Posted on May 19, 2002
Jimmy Carter cuts himself down to size
At the 1992 Republican convention, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin gave an enthusiastic speech in support of her boss, George H.W. Bush, and against Bill Clinton, by repeatedly hammering away at the character issue with the statement, "You can't be one kind of man and another kind of president."
The message didn't take hold -- at least not until Clinton had been elected twice, and allowed to beat the rap in his impeachment hearing. During the '92 election campaign, we were told that his past wasn't important, but that the only thing that mattered was what he promised to do in the future. Those who pointed out that his past showed that he seldom kept his word were labeled as "haters" by the press.
During the Clinton administration, the news media reinforced the notion that he could be a different kind of president than he was a man, by asking polling questions that pitted Bill the President against Bill the Man in a competition for approval ratings. Respondents were asked whether they approved of Clinton's "personal life," and then whether they approved of his job performance. Since news reports routinely categorized all of his wrongdoings -- even those which directly involved his abusing the power of his office -- as part of his "personal life," the approval ratings for his job performance remained high, since his "job," by process of elimination, was left to be defined as the absence of scandal.
This strategy served Clinton well during his presidency, but there's one slight problem. The man whose "personal life" had gotten such overwhelming public disapproval no longer has a job. His "personal life" is now the sum total of his existence. Bill the Man is now destroying the precious Legacy of Bill the President.
An inverse of the Clinton split-personality phenomenon can be seen in our other recent Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. The difference is that Carter, almost universally acknowledged as an inept chief executive, has been almost as widely presumed to be personally above reproach. Not unlike Clinton's job approval, Carter's personal reputation has been made to appear more impressive by sliding all of his negative characteristics into the other column. It has been as if his poor decision making as president had nothing at all to do with his personal philosophy.
Jimmy Carter was possibly the first major public figure to identify himself as a born-again Christian. The media present this as a laudable trait, as long as you're a Democrat ... and especially if you're a pro-abortion Democrat. (Carter originated the "personally opposed, but" evasion that became the stock answer for liberal candidates throughout the Eighties.) That position is not the only contradiction of Carter's religious faith, either. As much as he still pokes his nose into international affairs, the former Leader of the Free World has had little to say about the slaughter, enslavement, and persecution of Christians worldwide.
The thirty-ninth president is reputed to be a bold champion of democracy and human rights, but he aided the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He also ended American recognition of the nation of Taiwan, as a means of strengthening diplomatic ties with Red China. What's more, the timidity with which he engaged the Soviet Union betrayed his doubts about the superiority of representative government and free markets.
Although the bad memories of the Carter administration are routinely chalked up to innocent bumbling, many of them were the deliberate actions of a president who didn't always have America's best interests at heart. One of his first acts upon taking office was to pardon all the draft-dodgers from the Vietnam War. He would later sign an agreement to give up the Panama Canal, and negotiate the unverifiable and lopsidedly Soviet-friendly SALT II Treaty.
By betraying the Shah of Iran, the closest American ally in the Islamic world, President Carter was instrumental in the maniacal Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power. Khomeini thanked Carter by seizing the U.S. embassy in Teheran and holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
For all this and more, Jimmy Carter was voted out of office decisively in 1980. His personal reputation, however, did not suffer, because all these negatives had been associated with his job performance. In January of 1981, Jimmy the President retired, and Jimmy the Man was absolved of all blame.
This was a far preferable situation to the one that Bill Clinton faces today. Since Carter had left all his baggage behind at the White House, his image only stood to improve as the years rolled on. But, reminiscent of his presidency, he has unnecessarily gone far out of his way to screw up. The reason for this is that one of the traits of the cleansed, post-presidential Carter image -- his world-famous modesty -- is a myth.
Buoyed by his ever-expanding ego, former president Carter has been floating around the globe openly campaigning for a Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps jealous of the praise that the late Richard Nixon had received for being a "great ex-president," Carter has hurled himself back into the arena of foreign policy, not exactly his specialty when he was president. Far from appearing presidential, he has turned himself into another Jesse Jackson, chasing ambulances to political hotspots all over the world, assuming authority he no longer has, and often contradicting the policies of the current administration.
In what could not unrealistically be called an act of treason, Carter obstructed the elder President Bush's efforts during Operation Desert Shield, by writing a letter to the U.N. Security Council, encouraging it to withhold support for an invasion of Iraq. In 1994, he presumed to negotiate a deal with North Korea, which even the Clinton administration found excessively generous to the communist rogue nation.
And then ... there's Cuba.
When Fidel Castro invited Carter for a visit, he promised him the liberty to go anywhere and speak to anybody he wanted. He even agreed to let him give a speech, which would be broadcast live to the Cuban people. The very fact that El Jefe would do this showed that he knew he had a pigeon. The long history that this alleged human rights watchdog has of coddling communist dictators allowed Castro to assume a tacit understanding about what the ex-president would or would not do and say. Carter did nothing to break this unspoken agreement.
The first thing Carter did upon arriving in Havana was to accuse the U.S. State Department of fabricating concerns that Cuba has the capacity to produce and disseminate biological weapons. His reasons for declaring Undersecretary of State John Bolton a liar were twofold: first, the Cuban government, which he obviously trusts, denied Bolton's claim; and second, that "these allegations were made, maybe not coincidentally, just before our visit to Cuba." So Carter believes that the U.S. government is feigning worries about a biotechnological partnership between Cuba and Iran in order to embarrass him personally. Thank you, Mr. Modesty.
In the eyes of some, Carter more than made up for this disgrace a day later, when he delivered his historic address live on Cuban television. As The New York Times reported it, "With President Fidel Castro sitting in the front row, Jimmy Carter lectured him Tuesday night about the failure of the Communist system to respect political rights." The Times got it wrong two words into the story, referring to the brutal dictator as a "President," and its accuracy only unraveled further from there. The print and broadcast media would have us believe that Carter scolded Castro, and explained to the Cuban people and to the world why the American system of government is the best in the world. He did no such thing.
Given the ability to communicate any message he wanted, Jimmy Carter spewed a stream of relativistic drivel that left considerable doubt about whether even he believed that there was any great moral distinction between his country and Castro's.
Carter won applause from Americans by encouraging the citizens of Cuba to challenge their government through their constitutional right to change their laws through ballot initiatives. "It is gratifying to note that Articles 63 and 88 of your constitution allow citizens to petition the National Assembly to permit a referendum to change laws if 10,000 or more citizens sign it. When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country."
While it's surely valuable to remind the Cuban people of the rights they are supposed to have, Carter presented to the world the idea that this right presently exists under Fidel Castro. It really doesn't, of course. Castro, as Carter never got around to mentioning, is a dictator. The law in his country is whatever he says it is. For this reason, the constitution of Cuba is scarcely more relevant today than the Articles of Confederation. Cuban citizens are regularly imprisoned just for criticizing Castro or his party. Anybody who thinks the people of that country would be allowed to pass any referendum into law, if it weren't already approved by the Communist Party, is deluding himself. By presenting that as if it were the case, Carter is deluding the world. It's not hard to imagine Europeans listening to this, and concluding that people in Cuba have direct, democratic, legislative power.
Contrast that with the example the former president gave of democracy in action in the U.S. "Democracy is a framework that permits a people to accommodate changing times and correct past mistakes. Since our independence, the United States has rid itself of slavery, granted women the right to vote, ended almost a century of legal racial discrimination, and just this year reformed its election laws to correct problems we faced in Florida eighteen months ago."
It would be very difficult to overstate just how despicable a statement that is. By placing the Florida election in the context he did, Jimmy Carter questioned the legitimacy of the sitting president, while speaking publicly on hostile, foreign soil. If you doubt that's what he was doing, just ask yourself why he'd frame the 2000 election as a civil rights violation, by lumping it in with the most egregious injustices in our country's history.
After that shameful display, Carter finally got around to criticizing the Cuban government, pointing out that, "Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government." In danger of getting his hosts miffed at him, however, he quickly got back on message. "My nation is hardly perfect in human rights. A very large number of our citizens are incarcerated in prison, and there is little doubt that the death penalty is imposed most harshly on those who are poor, black, or mentally ill." Absent any mention of crimes being committed by those jailed and executed, it sounds as if he's describing an American Holocaust.
Awkwardly, he added to this list of apparent atrocities, "For more than a quarter century, we have struggled unsuccessfully to guarantee the basic right of universal health care for our people. Still, guaranteed civil liberties offer every citizen an opportunity to change these laws." It would be a lot less confusing to people living in a totalitarian state if he would refrain from calling things "rights" which are not. "Universal," i.e., government-controlled health care is not a right, but by calling it one, Carter made the U.S. sound like a third-world country, compared to Fidel's island paradise, which he said "has superb systems of health care and universal education."
All things considered, the speech was a huge publicity coup for Fidel Castro. Now he can tell his people that a former U.S. president admitted that the Cuban form of government is preferable to his own -- and he has the video to back that up. Exhibit A: Carter admits that Cubans have a right to vote, but that the last American presidential election was rigged. Exhibit B: The U.S. faults Cuba for jailing dissidents who are guilty of treason, but Carter implies that his country executes people for no better reasons than that they are poor and black. Exhibit C: Carter calls universal health care a right, but admits that America's representative government has withheld that right for decades, while the Cuban people are free to exercise it, thanks to Fidel's benevolent dictatorship. It all adds up to an open-and-shut victory for Castro, in what he calls "the Battle of Ideas."
When people talk about Jimmy Carter being a good man, the person they have in mind is the reserved, soft-spoken, God-fearing Southern gentleman who dedicates himself to constructive charitable works like Habitat for Humanity ... not the ambitious, self-promoting, meddler who makes such a handy stooge for communist thugs like Fidel Castro. There are lots of people in this country who want to recognize Carter for the part of his persona that they admire, but he won't let them. Jimmy the President has encroached on Jimmy the Man's territory, and has brought with him all his failures into the Carter ex-presidency.
In order to keep Jimmy the Man's approval ratings up, he must now be distinguished not only from Jimmy the President, but also from Jimmy the Globetrotting Nuisance. Defenders of Jimmy the Man, having left his other half behind in Washington, must now peel the ex-president in half again. They must now argue that it's possible to be one kind of president, and the same kind of ex-president, yet a different kind of man. The good Jimmy is no longer the half of Carter's persona that he was in 1981, but instead is only a fraction of that. Any further reductions, and he just might shrink completely out of sight.
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