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TUCSON – Carter’s much-remembered “Crisis of Confidence” speech in July 1979 (link below) foreshadowed the self-interested, money-fueled dysfunction that now divides America. He dissected a glum national funk and, point by point, mapped the way out of it.
But Kai Bird’s biography, “The Outlier,” captures the reaction: “He insisted on telling us what was wrong and what it would take to make things better. And for most Americans, it was easier to label the messenger a ‘failure’ than to grapple with the hard problems.”
As a reporter based in Argentina, then Europe, I watched the rise and fall of perhaps the most underappreciated U.S. president in history. The brutality he tried to stop soon spread into Central America, then to the Middle East and beyond.
Carter injected humanity into statecraft. He worked with the Kremlin to stem a nuclear arms race. He brought Israel and Egypt together and pushed hard to find peaceable co-existence with Palestine. He tried to wean America off fossil fuels and protect the global environment.
His brain trust included Samuel Huntington from Harvard, who famously warned after the Soviet Union imploded that the world’s greatest threat was a “clash of civilizations.”
Reagan is lauded for that theatrical flourish: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” But Carter’s diplomacy and Soviets’ 1979 Afghanistan invasion had already rusted away the Iron Curtain. Today, Republicans want that wall in Arizona.
Looking back, I see a lot of Carter in Joe Biden – decency, integrity and a smiling folksy exterior over hard steel. But there is a difference. With a lifetime in Washington and dealings abroad, Biden does not have to learn on the job.
Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon in 1974 and gave Henry Kissinger free rein to help despots stamp out anything with a faint whiff of “communism.” Washington poured money into foreign elections; CIA covert operations and coup-plotting helped tip the balance.
I covered Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s putsch in Chile for the Associated Press. He overthrew Salvador Allende, a moderate socialist despised by wealthy oligarchs for championing the underclass. An estimated 3,000 people were killed; 28,000 were locked away and tortured.
Soon after, Argentina’s military and police began their dirty war against leftist guerrillas, dissidents and apolitical innocents caught up in massive sweeps. U.S. diplomats briefed me off the record on such tactics as torture victims dumped alive at sea, all condoned in Washington.
I left for a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship in New York in late 1976. With access to top sources, I wrote a Foreign Affairs piece on Carter’s campaign to stop the atrocities. Patricia (Patt) Derian, named assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs, was ferocious.
National Security Archives recount a meeting in Buenos Aires with generals who denied any involvement with abductions or killings. “You and I both know that as we speak, people are being tortured in the next floors,” Derian said, producing the building blueprint. Jacobo Timerman, publisher of the influential La Opinion, said she saved him from certain execution.
The junta backed off when Carter threatened to cut aid. But as soon as he left office, it spiked upward. By 1983 when normalcy was restored, perhaps as many as 30,000 people had been “disappeared.”
Meantime in Central America, Reagan bankrolled what he called “freedom fighters,” dubbed Contras (as in counterrevolutionaries). U.S. aircraft brought them weapons, and CIA agents allowed them to load cocaine on return flights to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida.
After Congress banned the arms shipments, they continued covertly. Reagan’s operatives secretly sold weapons to Iran, despite an official embargo, to fund the Contras. Remember Oliver North? It’s a complex story, often told. The upshot is that America’s word was a bad joke.
The irony is bitter. Nancy Reagan proclaimed, “Just Say No,” from the White House while Contras and criminals fed the nation’s drug habit. Today’s border crisis, which Republicans blame on Biden, is rooted in military repression, drug smugglers and gangs during the 1980s.
Back then, deep-digging reporters in bureaus across the world brought “foreign affairs” to light. Their credibility was high, in general, and voters who cared had a fix on reality. Today, no longer. Even when covert blunders are exposed, there is little reaction.
Two covert military operations show the difference.
After intense political pressure to let Iran’s deposed shah come to America for cancer treatment, Carter finally relented. A mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran shouting, “Death to the great Satan.” They held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Carter attempted a rescue attempt with eight helicopters. One was lost in a sandstorm; two had mechanical failures. The mission was aborted, and a fourth collided with a transport aircraft. Altogether, eight servicemen died. Carter’s popularity plummeted.
To top it off, Carter’s aides negotiated the hostages return near the end of his term, but they were kept in Iran until just after Reagan was inaugurated.
In 2017, only days in office, Donald Trump sent helicopters to Yemen to capture a band of Al-Qaeda fighters — a grandstand effort to show his derring-do. Terrorists, tipped off, were waiting. Ryan Owens, a decorated Navy Seal, was killed. A $75 million Osprey helicopter crashed.
No significant intelligence was retrieved. “Collateral damage” included an 8-year-old girl killed in the crossfire, the daughter of a U.S. citizen who had joined Al Qaeda.
But Sean Spicer told reporters the operation was a stunning success. He excoriated those – including Sen. John McCain – who said otherwise. Trump preened. It was his folly, but he falsely blamed Barack Obama, claiming his predecessor’s bad planning was at fault.
Ten months later, NBC broadcast its thorough investigation. The victim’s father, an ex-Green Beret, had shunned a White House ceremony. He called it “a screw-up from the start that ended badly.” It was just one more alternative truth for which Trump paid no price.
Carter, at times mercurial, could flash a hard edge under his toothy grin. In the 1970s, Hunter Thompson, always mercurial, called him a “southern dingbat,” among the “meanest” men he’d ever met. “He’ll eat your shoulder right off” to win an electoral vote, he told an interviewer.
I drove to Plains, Georgia, in 1977 for an up-close read. Townsfolk who knew Carter well joked about brother Billy’s beer and various family foibles. But the polymath peanut farmer in their midst was deeply respected, a colorblind Christian evangelical who did not proselytize.
Georgia (like my home state of Arizona) produces some aggressively ignorant politicians. Carter was at the other extreme, an avid student of just about everything. As a 28-year-old U.S. Navy officer, he led a harrowing submarine operation to avert calamity at a nuclear plant in Canada.
Scrupulously honest, he put his business in a blind trust and left office $1 million in the red. That soon changed with best-selling books and substantial support for the Carter Center. He remained in his modest two-bedroom home, using the windfall to combat poverty and disease.
Carter won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for, the committee said, “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
Like all presidents, Carter had to play the hand he was dealt: an economy wracked by fallout from the 1973 oil crisis, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the shah of Iran’s fall to Islamist zealots. At home, Ted Kennedy sniped at him, often bitterly, for his moderate social policies.
Kennedy challenged him for the nomination in 1980, and opposing aides nearly came to blows at the Democratic convention. “Politics is tough enough…that you don’t cut each other’s throats,” party chairman Robert Strauss told The New Yorker.
A New York Times editorial concluded: “Too many people feared Kennedy’s answers to social problems are too liberal, by which they mean, obsolete or too expensive or both. One can regret the turn to conservatism in America; one can rail against it; one can work to reverse it. But through much of his campaign, the Senator pressed on as though it didn’t exist.”
In any case, Reagan won by a 489 to 49 electoral vote, and his sharp right turn led to plutocracy in America.
While I worked abroad, my sister, Jane Kay, began prize-winning work as an environmental reporter. Under Carter, she said, EPA officials answered questions, eager to explain why a cardigan-wearing president put solar panels on the White House roof.
The change, Jane remembers, was night and day. Reagan made a show of taking down the panels. At EPA and elsewhere, press officers erected barriers and screened queries. A stalwart colleague gave her early advice: “Just remember, industry lies.”
In domestic policies, Reagan found a soulmate in Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s conservative prime minister. She was a tough, sharp-tongued leader in a country of strong unions and taxes on the rich. Wealth had a chance of trickling down. In America, Reaganomics defied gravity.
Reagan was an innocent abroad who bumbled into conflicts for which America paid a heavy price. After a terrorist truck bomb killed 241 U.S. servicemen in Lebanon, he ordered a wag-the-dog invasion of Grenada, a Caribbean jewel where a few Cubans were building an airport.
But he sure could play the role. Atop Pointe du Hoc in Normandy to celebrate D-Day, I watched Reagan mesmerize a moist-eyed crowd of allied veterans, French families and reporters.
Peggy Noonan authored that speech. Last week in the Wall Street Journal, she praised Carter as a man but as a president. “(He) justly had pride in his personal talents—a logical mind, first-rate scientific and mathematical abilities,” she wrote. “But he saw himself as politically astute in ways he wasn’t.”
That is Joe Biden’s problem today. Too many Americans can’t recognize a good president when they see one.
In my own view, Kai Bird has it right: “The man was not what you think. He was tough. He was extremely intimidating. Jimmy Carter was probably the most intelligent, hard-working and decent man to have occupied the Oval Office in the 20th century.”
Carter’s “White House Diary” published in 2010 comprises 500 pages of his daily notes, interspersed with comments that add later reflections. In an Afterword chapter, he laments “legal bribery” in a divided partisan America where money determines outcomes.
He regrets that many critics brand him antisemitic despite his commitment to a democratic Jewish state alongside an autonomous Palestine. He warned early on that encroaching Israeli settlements created what he likened to apartheid that destabilize the Middle East.
He quotes Walter Mondale, his vice president: “We obeyed the law, we told the truth, and we kept the peace.” And he cites Jefferson’s words on a plaque he put up in the White House: “I have the consolation to reflect that during the period of my administration not a drop of blood of a single citizen was shed by the sword of war.”
That Crisis of Confidence address, later termed his “malaise” speech, reveals his astute prophesy. America faces two paths, Carter said, and he feared the second, which leads to fragmentation and self-interest.
In his words: “Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.”
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.