Is Jimmy Carter a saint? As James Kirchick has argued, the former President does deserve applause for the courage he displayed last week in the Sudan. He may be our worst ex-President ever, as Joshua Muravchik has irrefutably demonstrated, but it does not follow that every single thing he does today is bad.
The same thing can be said of his presidency. Reviewing Carter’s book, Living Faith, in the Wall Street Journal in 1996, I made the case that he was one of the worst Presidents of the 20th century. Carter read my review and took umbrage. The Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted him saying about me: “The guy, and I don’t know him, was vituperative about everything. He even condemned the poem I wrote about Rosalynn, which is one of the most popular parts of the book.”
Carter did, and does, have many appalling defects–the least of them his execrable poetry. But let’s give him his due. Even a terrible leader sometimes does some good things. Let me recall a tiny and ancient sliver of the past.
In June 1978, Carter appointed the former Representative Bella Abzug, then at the nadir of her own political career, to head his 40-member National Advisory Committee for Women. He and his staff probably had no idea of her Stalinist past–and if they did have an idea, given Carter’s stated desire to rid Americans of their “inordinate fear of Communism,” they probably would not have cared.
But if Carter was indifferent to Abzug’s lifetime membership in the Vladimir Ilich Lenin wing of the Democratic party, he still might have paid attention, if only out of self-interest, to the fact that she was a loud-mouth and a bully. Almost immediately on her appointment as “chairperson,” Abzug characteristically displayed her gratitude to her patron and rescuer by biting the hand that fed her.
The day before a scheduled meeting with Carter in January 1979, the women’s committee prepared a press release blasting the White House for increasing unemployment, curtailing social programs, and funding “military extravagance.” At the meeting itself, Abzug wagged her finger at the President, haranguing him about the critical role of the committee that he himself had created and was now, allegedly, neglecting.
Was what happened next a profile of presidential courage or of presidential rage? Whatever the answer, it was certainly not a case of lust in his heart; it took no more than minutes after the meeting concluded for Carter to fire Abzug. Never mind that she was occupying a volunteer position; she and her big hats went out the White House door never to return.
Jimmy Carter was indeed among the very worst Presidents of the 20th century. It is not an accident that even the few minor good things he ever did consisted of nothing more than undoing some of the many bad things he also did.