Liberals yearn to believe in post-ideological blank slates -- and get disappointed every time. Will we ever learn?Roundup
tags: Carter, Obama
That we are living through an endless repeat of the 1970s is becoming more apparent all the time. Nostalgia and retro culture burn as brightly today as they did in the era of “Happy Days” and “American Graffiti,” while distrust and suspicion of government hover at near-Watergate levels. Disaster dreams are everywhere, just as they were in the days of “The Towering Inferno” and Three Mile Island. The culture wars, the 1970s’ No. 1 gift to American politics, still drag on and on, while the New Right, the decade’s other great political invention, effortlessly rejuvenates itself. Jerry Brown is governor of California again. The Kansas City Royals are a good team.
No reminiscence of that decade of malaise would be complete without mentioning Jimmy Carter, the president who—fairly or not—will be forever associated with national drift and decline and all the other horrors that were eventually swept away by the Reagan magisterium. Indeed, comparing the hapless Carter to whoever currently leads the Democratic Party remains a powerful shibboleth for American conservatives, and in 2011 and 2012 Republicans indulged in this favorite simile without hesitation.
I pretty much ignored the Carter-Obama comparison in those days because it was so manifestly empty—a partisan insult based on nothing but the lousy economy faced by both Carter and Obama as well as the recurring problem of beleaguered American embassies in the Muslim world. (Get it? Benghazi=Tehran!) More important for Republican purposes was the memory that Jimmy Carter lost his re-election campaign, which they creatively merged with their hopes that Obama would lose, too. Other than that, the comparison had little connection to actual facts; it was a waste of trees and precious pixels.
What has changed my mind about the usefulness of the comparison is my friend Rick Perlstein’s vast and engrossing new history of the ’70s, “The Invisible Bridge.” The book’s main subject is the rise of Ronald Reagan, but Perlstein’s detailed description of Carter’s run for the presidency in 1976 evokes more recent events so startlingly that the comparison with Obama is impossible to avoid. After talking over the subject with Perlstein (watch this space for the full interview), I am more startled by the similarities than ever.
In 1976, when Carter shocked the political world by beating a field of better-known politicians for the Democratic presidential nomination, the essence of his appeal was pure idealism—idealism without ideology, even. He presented himself, Perlstein writes, as an “antipolitician,” a figure of reconciliation who could restore our best qualities after the disasters of Vietnam and Watergate.
Jimmy Carter’s actual politics were ambiguous, however, in a way that should be very familiar. His speechwriter James Fallows wrote in 1979 that he initially signed up with the candidate out of a hope that he “might look past the tired formulas of left and right and offer something new.” As with Barack Obama, who promised to bring a post-partisan end to Washington squabbling, Jimmy Carter’s idealism was not a matter of policies or political ideas but rather of the candidate as a person, a transcendent figure of humility and uprightness.
Idealists of all kinds saw what they wanted to see in Jimmy Carter in 1976. Just as Barack Obama is, famously, a “blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” so presidential candidate Jimmy Carter tried to be “all things to all people,” Perlstein writes. Carter denounced elites in a memorable way in his speech to the Democratic convention that year, but when asked where he stood on the political spectrum, according to an article Perlstein quotes from The New York Times, Carter would say things like, “I don’t like to categorize, I don’t see myself as liberal or conservative or the like”—then proceed to suggest that he was a little of both.
Nevertheless, liberals in 1976 steadfastly maintained that Carter was one of them—to the utter exasperation of the journalists who had studied Carter’s statements and positions over the years. The man from Plains, Georgia, was no progressive, the journalists argued. But in those days, nothing was capable of shaking the faith of his disciples.
That faith was something to behold. “They yearned to believe,” Perlstein writes of Carter’s fans. Among the smitten were hardened journalists like James Wolcott and Hunter S. Thompson (!) as well as the leaders of some of the big labor unions, in those days the bulwark of American liberalism...
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