe they need to reconsider Carter's approach to the 1980 question. Furthermore, Carter's relative helplessness in the face oif the hostage crisis seems at least a little more understandable in the context of the intractable threats from radical Islam that we face today, not to mention the problems in Iran itself.

As for the speech itself, looking back on it, it is remarkable that the speech was fundamentally right. Its critics need to keep in mind that Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign was based on many of the the same ideas, at least the negative ones -- Reagan has gotten something of a free pass for being a sunny optimist, but his 1980 campaign was far from cheery. And Carter's views on energy seem eerily prescient in a tragic sort of way. Carter's problem was that he did not know what to do after the speech, that he faced circumstances largely beyond his control (many of which he inherited) and that he was a lousy leader who grew increasingly worse as his administration developed.

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