Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't Know Much About History?

Last week at the debate, Sarah Palin tried to take a couple jabs at Joe Biden about his repeated references to history, particularly his repeated references to the failures of the Bush II administration. Biden's response was that "The past is prologue," a response I'm sure Palin didn't quite get. On Meet the Press Sunday, Peggy Noonan expressed her concern (and frustration) that all this focus on history and the past was clouding the real issues of this election -- namely the economic crisis and the TWO wars we're fighting. For a lot of us amateur politicos and the trained pundits, it does often seem a little counterproductive to hammer away on the mistakes of a past administration in an attempt to sell your own administration. I thought that way, too, until last night.

While flipping through the channels, I came across an installment of American Experience on PBS that dealt with the Carter administration. Considering the fact that I was 5 when he was elected and 9 when he left office, I admit I wasn't all that familiar with the Carter years. I knew some rough things; I remembered the Iran hostage crisis and Billy Beer and Amy and peanut farming and that was about it. I learned a lot last night, a lot that made me grab onto this notion of the past being prologue and hope that people in both the Obama and McCain camps were paying a little attention.

Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 by one of the slimmest margins in American electoral history. It was an election that wasn't called until 3 in the morning -- that's how close it was. He came into office following eight years of a corrupt, paranoid Republican administration that resorted to any dirty tricks it thought it could get away with to secure victory. Carter, a pretty total unknown prior to his out-of-nowhere victory in the Iowa caucus, ran as an agent of change, a folksy populist who was a Washington outsider and was going to ride into town and clean things up. He brought with him to Washington a smart, independent wife (who would sit in on staff meetings and just listen) and a cute, school-aged daughter who would attend public schools and become best friends with the daughter of the cook at the Chilean embassy. He inherited a battered economy, an energy crisis, and emerging powers in the Middle East that would not go ignored.

Sound familiar?

The Carter administration, which could be labeled as anything from a disappointment to an outright failure, can teach us many lessons, lessons which the Obama and McCain camps might want to note.

You can't govern this nation without participating in the actual government. Carter was an outsider and brought with him to the White House a staff of loyal but stubborn outsiders. These people had no clue how Washington worked, and as a result, they were eaten alive by a powerful and increasingly hostile Democratic Congress. Had Carter had some advisers who were familiar with the machinery of Washington politics, perhaps he could have navigated the shark-infested waters a little more competently and seen some of his policies enjoy more success. So while Sarah Palin continues to preach the gospel of the evils of "Washington Insiders," she may want to consider the fact that she may need those Washington Insiders someday.

Don't bite off more than you can chew. The first months of the Carter administration saw a flurry of attempted policies be put out there and rejected. Carter seemed to realize almost immediately that his administration would only last one term, and so he tried to cram as much as he could into those four years he had. It made his administration seem manic and unfocused. Good ideas were lost in all the noise.

The sad thing is that Jimmy Carter clearly had his heart in the right place and could have been a great president had he been more open to some compromise and adjustment. (One comment that was made last night was that although Carter was a man who typically relished any opportunity to learn, he stubbornly refused to learn how to play the Washington game.) He was perhaps our first green president -- encouraging people to take measures to save energy at home, canceling magazine subscriptions to reduce paper waste, riding in more fuel efficient cars than limos, and refusing to turn the air conditioning on in the White House. (Walter Mondale's comments on the summer heat of the White House were priceless.) He brought a good heart to the White House, a rarity then and now. Looking at Carter's life post-White House shows what a decent, visionary man he really was. The humanitarian he has become has overshadowed the disappointment he was as president.

Let's just hope we learn the lessons of that sad administration 30 years ago and don't end up with another disappointment after a campaign filled with such hope and promise.


Jen said...

Well put! I think we can already see which ticket has been doing their homework--when asked which vice president he most admired, Joe Biden named Lyndon Johnson, for the experience and savvy that allowed him to shepherd Kennedy's policies through Congress. And Obama picked him, though many scratched their heads that he didn't pick someone from a battleground state who might have been more useful during the election. So they clearly understand that great ideas are worthless if you cannot get them implemented. I for one think that you cannot fix a problem (like, say, the giant sinkhole that is our current economy) without understanding how the problem developed in the first place.

Danielle Mari said...

Great post, Mel. I still look at Carter's presidency as a tragedy- so many opportunities missed. The failures you mentioned make my pessimistic side wonder if "politician" and "good person" must always remain polar opposites. Let us, as you both say, hope and pray the lessons have been learned!

Mel said...

I think part of the problem with Carter was that he was just so stubborn. The documentary I saw talked a lot about how he would dig his heels in and refuse to even seek compromise. That's the big lesson here. And what scares me so much about McCain -- his seeming inability to seek compromise or admit error.

Mike said...

I watched the same special last night (thanks TiVo) and the beginning parts that sounded familiar freaked me out a little -- though it is nice to be worried about what might happen when Obama is elected rather than worrying that he won't be. That said, I also think that Obama is a good person AND a good politician and that he, unlike Carter, doesn't see those characteristics as mutually exclusive. Like Danielle said, let's hope we're right... or as pessimistic me might say, let's first pray we have the chance to find out.

Mel said...

I would agree that Obama is a good person and a good politician, and I think there have truly been others. Paul Simon springs to mind. He was a good, principled man who was also an effective Senator. I'd argue, too, in favor of my former Congressman Lane Evans who made serving his constituents a real priority. I'd be remiss in not mentioning Paul Wellstone as well.