I vaguely remember Nixon during his presidency, but mostly as the person who made my father upset whenever he came on the TV. My main memory of Gerald Ford is of him being spoofed on Saturday Night Live. (I’m not sure whether that’s because I was too young to remember much about him, or because he just wasn’t very memorable.) So Jimmy Carter is the first politician I have a substantial memory of, and the first one I was old enough and attentive enough to have my own opinions about.
He’s kind of unusual, because he was so much less slimy (read politically savvy and manipulative) than any other president since the television era began (and probably well before). I think Bill Clinton was a great politician and a good president, but he’s much more in the mold of other presidents than Carter was. I don’t think somebody with Carter’s idealism and openness could have gotten elected if the electorate hadn’t been so disgusted with the corruption of the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal and the snowballing coverup of it. (I think there may be a similar mood, if not so intense, in the country today, which gives me some hope for the future. On the other hand, I’m not sure our elections are fair enough any more for that to matter.)
My opinion of Carter didn’t match that of the country very much. I was kind of disillusioned with him around the time the hostages were taken, when most of the country rallied around him. But as time wore on and inflation was still worrisome (albeit not so much to the little kid I was) and the hostages were still in custody, Carter had a huge fall in popular opinion. But I didn’t blame him for the hostage crisis; I just thought that he was unlucky that it had happened on his watch. (Actually, it’s ironic, given his emphasis on human rights, that he inherited the fallout from previous administrations’ support of the despotic Shah of Iran. See Exile and death on the Wikipedia article about the Shah.)
Anyway, for a lot of reasons, Carter has a prominent place in my political consciousness, both as a very successful ex-President (if not so successful a President), and as a symbol that today’s style of self-interested, combative, power-focussed politics isn’t completely inevitable in the American system.
So Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis is a response to the changes in US political dynamics over the past couple decades, but especially under King George W., and particularly a response to the intertwining of religion and politics in recent years, to the detriment of both. It’s very interesting to read a critique coming from a traditional Christian perspective. On the left, we hear a lot about how religion corrupts politics when they mix, but seriously religious people like Carter also worry about how politics corrupt religion. And that’s an especially worrisome theme in an era of “faith-based initiatives”, when religious organizations are starting to suckle at the public teat, and therefore become accountable to politicians, and when large segments of the population take seriously what government officials say about political orthodoxy to some audiences, and about religious orthodoxy to other audiences.
I don’t want to convey the impression that this book is only about King George’s reign, because it’s bigger than that, but that’s a lot of what Carter talks about, and a lot of what resonates with me. Over the course of the Bush years, I’ve frequently had the experience of hearing about some awful policy blunder and thinking “Wow, that’s such a disaster that it’s going to be what defines this administration in 20 years!” And then a few weeks or months later there’s some other terrible thing that happens and it drives out the memory of the first one. Seeing so many of them dissected in a single (short and easy-reading) book is a sobering experience. You know, people on the left, who care about America acting justly and wisely and not just in its own narrow self-interest are dismayed at the conduct of this administration. But people on the right who want to build an American Empire and accumulate as much power as possible for this country and its rulers ought to be terrified of Bush/Cheney as well. An example of this that Carter mentions is the wave of anti-Americanism sweeping Latin America, and the election of leaders (such as Lula in Brazil and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela) whose primary appeal to their people is that they oppose American foreign and economic policy. While a saner, wiser U.S. administration may be able to build good ties with those governments and work coöperatively with them, we have lost power in this hemisphere, which is going to be very slow and hard to regain. (To be fair, the recent elections in Canada may offset that a bit, but I don’t think there’s a long-lasting, broad-based sea change in Canada the way there is in Latin America.)
And why hasn’t the U.S. government done much about political changes in Latin America? Partly because it hasn’t really been paying attention; that’s just not the part of the world where the neocons’ attention is focussed at the moment (especially in Cheney’s fiefdom). But also partly because it can’t. Reagan propped up dictatorships in the Americas that were friendly to the U.S., and invested money and bullets to make sure that activists who opposed U.S. policy died or were disappeared in disproportionate numbers to activists who supported it. The people in this administration certainly have no more qualms about using violence (or lying about it) than the people in Reagan’s administration; probably less. But with the U.S. military, and especially the military budget, overstretched in the Middle East, and with U.S. diplomatic influence at a very low ebb, they have to pick their battles, and they’re more interested in fighting battles that will benefit their corporate masters in the energy industry and the military-industrial complex.
If you back up a bit from the latest IED ambush outside Baghdad, or the latest assassination of a moderate ayatollah on ideological grounds, you see long-term trends across the globe that are not in the interests of the United States by anyone’s lights.
Anyway, this is not quite the review of Carter’s book that I started out to write, but it’s gotten pretty long and I feel like it’s time to stop writing. Sorry for leaving you on such a downer. Reading the book didn’t leave me with that feeling. This country has gone through some very worrisome times in the past — the President who wrote the words in my userpic sometimes disregarded the Constitution in his struggle against powerful politicians who felt it was an economic necessity and perhaps the natural order of things for some people to own other people as property — and come through them, and over the course of decades and centuries, I think things in this country, as in much of the rest of the world, have tended to get better rather than worse. I doubt this latest generation of swine is going to change that much in the long run.
And Grampaw Beowabbit can remember when people were seriously predicting riots if the price of gas hit a dollar a gallon.