They Also Ran Good: Jimmy Carter

This is the seventh installment of my series on losing presidential candidates over the last 60 years of American history. As always, I reserve the right to make shit up, as long as it’s either too ridiculous to believe or comes with the get-out-of-jail-free card known as [citation needed]. Most of this made-up shit will involve the captions below the pictures. But really, there are real facts presented here.

James Earl (Jimmy) Carter, Jr. was the 39th president of the United States, elected in 1976 in a tight contest with Gerald R. Ford. The 1976 election was the first presidential election following the 1974 resignation of Richard M. Nixon over the Watergate scandals, and Ford was the man who succeeded and pardoned Nixon of all crimes.  Carter rose from utter obscurity as that election year dawned to win the nation’s highest office.
Jimmy Carter promised to be a different sort of president, one that would never lie to the American people, and would not get caught up in the ceremonial pomp and circumstance surrounding the office. The book he wrote before beginning his quest for the White House, asked a simple question: Why Not The Best?

The sequel, Here’s Why Not, Duh, made no one’s best-seller list. OK, technically, it was never written, at least not by Carter and not with that title.

Carter As President
Carter swept into office with a promise of a government “as good as the American people,” and absolutely delivered on that promise. The problem, of course, was that the American people sucked, a fact which Carter noted in his famous “malaise” speech on July 15, 1979:
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning...”

“Under my authority as President, I hereby place the blame on you, the American people.”

Where others saw severe economic problems (high inflation, high interest rates, high unemployment) that Carter had failed to make any headway with, the President himself saw...people trying to buy stuff., consume stuff, and finding no meaning in any of it, because...gah, I’m so depressed.  Or something.
Okay, so it is possible that Carter had a valid point or three—much of the economic problems had stemmed from the recurrent energy crisis, which was certainly tied in to American consumerism, and our seeming lack of will to make things happen elsewhere in the world was tied in to the kick-ass hangover left from the Vietnam years (not Jimmy’s fault)—but being the national scold isn’t generally what Americans want from their president.

There was also a perception of a man forever reacting to events rather than initiating them. And when he did react, it was more often with symbolism that with substance—as personified by his management of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter responded by re-instating the Selective Service, which registered and tracked young American citizens for  possible military conscription, and Carter also ordered a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games to be held in Moscow that year.
Many on the left attacked him for the first decision, and many on the right attacked him for the latter one.
And then a rabbit attacked him, just out of general orneriness as far as anyone knows.

That Fucking Rabbit
On April 20, 1079, in what somehow became one of the defining moments of his presidency, Carter was evidently attacked by some variety of aquatic rabbit while paddling about in a boat on a pond in his native Georgia. A picture released some time later showed the President defending himself by using his paddle to splash some water at the creature, which he said was hissing and snarling and attempting to board the craft. At the time, many did not believe the story, being convinced that rabbits don’t swim and don’t attack people, being so fluffy and cute and all.  But photos did show Carter flailing away with his paddle at something in that water, and an enlarged and enhanced image of the creature swimming away did seem to show that some rabbit-like creature was involved.

A re-convened Warren Commission later determined that the rabbit was acting alone.

Now you wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but the fact was many saw it as somehow emblematic of Carter’s failures as President, and mockery (no shortage of which was forthcoming) is never a good thing for a politician to have to endure.
Soon, though, Carter was to have an even more pressing issue:

Yeah. That.

A little background: in 1953 the United States, under the Eisenhower administration,  engineered a coup in Iran that replaced the elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, with the friendlier and more compliant and more autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah ruled with an iron fist and was seen as something of a kleptocrat, stealing the country’s wealth, but the U.S. saw him as one of the cornerstones of its middle eastern policy.
On a 1978 state visit to Iran, Carter spoke in favor of the Shah and called him a leader of supreme wisdom and a pillar of stability in a volatile region. Roughly ten minutes later, the Iranian Revolution broke out and the Shah was overthrown.
In October 1979, the Shah was allowed to enter the United States and was granted temporary asylum while receiving treatment for cancer.

On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage, demanding the return of the Shah for trial, the return of his wealth to the Iranian people, an admission of guilt by the U.S., an apology, and a promise not to fuck around in Iranian affairs in the future.
The hostages would not be released under Jimmy’s watch, and would remain prisoners for 444 days. Meanwhile, the 1980 campaign season began to unfold, and began to get interesting with the long-awaited announcement by Ted Kennedy, last of the Kennedy brothers, that he would seek to deny Carter the re-nomination of the democratic party.

The Kennedy Challenge

Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy, brother of assassinated president John F. Kennedy and assassinated candidate Robert F. Kennedy, had been expected to eventually run for president since the day Robert was laid to rest in 1968. It was something of an unspoken assumption that the democratic nomination was his for the asking in every election year following that, despite the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 in which a car driven by Kennedy went off a bridge into the water and resulted in the death of passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy had delayed reporting the accident until the following morning, after the body had been found, and the suspicion that he was drunk at the time of the mishap was widely shared. In the end, he pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a suspended sentence.
And yet he not only won re-election to the Senate in 1970, by 1971 he was again showing up in polls as the front-runner for the democratic nomination eventually won by George McGovern. Citing family concerns, he chose not to run in 1972 or in 1976.  But by 1980, disenchanted by what he saw as Carter’s abandonment of traditional liberal concerns, he made the difficult decision to challenge an incumbent president from his own party. And, as had been the case for years, the polls gave him every chance: a survey in 1978 showed a preference of 5-3 for Kennedy over Carter among likely democratic voters, and by 1979 Carter’s approval rating had sunk to 28 per cent. And by August of 1979, Kennedy led in the polls by a two-to-one margin.
Kennedy’s criticisms of Carter, and the disagreement among the two politicians over (among other issues) a national health care plan convinced Carter that he was about to be challenged for re-nomination. Although his feeble approval ratings and showings in preference polls made his chances look bleak, Carter entered the fray with some old-school trash talking. When asked about Kennedy’s challenge, Carter said “if Ted Kennedy runs, I’ll whip his ass.”
This seemed so out of character and out of touch with reality that reporters asked him to clarify, please.
Again. “If Ted Kennedy runs, I’ll whip his ass.”
This seemed like so much empty bravado when it was reported; at the time, few thought Carter could successfully wipe Ted Kennedy’s ass. But events were about to take a surprising turn.

Oh, yeah. That.

There is a pronounced tendency, repeated throughout history, for Americans to “rally ‘round the president” in times of crisis; the hostage ordeal in Iran was no different. Kennedy announced his intention to run on November 7, which, unfortunately for him, was three days after the hostages were taken. Not only did the usual “support the President” feelings raise Carter’s approval ratings almost instantly, the crisis allowed him to avoid direct campaigning, remain in the White House and dominate the news during those crucial early days of the contest.
And Kennedy, already stumbling out of the blocks, tripped himself up further with a widely reported quote criticizing the Shah of Iran for being something of a tyrant. Which, in the minds of many, was seen as justifying the revolution in Iran and, by association, the taking of the hostages.
Now granted, the Shah’s regime was oppressive and his secret police were legendary in their mistreatment of political dissidents. And the United States was certainly complicit in installing him in place of an elected prime minister, so yeah, one can kind of understand why Iranians might have been a bit irked. But you can’t actually say such a thing, not when the times call for mindless patriotism and foam-at-the-mouth nationalistic fervor. Oh no.
Kennedy’s campaign was pretty much sunk right there. And, with the pressure mounting to justify his challenge to Carter, Kennedy showed an alarming tendency to stumble over his own words and his public statements sometimes bordered on incoherent. Most memorable was his characterization of his sinking chances for the presidency in 1980: “I’m an uphill struggle,” he said. And he was.
There was also an expression of concern for “fam farmilies.” And a statement or two that would have made more sense had he asked Pat Sajak if he could buy a verb. This, remember, was 20 years before George W. Bush somehow convinced Americans that such malaprops were desirable in a president, and “he’s as dumb as me” was seen as a positive trait. At the time, though, Kennedy’s struggles caused many to wonder: “How the hell did anybody ever think this guy could win the presidency? Fucker can barely talk.”
And hecklers with signs appeared at many of his rallies, asking, among other rude questions, if he was going to send the Kopechnes a Christmas card this year.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

OK, he didn’t actually say that. I made that up. Obviously I’m a horrible person, yada yada.  But the issue, which Kennedy staffers wanted to pretend was safely locked away in the past and would not be a factor, was not going to go away. Ever.
Kennedy was crushed quickly by the Carter campaign, although to his credit Kennedy decided his cause was too important to drop and fought all the way to the national convention in the summer of 1980. And he did finish out the primary season with several wins over Carter, but not only was it too little, too late, it said more about the growing (again) disenchantment with Carter’s presidency than it did about Kennedy.
For better or worse, Jimmy Carter was going to get the chance to run for re-election.

Ronald Reagan

With Carter being seen as a weak candidate for the Democrats, the Republican primaries in 1980 threatened to turn into one of those free-for-alls that are always fun to watch. The candidates lined up to run, some with realistic hopes and some merely fooling themselves. But, after a bit of  a stumble at the start, former California governor Ronald Wilson Reagan emerged as Carter’s opponent for the general election.
Reagan had been running for president, essentially, since 1968. He entered too late that year to challenge Richard Nixon, and sat out the race entirely four years later, but in 1976 he went all out to pluck the Republican banner from incumbent president Gerald Ford. He came up short, but given a case of presidential blue-balls like that, it was clear he would be a candidate again in 1980.
The central message of the Reagan campaign was simple; ridiculously, mind-bogglingly, stupidly, idiotically, moronically simple: the government isn’t the solution to our problems, it is the problem. The government had grown too large and too costly, and its regulatory madness was hampering the great individuals whose ideas and whose capital created the jobs and drove the economy. Taxes were too high, spending was out of control.
The solution? Supply-side economics. Cut taxes on the rich. Make up the revenue and then some by cutting government spending. Well, except for the military, of course, which is somehow never part of the government when it comes to complaining about Big Government ™. Point out a seemingly wasteful government program here, an apocryphal welfare queen living high on the hog at taxpayers’ expense there, and  you have an ideology built around the idea that the government is, in fact, creating far more problems than it solves, and is unfairly holding us back.

Young Ronald Reagan practices for his future in politics by pretending his legs have been cut off.

This article, unfortunately, is not the proper venue for a lengthy examination of Ronald Reagan, the man or the president. Suffice it to say that he was another in a long line of politicians who spoke to the less thoughtful Americans by appealing to their desire to be...less thoughtful. See, while we may be having problems, and they may seem really complicated, the solutions to those problems are actually terribly simple, see, and it’s only those pointy-headed jerkoffs on the other side of the aisle, who don’t want problems solved because they need to feel important/rip you off/keep their jobs/swallow your children whole, who perpetuate the problems...
If there is one thing Americans are good at, it’s oversimplifying things. If there are two things, it’s oversimplifying while being angry and self-righteous. Or is that three things? Whatever. Ronald Reagan was never about details. America is a shining city on the hill, and if you don’t agree, well, you’re probably a welfare queen. Also, trees cause more pollution than automobiles. See? Everything is simple.

You are looking at a cruel and stupid lizard.

What Went So Horribly, Horribly Wrong
Most of what went wrong for Jimmy Carter in his re-election bid was not, in fact, anything wrong with the campaign itself. It was the Carter presidency that was riddled with problems. The economy was one big issue; sky-high inflation and interest rates dogged Carter’s administration, frustrating any attempts to deal with them and causing Carter to look terribly ineffective. It didn’t help that he often seemed uninterested in working with congress, even a congress dominated by his own party. He tended not to take criticism well, and it was often felt that he had a serious tendency to get bogged down in details and lose track of the big picture.  There were questions regarding whether or not he ever had a plan for the economy or the government reorganization he insisted would happen. And his tendency to back away from direct confrontation made him look weak in international affairs as well; it seemed, for a time, that any second-rate country that wanted to take a shot at America could do so with impunity.

Oh, yeah. That

In short, the American people mostly wanted to vote for Ronald Reagan, but given his age, his occasional spaciness, his unremarkable acting career, and his reputation as a gunslinging meatheaded cowboy dumbass, the public needed to know that he was up to the job. Would be always be lucid enough to lead the country?  Did he have the intellectual capacity to follow detailed policy discussions? Would he be able to stay awake during cabinet meetings? The answer, of course, turned out to be a resounding fuck no. But Americans are nothing if not optimistic, all questions of malaise aside, and all they needed was a bit of reassurance that Reagan wouldn’t completely melt down under pressure. At least not often. And never, ever, during football season. We hold our leaders to high standards, after all.

The single debate that year, held only a week before election day, served Reagan’s purposes quite well. Given the fact that such events aren’t really proper debates, but more like two candidates trading sound bites and talking points, Reagan’s training as an actor and ability to stay on script carried the evening and, eventually, the election. Most of what the two candidates said that night has been understandably forgotten, but two of Reagan’s remarks stuck in the public awareness. One was a simple and rather meaningless waving off of Carter outlining serious potential problems with a Reagan presidency; in response to a reasoned, carefully considered criticism of some of his boneheaded, irresponsible statements in the past, Reagan led off his answer with these words: “there he goes again.” Touché!

“Once again, my opponent is saying stuff.”

And, in his closing remarks, Reagan memorably asked the people of America: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
This was a guaranteed winner for Reagan, as the Second Law of Thermodynamics clearly states that everything in the universe is gradually turning into shit. And undifferentiated shit, at that. So it was a safe bet that most Americans would answer in the negative.
And thus an election that was considered too close to call up until the final weekend turned into that historical train wreck known as The Reagan Revolution.

Election Night

Oh, the humanity.

In the end, Carter was squeezed from all sides in his campaign for re-election; first attacked from the left by Kennedy, then from the right by Reagan, and even from the center by Republican congressman-turned-Independent candidate John Anderson of Illinois, he wound up winning just 41% of the vote and losing by nearly ten points. Six states and the District of Columbia gave Carter their electoral votes, with Reagan winning the other 44 states. This worked out to a 489-44 advantage in the all-important Electoral College. Anderson, who began as a promising alternative but faded late, won 6% of the vote.
And, possibly just as bad, the Republican party gained control of the Senate that night for the first time in 28 years, with several liberal icons (including George McGovern, the democrats’ 1972 presidential nominee) going down to defeat.
It was a fucking disaster, or, as Kurt Vonnegut might have put it, one of the “great clutchless shifts of history.”  A month later John Lennon was dead.
Fuck. And fuck. Also, fuck.

They Also Ran Good
Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Barry Goldwater
Michael Dukakis
Walter Mondale
George McGovern

1 comment: