So, it turns out that long held, deeply ingrained thoughts and opinions can be wrong.
Since the late ‘70s, I have harbored this belief that Jimmy Carter was a lousy president.
This thinking began when he was in office (1977-1981). With all the wisdom, experience and ways of the world I had amassed in my then-20 years, I was convinced he was weak and ineffective. He couldn’t bring the hostages home from Iran. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan on his watch.
In the White House, Jimmy Carter always struck me in one of two ways, neither favorably. It seemed like he was either wringing his hands, or he was the smartest guy in the room.
I just finished “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter” by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Kai Bird. Three takeaways: How far ahead of the curve Carter was on planet-friendly policies, how much he learned on the job and how intelligent he was.
Carter saw the world as significantly larger than the narrow view traditionally needed to secure political/policy victories. He saw the energy crisis of the late ‘70s not specifically as a vehicle to enact public policy to solve or at least mitigate the crisis, but as a way to change the culture of the country. Bird writes, “How does one speak truth about the stark reality of ‘growing scarcity’ to a people who think of themselves as ‘chosen’ and endowed with a manifest destiny?”
Part of my erstwhile JC disdain stems from my young adult moderate Republicanism. In 1976, I was a Gerald Ford guy, especially after he picked Bob Dole as his running mate. After Nixon, Ford was a breath of fresh, ethical, healing air.
The seeds for what would become a deep and abiding interest in the process of crafting public policy and the campaigns needed to allow for the crafting were planted in that Bicentennial year. Two years later, at 22, I would attend a downtown Wichita campaign rally for a candidate trying to make the leap from the Maize school board to the U.S. Senate. Came away with a green T-shirt reading, “A woman’s place is in the House… and the Senate” and a new political hero in Nancy Kassebaum.
By 1994, with fifteen years of my own journalistic experience, when Bill Graves asked me to join his campaign for Kansas governor, I was ready to respond, “how high and how tight?”
Nothing will change the pride I carry about my first vote. President Ford was my guy, but after “The Outlier,” I now consider Jimmy Carter from a more profound, fuller perspective.
My one-layer-deep frame of reference, informed in the late ‘70s by analog television, terrestrial radio and newspapers on actual newsprint plunged to new depths, when I was immersed in truth and insight based on years of legwork and research.
New factual tidbits invariably emerge in presidential biographies. I knew Carter trended more hardline after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but Bird confirmed and revealed his secret signing in the summer of 1980 of a presidential directive allowing the use of tactical battlefield nukes, targeting the Soviet Union’s political leadership and military assets.
Carter believed the previous doctrine of mutual assured destruction had outlived its shelf life as a credible deterrent.
As presidential biographies go, I’d describe “The Outlier” as definitive. If journalism is the first draft of history, then presidential biographies are the final, convert it from Word to .pdf, polished file.
The arc of history bends with time. I have changed my opinion, and as a consequence, my attitude about Jimmy Carter, but it does leave me begging the question, what if you really are the smartest guy in the room?
I was convinced the man was a failure. I no longer feel that way. What changed?
It’s simple, really.
I read a book.
Mike Matson’s column appears every other weekend in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com.