On Contact: Outlier – Jimmy Carter
On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the legacy of the Carter administration with his biographer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Kai Bird.
Jimmy Carter, America’s 39th president, who served one term from 1977 to 1981 before being defeated by Ronald Reagan, was one of the country’s most enigmatic politicians. He was a bundle of contradictions, a man of deep Christian faith who would be abandoned by his evangelical base; a president who promised to place human rights at the center of his foreign policy and yet fell under the disastrous influence of his Svengali-like national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, leading Carter to equip and arm the radical jihadists who would morph into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and give unswerving support to the brutal Iranian regime of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Carter preached compassion for the poor and the vulnerable while imposing punishing financial policies, deregulation and austerity measures that would take a toll on the working class and the marginalized. And yet in many ways, he was perhaps our most exemplary modern president, refraining from military adventurism, devoting tremendous effort to securing peace in the Middle East, and overseeing an administration that was free from the kinds of corruption and scandals that characterized the presidencies that followed.
Kai Bird’s most recent book is ‘The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter’.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the legacy of the Carter presidency with his biographer, Kai Bird.
KB: This is another mystery about the Carter presidency is why did he remain loyal to Zbigniew Brzezinski, his National Security Adviser when it was clear that they had two different worldviews and different values about how to conduct foreign policy. Brzezinski was a sort of typical liberal, cold war hawk. He was a--as--with his Polish ancestry, he looked at the Soviet Union and saw just a history of Russian atrocities against Poland. And he wanted to do whatever he could to undermine the Russian Empire at such. So he saw the whole world through these cold war lenses. And Carter just didn’t agree. And yet, he tolerated Brzezinski and Carter was on the same wavelength with his Assistant Secretary of State, Pat Derian, who he had appointed to be in charge of Human Rights. Pat Derian had no background in foreign policy, but she was a civil rights activist in the South, in Mississippi, of all places. And she--but she brought to Carter’s foreign policy, his real values on human rights and she understood things about the world that someone like Zbigniew Brzezinski could not. So there’s this constant tension and dichotomy within the administration.
CH: Jimmy Carter, America’s 39th president, who served one term from 1977 to 1981 before being defeated by Ronald Reagan, was one of the country’s most enigmatic politicians. He was a bundle of contradictions, a man of deep Christian-faith, who would be abandoned by his evangelical base. A president who promised to place human rights at the center of his foreign policy and yet, who fell under the disastrous influence of his Svengali-like National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, leading Carter to equip and arm the radical jihadist that would morph into the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and give unwavering support to the brutal Iranian regime of the Shah. He preached compassion for the poor and the vulnerable while imposing punishing financial policies, deregulation, and austerity measures that would take a toll on the working class and the marginalized. And yet in many ways, Carter was perhaps our most exemplary modern president refraining from military adventurism, devoting tremendous effort to securing peace in the Middle East, and overseen an administration that was free from the kinds of corruption and scandals that characterize the presidencies that followed. Joining me to discuss the legacy of the Carter presidency is the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Kai Bird whose most recent book is The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter. Carter’s a fascinating figure for all of the reasons that you explain because he is deeply introspective, well-intentioned, hard on himself, hard on others too. What I think you quote the Hunter Thompson I think called him, what the mean--the meanest man in America or something. All of that, I mean, a fascinating figure. And--but I want to begin with his origins, where he comes from. He is rooted in Plains, Georgia, the small town. His father was quite a successful businessperson. I think you had a quote in there that everything he touched turned to money or something. I mean, there’s hilarious stories there, you know, he’s just dreaming up schemes. They were--they had an over surplus of tomato crops so he starts making ketchup. I mean, that’s just--he--but he does grow up in the South. He is a product of a segregated South. His father is a very overt racist. He--his descendants were slaveholders. He, of course, like many Southern Whites will play with Blacks up to a certain age and you had that moment in the book where as they get towards puberty, suddenly his Black playmates are holding the gate for him because they understand the power of White Supremacy. But seven miles away from Plains is this remarkable communal farm run by this remarkable figure, Clarence Jordan, who turns out to be of all things, the uncle of Hamilton Jordan, who works in the White House. But Carter, despite his very real religious faith, knows the consequences because it’s an integrated community of Blacks and Whites. And Clarence Jordan is threatened. I mean, they dynamite his food stand outside the farm, the shots are fired. There’s a moment you write about in the book where I guess it’s the Klan or the White Leagues come up and threatened to kill him. And he said, “Well, that’s fine, we wouldn’t be the first Christians to die for what we believe in.” But Carter wants power. I want you to explain that juxtaposition of what Clarence Jordan did and what Jimmy Carter did.
KB: Well, Chris, thank you for having me. You’ve--and you’ve clearly read the book. Thank you for doing that. No, Carter is a very complicated, a much more complicated politician and human being than is perceived by most Americans, you know, 40 years now after he left the White House. And when I started this project, it took me six years and I began thinking I was going to do just the White House years, the four White House years, that’s what really interests me. But, you know, I couldn’t do it. I had to explain where he came from because this explains his whole presidential odyssey. You know, he grew up in the deep south of South Georgia in this tiny hamlet Archer, two miles down the road from Plains, population 667 or whatnot. And he really grew up in the 19th century. You know, his father was farming with mules, draw--pulling wooden ploughs, and there are his--as you say, his playmates were all African-Americans, the sons of--and daughters of sharecroppers and tenant farmers who worked for his father. He was the only White boy in Archer. And, you know, he was a product of this segregated society. His father was a White supremacist, but his mother was--came from another Southern tradition of eccentric Southern women who could say what was on their minds freely. And she was a book reader and socially in terms of civil rights, a liberal and she imparted to young Jimmy these values. So he grew up in a racist society, but he was always a humanist in terms of his dealings with Blacks. But you’re right, he was quite ambitious too. So when coming to Clarence Jordan, he knew exactly what was going on, this interracial commune that had been founded in 1942 and had just lived under the radar seven miles down the road from Plains. Suddenly becomes very controversial, just as Jimmy Carter moves back from his seven years in the Navy, moves back to Plains to take over the family business because his father suddenly died of pancreatic cancer. And Jimmy Carter knows that seven miles down the road is Clarence Jordan and it becomes extremely controversial because in the wake of Brown versus The Board of Education, Supreme Court decision school desegregation becomes a hot political issue. And Clarence Jordan and his interracial commune becomes a target of dynamite attacks, machine gun attacks, boycotts. And Carter is sympathetic and yet he’s not going to publicly side with Clarence Jordan. It’s a very sort of Machiavellian decision. He is an extremely ambitious man in the 1950s and ‘60s. And he walks this very careful line between appealing to White rural voters and being careful about his electability. It’s just an extraordinary story.
CH: But what makes it so interesting is that he is very serious about his Christian faith. There’s a scene in the book where I think he lends his Bible to Curtis Wilkie, a great political reporter also southern extraction for--writes for the Boston Globe. Carter hates Wilkie and says he needs it more. And Wilkie to a surprise opens up, it’s completely underlined. So that line from the--you know, except a man take up the cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple, was one that I think Carter had to be aware of, especially when it was personified in the figure of Jordan and I want to move on to his presidency. But when he runs for governor, he has a failed attempt. When he comes back, he gives public support to Lester Maddox, a rabid racist. And he uses dog whistles in his campaign and, you know, in Georgia, you only have one term. But he uses racist tropes in order to get elected. I think he gets five percent of the Black vote. And as I remember from the book, it was Ham Jordan or somebody said, “You have to decide when you run for office whose votes you don’t want.” And they were Black people.
KB: Right. No, the 1970 election was clearly an election in which Jimmy Carter decided to do what was necessary to win. But once he won, on the day he was inaugurated, he announces to the astonishment of everyone in the audience that the time for segregation in the South is over. And then he’d be, you know, he proceeds to pivot in the following four years of his governorship and becomes a sort of personification of the Southern Liberal, and he’s running for higher office already. And again, he is a brilliant campaigner. And improbably he wins the Democratic nomination, and then narrowly wins the November 1976 election against defeating sitting accidental president, Gerry Ford. And then Carter does what he has been trained to do, I think all his life as a religious man, as a Born Again Christian, as a Southern Baptist. He attempts to simply govern by doing the right thing, ignoring the politics. And of course, this gets him into a lot of political hot water because he alienates a lot of his own Democratic Party constituencies, labor unions, liberals of one stripe or another. And yet he’s, you know, again, he is--he gets a lot done. You know, legislatively, he’s--he becomes actually, I argue, against the conventional wisdom, he becomes a quite consequential president. And yet he, you know, loses the 1980 election and this--his presidency is again, fascinating because it’s a tipping point, you know, from a sort of old new deal liberalism to this neoconservative Reagan Revolution that occurs that sweeps the country and transforms American politics for the next generation. So it’s a very important window in history.
CH: Well, in many ways, Carter is the precursor of that because--and we’ll--then we’ll get to that after the break. When we come back, we will continue our discussion about the legacy of the Carter presidency with the author, Kai Bird. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion about the legacy of the Carter presidency with the author Kai Bird. So before the break, we were talking about how Carter was in many ways the precursor of neoliberalism, especially in his monetary policies. He places Volcker in charge of the Fed. He talks about compassionate. This is part of his paradox, which I think is real. I think in reading your book, one feels that it’s genuine and yet he feels somehow it’s like the strict parent, tough love, he needs to impose this on the country. Although, as you point out in the book, his understanding of how to curb inflation, in fact, was wrong, or perhaps you can explain that.
KB: Yes. You know, and he was a small town fiscal conservative. And while he was a liberal on social issues and he wanted to help poor people and he did, he greatly expanded, for instance, the Food Stamp Program, adding 3,000,000 people to give access to the--to that program, largely Blacks in the South. But he was a fiscal conservative. He had a--you know, he’s a small town businessman running that peanut warehouse in Plains, Georgia. And so he comes into the White House and he has this sort of misguided uneconomic notion that inflation is connected somehow to the federal budget deficit. When in fact, we now realize that it was really the inflation of the 1970s was driven by the rise of oil prices that occurred because of the Iranian revolution, because of the Arab oil boycott in ‘73 war. And, you know, it was commodity price driven. And--but Carter was very concerned about the federal deficit and he tried to cut the budget in certain places. And that, of course, caused some problems politically with his democratic base. And finally, after in great frustration in the summer of 1979, he did exactly what his--all his political advisers have warned him not to do and that was to appoint Paul Volcker to the Fed knowing--because Volcker told him what he was going to do, knowing that Volcker was going to jack up interest rates dramatically, and simultaneously restrict the money supply, and just try to squeeze the hell out of inflation, which he succeeded in doing. But it didn’t really have the intended effect until about 1982, ‘83 in the first term of the Reagan administration. So it’s Ronald Reagan, who gets credit for beating inflation when actually it was--it was a very tough political decision by Carter to do it in that fashion and it was politically extremely costly.
CH: It’s interesting throughout the book, the person who gives him, I think, often the most sage advice is Rosalynn Carter, who’s often more in tune with the consequences of what he’s doing. You’re right. He’s very obtuse. I just want to talk a little bit about how he’s treated in Washington. The--he doesn’t like to socialize. He keeps turning down invitations to have dinner with Katharine Graham, the very powerful publisher of The Washington Post. But he’s just--he and his kind of Georgia entourage is just savaged by these gossip--gossipy outlook section writing figures like Sally Quinn, and I just want to be fair to Carter, which I think you explained in the book. A lot of these attacks are completely untrue. But Bradley, who ends up marrying Quinn, I don’t know if they’re married at the time, defends this, but it’s really--it’s vicious.
KB: He was a--he was sort of the victim of the post-Watergate journalistic atmosphere in which every young reporter including myself, by the way, when I was in my 20s in the 1970s, I wanted to be like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein and break a scandal. And so, you know, reporters were extremely aggressive even looking for any kind of scandal that they could associate with the White House. And Sally Quinn was a very readable writer in the Style section, newly formed Style section of The Washington Post. And she just made a career out of making fun of these southern boys, the Georgia boys, Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, portraying them as culturally simplistic and hayseeds. And in fact, they were quite smart, savvy political operatives. And Jody Powell was probably the best press secretary this country has had in decades. Rarely, if ever, did he have to lie. And he was damn funny. But anyway, you’re right, The Post in particular, but the other mainstream news operations, The New York Times and such were pretty tough on Carter. And he didn’t help his situation with the press by not--you know, by turning down dinner invitations from Katharine Graham. And in fact, in my interviews with Carter, he admitted at one point that this was probably a mistake.
CH: So, I want to talk a little bit about Carter’s foreign policy, which I embodied a lot of these contradictions. So, he appoints Pat Derian and I was in Latin America, in 1980, in South America. And what’s interesting about that human rights policy, which had a profound effect in Latin America, was that it withdrew support from some of these rapacious military dictatorships, the junta in Argentina, Somoza, and Nicaragua. And it roundly criticized by the foreign policy establishment, but on the ground, it’s something that I saw, it radically changed the perception of the United States by the people who were the victims of these US supported regimes. And I often think throughout the book, Pat Derian, when she criticizes Carter’s support for the Shah pushed Brzezinski, who actually wants to carry out a military coup, just trying to urge him to carry out a coup to perpetuate the regime. She’s more in tune. She’s more in touch with effective foreign policy than Brzezinski himself. And of course, at the end of the presidency, you get the funding for the radical jihadists and the Taliban. We hung on to the Shah way too long, precipitating then allowing the Shah to come in for medical treatment into the United States, which as you point out in the book was kind of botched anyway and precipitating the hostage crisis. I think at one point you write that the Carter presidency becomes hostage to the Iranian hostage crisis. But his last year in power, he really turns his back. He really becomes this hawkish figure. But just talk about that, because it--and then we should mention his 13 days at Camp David with the peace agreement, and I didn’t know until I read your book how close he was to Saddam. But maybe you can speak in the last four minutes about all that.
KB: Yeah. No, this is another mystery about the Carter presidencies is why did he remain loyal to Zbigniew Brzezinski his National Security Adviser when it was clear that they had two different worldviews and different values about how to conduct foreign policy. Brzezinski was a sort of typical liberal, cold war hawk. He was a--as--with his Polish ancestry, he looked at the Soviet Union and saw just a history of Russian atrocities against Poland. And he wanted to do whatever he could to undermine the Russian Empire at such. So he saw the whole world through these cold war lenses. And Carter just didn’t agree and yet he tolerated Brzezinski and Carter was on the same wavelength with his Assistant Secretary of State Pat Derian, who he had appointed to be in charge of Human Rights. Pat Derian had no background in foreign policy, but she was a civil rights activist in the South, in Mississippi, of all places. And she--but she brought to Carter’s foreign policy his real values on human rights and she understood things about the world that someone like Zbigniew Brzezinski could not. So there’s this constant tension and dichotomy within the administration. Carter is under a lot of pressure to fire Derian and he refuses. He’s loyal to her. And one of the mysteries in the book is that I cannot understand why he tolerated Brzezinski when they disagreed so much. And he basically ignored most of the states’ advice for the first three years. And then after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he begins to sort of just cave in to Brzezinski’s worldview and pursues a much harder line with the Soviets. And I think needlessly, and it’s the sort of again, it’s a bad decision on his part.
CH: But let’s just…
KB: He’s human.
CH: Kai, I just want to talk about the Mideast peace agreement. What’s interesting is how Carter, you have Begin who comes out of Jabotinsky, and the hard right of Israel, he’s lied to, manipulated, used by the Israelis, and grows increasingly angry and frustrated at the Israelis for obstructing a real peace prize. He’s really lied to and used repeatedly. Oh, you detail all that in the Camp David Accords, where Carter’s literally going from cabin to cabin. But just in the last little segment here and we have about 30 seconds left, just explain his position on Israel, because it’s the last time a US president is that forthright about Israel.
KB: Yes. Well, Camp David was Carter’s personal achievement. It wouldn’t have happened without his presence. And he really believed what the one difference in my narrative about Camp David from other historians is that I think I’ve pretty much proved that Carter at least was convinced that Begin, at the end, lied to him, and that he promised to stop building settlements for a period of five years in the West Bank, and that this would be a big step towards solving the Palestinian part of the equation. You know, they got a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. And Carter really wanted to also address the Palestinian issue, but he was manipulated and he’s convinced that he was lied to by Begin. And this had consequences. The rest of his presidency, he was trying to put more pressure on Israel to stop the settlements. And of course, he’s very prophetic. This is the same issue that we’re trying to deal with today and it’s created an enormous obstacle to ever achieving a two-state solution. So he’s a prophet in the Middle East.
CH: Great. That was Pulitzer Prize winning author Kai Bird on his new book, The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter.