Monday, September 20, 2010

Jimmy vs. Teddy

   It has long been common knowledge that former President Jimmy Carter and late Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy were not friends. After all, Kennedy made his only bid for the Presidency against then incumbent President Carter in 1980. Already badly weakened by the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 - 1980 and a moribund economy, Carter went on to be shown the door by former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in that year's general election. Carter ultimately slid into ignominy after Reagan's electoral landslide(1) while Kennedy returned to the Senate, of which the Democrats had lost control for the first time since 1954. Although he did win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his work with Habitat for Humanity, Carter has largely stayed out of the public eye and politics since his defeat. Kennedy, of course, remained in the Senate until his death of brain cancer in August 2009.

   Ted Kennedy was hardly the only member of the Congress to have experienced strained relations with Carter. Many other pols of the day, especially then House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neil, Jr., (2) were known to be critical of Carter's approach to relationship-building. In his 1987 autobiography, O'Neil assailed Carter for his lack of skill in dealing with members of either house and even claimed that, early in his term, Carter threatened to bypass Congress by taking his appeal directly to the people. Such a philosophy had served Carter well during his only term as Governor of Georgia (1971 - 1975,) but is foolhardy, at best, on a national scale.

   Thanks to his own lack of grace, Carter's relationship with the members of his own party in Congress was, at best, tenuous. Carter, a former Naval officer and peanut farmer, regarded the members of Congress as subordinates that should simply follow his lead. As any student of government could have told him, it doesn't work that way. The President of the United States is not a dictator. Regardless of what party controls the Congress, any outsider President needs to quickly build a team capable of building a rapport with them. Although a brilliant man, Carter never grasped this lesson ... to his own detriment!

   Although a self-proclaimed Born-Again Christian, Carter hardly exhibited the "Turn the Other Cheek" mentality taught to us Christians in the Holy Bible. Instead of ever attempting any public or private reconciliation with Kennedy, Carter instead chose to wait until after his nemesis had died to attack him. Just yesterday, I found myself yelling at my television set during a "60 Minutes" interview with the former President as he assailed Ted Kennedy, saying that the late Senator was the sole reason health care reform legislation was not passed in the late seventies during his term. Kennedy, of course, had championed such legislation for decades, yet was allegedly not content to see Carter walk away with the credit.

   I posit a different theory: Carter does not like how many now refer to his Presidency as the touchstone of political ineffectiveness and stupidity. As President Obama struggles with an unpopular war, a jobless recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s, and low approval ratings, many are comparing him to the hapless Carter. Is it really only now that Carter, at age 85, feels the need to defend himself? Now the thirty-ninth President becomes vain about his place in history? Sadly, his best defense is to take a shot at a dead man that lost three brothers in service to America - it turns my stomach!

   As a lifelong student of history and politics, I always knew Jimmy Carter got would could be called a "bum rap." Until yesterday, I was always the first one to defend him when the subject came up. After watching his cowardly attack upon my late idol yesterday, I can safely say: those days are gone! Jimmy Carter, you are hereby noticed that I, for one, shall no longer be your defender. Just like the failures of your Presidency, Sir, you have no one to blame but yourself. Not Tip O'Neil, not Ted Kennedy, not Americus Paulytics ... yourself!

(1) Carter lost by 9.7% (50.7% - 41%) to Reagan, while a landslide is technically defined as a race in one candidate out-polls the other by ten percent or more. In the Electoral College, however, Reagan out-ran Carter by the mind-numbing margin of 489 - 49.
(2) O'Neil was a friend of the Kennedy family. In fact, it was O'Neil who succeeded Jack Kennedy in the House of Representatives when the latter was elected to the Senate in 1952.

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