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El Jefe

Some general thoughts about Jimmy C that I shared in another forum, but that seem applicable here to understanding the man:

"But it does get into something about Carter. Even though it goes to adult men of mature age (the current occupant is, at least since the US became a great power under McKinley/Roosevelt, sui generis -- he's so emotionally arrested in early adolescence he makes the lazy and incurious Dubya look like Socrates) the Presidency changes you. Even Dubya, lazy and incurious as I said he was, came out of it with a certain degree of circumspection, the closest thing to self-aware maturity the shiftless favorite-son of aristocratic money ever experienced in his life. For people who were deeper emotionally, it has had an even more profound affect. Even Reagan, a man given to shallowness and denial learned literally at his mother's knee (a lot of his personality traits came from her), was profoundly moved by what he faced and knew in the Oval Office, so much so that he -- and this was a lot bigger deal than a cleverer-than-thou opportunist like Nixon going to China -- extended real trust to Mikhail Gorbachev in the winding down of the Cold War, in order to prevent the nuclear holocaust Reagan now understood as a real possibility.

But few if any occupants of the Oval Office were more deeply changed for the better, I think, than Jimmy Carter. Carter always had his good qualities in him -- an honest, humble, seeking side to his piety, immense diligence, concern to discern the morally right thing to do and follow it through. But through most of his adult life and most of his active political career those good qualities were at war with his bad ones -- the self-satisfied and sanctimonious side of his piety, his deep vanity inversely expressed as overdone humility and being a harder taskmaster on himself than he was on anyone else just to show off the fact he could take it, driving and often thoughtless ambition, and an engineer's need (never underestimate how important being an engineer was to his personality) to prove he was the most omnicompetent man in the room at all times (Saturday Night Live picked up on and played with that even in the early days of '77 when by all opinion-polling measures Carter was still very popular), and a deep personal coldness to people who didn't live up to his exacting expectations. Now, the thing about the presidency was, given four years of it and a couple to reflect afterwards, it knocked a lot of that negative stuff out of him, produced in him a self-reflection and will to put aside his lesser instincts to a greater relative degree (in some ways he had further to go, in others not) than most ex-Presidents, and all of them are meaningfully changed by the experience of the job. The trouble is, that learning curve occurred at his own expense, at his party's, and his country's.

Now, there were legitimate obstacles in his way. As decent a man as George McGovern was and he was an immensely decent human being, on those rare occasions someone got on his bad side he would bear the grudge for years, and he hated Carter for the callow opportunism he'd shown in '72. A lot of other liberals (in 1976 during his autumn collapse Carter lost Maine, Iowa, Oregon, a couple of other small states and damn near Ohio to pissed-off liberals and lefties protest voting for Gene McCarthy even though McCarthy was by then basically a libertarian Republican) felt he was a double-agent of the old Southern Democrats, the ones who are now one of the core constituencies of the GOP. They were wrong: he did have a comfort level working with old-fashioned conservatives because he came from a one-party state (Georgia) whose Democratic Party was full of them, they were simply familiar, but in say Illinois or the Northeast Carter would probably have been a liberal Republican, in Georgia he was a technocratic "New South" reformer, and all the old liberal Republicans are Democrats these days anyway. He did have a clash of egos with Ted Kennedy, not just over health care though famously that -- it can best be said that each of them sabotaged the other because it was in their nature to react like that to the other's personality -- but a whole range of things because Ted, despite his circumspection about Chappquiddick, believed himself to be the rightful leader of American liberalism and Carter was just a hayseed governor who'd gotten lucky in the primaries, so it was ego vs. ego. The Congressional bosses were stubborn and set in their ways, and Carter had only been governor for four years in an environment he knew well and didn't understand them any better than they understood him. That doesn't even scratch the surface of the massive, coordinated, getting-revenge-for-Watergate negative press campaign by right-wing columnists and plain apolitical Washington-insider reporters who had disdain for this rube who thought he could play the game with the pros.

All those people, if anything, underestimated Carter. But they also got Carter's back up, activated his stubborn, sanctimonious wilfullness to prove he was the most virtuous and competent man in the room and Carter made many of his worst mistakes in that mood. Mondale was one of the people who came to understand Carter well enough to see that reaction coming in certain situations. Leading up to the "malaise" speech (a good speech that was well received but that had bugger-all to do with making policy) Mondale all but demanded Carter knuckle down and make some sweeping policy decisions about how to help people better their lot. We will never know if he was mad enough that he threatened to resign because Mondale himself denies it while several Carter aides confirm it and it will be he said-she said forever. But he tried to shake Carter back to reality -- don't talk about the content of people's souls even if it is important, tell them how you'll keep them in work and get them from here to there even though gas prices just doubled because of the Iranian Revolution, and demonstrate how you will keep inflation from devouring their paychecks. Carter went for the sermon instead and it killed him. Just killed him.

One of the things he did best in his presidency -- handling the Iranian hostage crisis, which he did outstandingly well, he was let down by his subordinates -- shows what he might have been capable of with less pride and more circumspection, his genuine concern for the hostages made him more thoughtful and it showed. But he was talked out of the move that might have settled the matter -- mining Iran's harbors and so drying up their primary source of income from oil exports -- by Brzezinski who was concerned it would drive the mullahs towards Moscow and foul up Zbig's grand plan for Afghanistan. He was hampered in applying pressure to Tehran -- concentrating the minds of a chaotic, infighting revolutionary regime -- by Cy Vance who for a former Deputy Secretary of Defense had a tin ear for the difference between shows of force and use of force, and by his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, David Jones, who wanted bureaucratically to "own" the retaliation/rescue planning machinery and so made it tiny and slapdash rather than (like with Op HONEY BADGER, the second planning process after the failure in April) using all the resources at his disposal, and arbitrarily (I would say incompetently) denying the planners materiel, force elements, and operational staging bases (one of which they ended up using anyway) by waving his hands and saying it couldn't be done, then clinging to a Rube Goldberg plan dashed together quickly in November without altering it for the next five months when there was plenty of time to revise and rethink all that could go wrong. But none of that was on Carter himself. Wrt Iran Carter's fault came earlier, both in his opportunism rearing its head deciding to play footsie with the Shah rather than use his addiction to US arms imports to squeeze him into forming a working multi-party parliament while there was still time, then later in taking the engineer's approach -- just let the machinery run for a bit and see if the problem "shakes out" -- rather than taking sides with Brzezinski to back a military junta or with the State Department to back the moderate Islamists like Mehdi Bazargan. A lot of people, particularly on the right but also ostensibly neutral observers, have seen this as indecisiveness, and I'm sure Carter's desire to not be seen being proved wrong played a role. But they underestimate the engineering impulse -- tinker and micromanage, then let it run and see how it does, then tinker again, rather than make sweeping decisions.

There's another, broader, historical phenomenon at work in that period. It's also true in some ways of Johnson but LBJ was playing a different game out of a different era -- his roots lay in the Dust Bowl. Nixon, Ford, and Carter, all were both products and symbols of the postwar meritocracy. Nixon was the hard-grafter with brains and deep-seeded insecurities (I've discussed elsewhere some possible diagnosable conditions Nixon had) and cult of personal toughness, who'd made something of himself as a "nut-cutting" (a favorite phrase of his) high flyer, a man all those striving, quietly reactionary suburbanites could identify with because by God he had fought his way up the hard way just like them, and he understood the undeserving underclasses and undeserving elites alike as problems. Nixon was the meritocracy as Greek tragedy. The two men who followed him were tragedies too though not at the mythological level of Nixon because their hubris wasn't quite as great. Ford was the quintessential loyal, effective company man in the era of big corporations you worked forty years for til you got your gold watch. He wasn't the smartest guy in the room but he was solid and decent to his core and dependable and while he wasn't a genius he was smarter than he got credit for, "a Ford not a Lincoln" who would provide that essential middle-America-ness to heal the country after Nixon, except that his company-man approach involved pardoning the corrupt ex-CEO and following standard procedure (orthodox fiscal conservatism) during an extraordinary economic situation (stagflation.) Carter was the gifted kid from the sticks, son of a family of rebels who rebelled by being the most straight-laced and dutiful (he shares that single characteristic with Barack Obama), who demonstrated his brains and relentless work ethic to the most demanding taskmasters (like Hyman Rickhover, one of the most sadistically demanding bosses of any American institution post-war and father of the nuke sub fleet), who would rise and rise and reach the top because meritocracy means merit should be rewarded and damn if he didn't have a lot of it. But merit alone, and merit tied to the negative qualities it can encourage summed up in the old Greek hubris, showed him that there are qualities beyond meritorious ones that you need to deal with the needs of other human beings and the unpredictable vagueries of history.

El Jefe

Oh and one other thing -- a chance to talk television! Back when they put it on the air everyone went on and on about how The West Wing was a Clinton-era analogue, even spending the early seasons figuring out who represented who on the show. I never bought in. The academically brilliant, iconoclastic governor of a small state surrounded by a team of remarkably talented, some even gifted, staffers, a few deeply experienced party old-hands, and some fresh-faced kids making it in Washington for the first time, all battling an unfriendly DC establishment in a world where there are still some honorable Republicans? A Clinton-era analogue? Don't make me laugh -- what Sorkin had clearly recreated, totally by accident through misunderstanding the Clinton era, was the Carter administration. Leo is any and all of the Johnson-era grandees who worked for Carter (really he's what happens if you Photoshop the souls of Cy Vance and a tough-but-lovable generic TV police precinct captain), Toby has the stones of Ham Jordan (and bigger ones than any of Bubba's chiefs of staff), and Josh Lyman is much better appreciated as a Jewish Jody Powell than some kind of representation of Rahm Emmanuel (Josh has more decency in the dust under one of his fingernails than that reptile Emmanuel has in two of himself.) Indeed that gets at a deeper thing which also gets at another bit of fun -- comparing sports franchises -- and is this. Other than Al Gore, Robert Rubin (he's still a liberal Republican, but a brilliant one), and Donna Shalala (best HHS Secretary ever), the rest of Carter's team, Cabinet and West Wing, puts Bill's on the mat by round two at the latest. (I count Robert Reich as a null factor -- Bubba was smart enough to bring him in but stupid enough to drive him out so it all cancels out in the end.) Which also adds to the element of magic, of wish-fulfillment inherent in The West Wing, namely that the plucky band of rebels, whether Carterite or Clintonian, withstands the years of battering and seems to come out of it as well as they do. Probably helps that their president is Martin Sheen -- miles more focus than Bill and miles more emotional intuition than Jimmy, at least at that point in his life. The shift in the latter was one of my points above. But I will always, always see the series as Sorkin shifted twenty-five years out of joint with time. Your Cheers post put me in mind of it.

joel hanes

I expect a lot out of President Obama once he gets started

I am determined to live long enough to read his memoirs.
He's truthful, parsimonious with information, well-read, hip, eloquent, funny, and not going away.
Greatest President of my lifetime.

El Jefe

Joel Hanes,

Thank you for your words -- I wish I was economical enough with words to have said them. Like you, Barack Obama will forever be "my" president just as FDR is Pop Mannion's to this day. And yes I was born physically days before the Watergate break in and there is no question Obama is the greatest of my lifetime. There are few things of which I'm so happily sure outside my own family.

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