The Second Coming of Jimmy Carter

Barack Obama is taking America down a path modeled by Jimmy Carter, and threatens to be as bad a president as his trailblazer. A unlikely guide unwittingly will help make the case.

David Brooks asserted in the New York Times last week that, after watching Barack Obama for two years, it is "easy to sketch out a scenario in which he could be a great president."  

[Obama] has shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day. . . .

It's not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious.  Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he's become a homeostasis machine.

And it is easy to sketch out a scenario in which he could be a great president. He would be untroubled by self-destructive demons or indiscipline.  With that cool manner, he would see reality unfiltered. [emphases added]

Brooks connected these personality traits with the "unshakable serenity" of FDR and Reagan, which in turn led to the Brooksian "scenario" of potential Obamian greatness. 

I have no idea what Brooks means by an "organized unconscious;" nor exactly what a "deep, bottom-up process" is; nor how Obama's "untroubled self-confidence" differs from George W. Bush's "untroubled self-confidence."  Still less do I understand how these esoteric personality traits relate to seeing "reality unfiltered," as opposed to representing a filter of their own. 

What interests me, however, is Brooks' belief that, based on personality traits he has observed for two years, he can predict a presidency reminiscent of FDR and Reagan. 

Such a prediction -- made before the man takes office, before he has even made a single cabinet choice, much less made a presidential policy decision; before he has faced a single crisis, much less handled one successfully -- is transparently absurd.  But more than that, it brings forth a sense of déjà vu. 

We have been down this road before, with an inexperienced driver, and the car crashed.

On November 3, 1976, the day after Jimmy Carter's election, the New York Times ran a profile explaining his remarkable political victory -- how a one-term governor from Georgia, with no significant record, began planning his presidential campaign in the second year of his one-and-only four-year term, and then went on to secure the nomination from more experienced rivals and defeat a sitting president:

He believed passionately that if he could talk to enough voters about a "Government as good as the American people," he could win. . .

Words, skillfully used, could play dual roles for him.  Liberals came to conceive of him as one of their own.  Conservatives responded to him sympathetically as well.  Blacks in Harlem voiced their support.  Whites in Mississippi got behind him. . . .

[T]he theme was always visible:  a government as good as the people.  It was voiced a hundred different ways, but the impact on his listeners was constant.

Americans, he said, were entitled to decent, compassionate, honest, competent government because Americans are decent, compassionate, honest and competent.

In other words:  Jimmy Carter won by constantly telling Americans that he was the one they were waiting for. 

He made them think that by voting for him, it reflected well on them.  He played on the electorate's hope for change, and he offered a blank slate on which that hope could be projected.  His speeches were secular sermons that would later translate into presidential addresses about the need to transcend our inordinate fear of communism and to overcome our malaise that was hindering his policies.

Carter had built his campaign on something that was, at the time, unique in modern American politics:  the thoughtful campaign autobiography.  Written while he was governor, it was re-published in paperback in June 1976 and given a New York Times review, written by a member of the editorial board.  The review extolled both the book and its author:

Jimmy Carter has contrived a new literary form, the campaign biography written as autobiography by the candidate himself.  It is a skillful, simply-written blend of personal history, social description and political philosophy that makes fascinating reading. . . .

Critics, friendly as well as unfriendly, worry whether Jimmy Carter believes in anything larger than his own success.  This book does not provide conclusive answers. . . . Basically, however, Carter reminds one of two earlier Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.  Although both were of a progressive bent, they were really neither liberal nor conservative by conviction.  Rather, they believed in governing.

Carter was certified as the One in the closing benediction at the 1976 Democratic convention, given by no less a figure than the father of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Televised on all three networks (the entire visual media at the time), the benediction heralded Jimmy Carter as someone sent to redeem the country:  "Surely the Lord sent Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back where she belongs." 

Thirty-two years later, no one associates Jimmy Carter with Roosevelt or Kennedy, or with "governing."  Few people believe the Lord sent him, or that he brought America back where she belonged. 

What were we thinking when we elected him?  The answer is:  some of the same things we are thinking now.

He was a blank slate to be filled with visions of Roosevelt and Kennedy.  People thought his unique background and perspective would unite North and South, black and white.  He had accomplished little in his political career, but he had written a thoughtful autobiography, with an audaciously hopeful title:  "Why Not the Best?"  He gave good speeches.

There was little substantive content to his campaign, which instead endlessly repeated his government-as-good-as-its-people mantra.  His one specific proposal was "zero-based budgeting," under which each year the federal budget would start at zero and be analyzed by him line by line.  He had no national or foreign policy experience.   

But as a liberal governor from a Southern state, Carter was thought to have a remarkable "temperament."  The New York Times thought he was a "keenly intelligent man" because the cover page of his autobiography featured quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr ("The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world"), Bob Dylan (about "a funny ol'world that's a-comin' along"), and Dylan Thomas ("A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven"). 

Now flash forward thirty years.  In April 2007, shortly after Obama announced his candidacy, David Brooks had a one-on-one interview with him.  They were speaking about effective aid to Africa.  As Brooks related the conversation the next day in "Obama, Gospel and Verse":

Out of the blue I asked, "Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?"

Obama's tone changed.  "I love him.  He's one of my favorite philosophers."

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

"I take away," Obama answered in a rush of words, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.  And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.  I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."

My first impression was that for a guy who's spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that's a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr's "The Irony of American History."  My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it's really interesting to watch.

A less credulous commentator might have noted that Obama had used 70 words and four sentences to express a cliché:  we can't do everything, but we must do everything we can.  He might have noted that "threading the Niebuhrian needle" is simply the Goldilocks principle applied to idealism and realism (not too much; not too little - just right).  He might have observed that Obama spoke well but did not really say anything.  But Obama already had him at "Niebuhr." 

Nine months later, after Obama won the Iowa caucuses, a "vibrating" David Brooks (in Leon Wieseltier's observation) wrote that it was "a huge moment."

Whatever their political affiliations, Americans are going to feel good about the Obama victory, which is a story of youth, possibility and unity through diversity -- the primordial themes of the American experience. . . .

At first blush, his speeches are abstract, secular sermons of personal uplift -- filled with disquisitions on the nature of hope and the contours of change.

He talks about erasing old categories like red and blue (and implicitly, black and white) and replacing them with new categories, of which the most important are new and old. . . .

It was like the second coming of the 1976 Jimmy Carter -- the one who would unite North and South, black and white, and provide us a government as good as we were; it was the second coming of the man who knew Niebuhr!  By last week, Brooks was speaking of FRD and Reagan.

If elected, Obama will be the least experienced president since Jimmy Carter.  No one knows what Obama really thinks, much less what he will actually do, since he had one set of policies in the primaries and another during the general election, and his rhetoric is as unspecific as Carter's was (except Obama did say in the debates - twice - that he intended to go through the federal budget "line by line"). 

He has released no records from college or law school, nor his law firm client list, nor the files relating to his legislative experience in Illinois.  He has acknowledged a history of drug use and the fact that he currently smokes, but he refuses to release any medical records.  He has spent most of his still-unfinished first term in the Senate running for president, which his supporters argue is the executive experience that qualifies him for the presidency. 

His own running mate has told us Obama could have made a better vice-presidential choice, and has warned us that Obama's inexperience will result in multiple international crises in his first six months.  But Obama wrote an excellent autobiography, has an organized unconscious, and knows Niebuhr.

There is a good chance that if we elect him, we will one day ask:  what were we thinking?

Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues.
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