The Obama Watch

Jimmy Carter’s Spirit of Notre Dame

Carter speech haunts Obama appearance at university.

By 3.31.09

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Notre Dame. May, 1977.

It was here that Jimmy Carter put his presidency on the path of losing one to the Gipper.

In the midst of the controversy over the decision by Notre Dame to invite President Obama to deliver the school's commencement address, it's worth a look back at a similar Notre Dame appearance by an earlier and politically like-minded predecessor. Today the controversy about the school's invitation to Obama revolves around Obama's pro-abortion politics and the appropriateness of being honored by the famously Catholic, which is to say pro-life, university. In Carter's case, the controversy arose not ahead of time but as a result of his remarks, and the subject of controversy had nothing to do with abortion, which Carter never mentioned.

In May of 1977, Carter was just over four months into his presidency. He was very much the popular new president. His initial popularity still holds the record for newly installed presidents, with Gallup scoring him at an impressive 71%. In comparison, President Obama at a similar point scored a 68%. Thus the controversy Carter stirred by his Notre Dame commencement address was notable, since in retrospect it put Carter on a glide path to one of the most unsuccessful presidencies in modern times, ending in his landslide defeat by Ronald Reagan four years later. (Ironically, Reagan won his nickname "The Gipper" with his film portrayal of dying Notre Dame football star George Gipp.)

Perhaps more importantly than Carter's personal political fate the speech signaled his decision to abandon his party's identification with the policies of military strength and American exceptionalism championed by Democrats from FDR to JFK and LBJ. Instead, Carter chose to move the country towards the more left-leaning foreign and defense policies advocated by 1972 nominee Senator George McGovern. The results were decidedly not approved of by the American public. On the day of Carter's departure from the White House Gallup recorded his popularity had nose-dived to 34%, putting him just ahead of predecessor Harry Truman at the low-point of the Korean War (32%) and a mere ten points higher than the resigned Richard Nixon, at 24%. By contrast, even the unpopular LBJ had left with a 49% rating, and Gerald Ford, the incumbent Carter had defeated, departed with a 53% approval number.

So what did Carter say at Notre Dame, where he was invited by the university's president, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh? What signal did he send that wound up getting him, the country and the entire world in such trouble over the next four years and well beyond that? More to the point, how does it compare with the direction already being signaled by President Obama as he approaches his own already controversial appearance at Notre Dame?

The most notable single sentence in Carter's Notre Dame speech was this one:

We are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.

Carter went on to insist that it was time to govern with a "wider framework of international cooperation" because "the world today is in the midst of the most profound and rapid transformation in its entire history."

He also added this about the American approach to the Soviet Union in the Carter era: "Our goal is to be fair to both sides, to produce reciprocal stability, parity, and security." In other words, in Carter's view, a view widely held among leftward-leaning elites, both the United States and the Soviet Union had genuinely competing claims. They were morally equal to each other.

The speech was the lead story in the news the next day. By the time Carter left the White House after four years of promoting moral equivalence, the world was in murderous chaos. The unintended consequences of Carter's policies as enunciated at Notre Dame were both considerable and long lasting. Some would argue they are reverberating right up until today. The Soviets, seeing Carter as weak, invaded Afghanistan, with Carter famously "shocked" that he had been lied to over the issue by then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet invasion in turn drew into Muslim-dominated Afghanistan a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden determined to fight a jihad against non-Muslims. There Bin Laden met a number of similarly enraged young Islamicists from throughout the Middle East, all determined to conduct a jihad against the invaders. As noted in Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize winning book The Looming Tower, this is where the stirrings began that eventually produced the Taliban and a group called al Qaeda, with bin Laden himself headquartering in Afghanistan. In Nicaragua the Communist Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship on Carter's watch and promptly imposed their own, giving both Cuban and Soviet "advisors" a free hand to use the country as a staging ground for violence in Central America that would last a decade. In Iran, the Shah was overturned by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, turning a one-time American ally into the implacable foe now calling itself the Islamic Republic of Iran. Carter, abandoning the Shah, stretched his hand out to Khomeini at first, viewing him as a fellow man of faith rather than the world's first prominent Islamic terrorist. Said Carter's U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young: "Khomeini will eventually be hailed as a saint."

He wasn't.

If this approach of Carter's sounds vaguely familiar these days, it should. Carter's words at Notre Dame bear a striking resemblance to the substance if not the actual words of President Obama.

Here's Carter, at Notre Dame, insisting America had abandoned its values in our foreign policy under his predecessors (Ford, Nixon and LBJ) and that he would restore them

For too many years, we've been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We've fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water.

And Obama, before a joint session of Congress, saying the same of America today and blaming Bush:

To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend -- because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists -- because living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger.

Carter sought to appease the rise of anti-Americanism abroad that surfaced as a result of a U.S. challenge to an enemy. In the case of Carter, the idea was to soothe ruffled European allies and others over U.S. Vietnam policy and opposition to Communism. For Obama, the point is to soothe European allies and their opposition to the Bush War on Terror against Islamic fascism.

Carter at Notre Dame:

The Vietnamese war produced a profound moral crisis, sapping worldwide faith in our own policy and our system of life, a crisis of confidence made even more grave by the covert pessimism of some of our leaders.

Obama at Camp Lejeune:

And we have learned the importance of working closely with friends and allies, which is why we are launching a new era of engagement in the world.

Or, again, it can be the idea of offering an olive branch to an enemy, telling the world Americans have nothing to fear from that potential enemy, and that potential enemy has nothing to fear from America.

Carter at Notre Dame:

We are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.

Obama in Inaugural Address:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

Obama has even gone out of his way to make this point to today's most prominent American enemy, signaling his intentions to Islamic radicals sworn to destroy not only America but Western civilization. Instead of a speech, Obama exercised a technical option not available to Carter in 1977: taping a video message for the Iranian mullahs proclaiming America's peaceful intentions for distribution on You Tube. Speaking in the Carteresque language of moral equivalence Carter had used to appeal to the Soviet Communists, President Obama looked into the camera lens to assert "the United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations." This is the Obama version of Carter's assurance to the Soviets as expressed at Notre Dame: "Our goal is to be fair to both sides, to produce reciprocal stability, parity, and security." In other words, there's really no big deal about the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union (Carter's view) or between the United States and Iran (Obama's view). Carter, unlike Reagan, saw no "evil empire." His objective was not to win the Cold War but to get along. Obama never blinks at the reality of Iran, whether it is its lust for nuclear weapons or internal policies where women are stoned for adultery and gays executed simply for the "crime" of being gay.

Obama specifically made it clear in his video that his administration was not threatening the Iranians nor would he seek a change in their government over their efforts to build a nuclear weapon that presumably would be used to destroy Israel. Said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin S. Indyk (author of Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Diplomacy in the Middle East) of this approach: "That wording is designed to demonstrate acceptance of the government of Iran….The message is dripping with sincerity and directly addresses one of the things they [the Iranian government] are most concerned about." Which is to say, the Iranians want the ability to be left alone to build their bomb when they aren't stoning women or executing gays, all of which the President of the United States telegraphs he is willing to ignore in the name of bringing Iran into "its rightful place in the community of nations." As Carter wanted to get along with the Soviet Union, Obama seeks to get along with the Islamic extremists. Victory is never the goal.

In the last few days, Obama has revealed his new strategy for the U.S. to the world. In a bow to political correctness and in a nod to Carter's philosophy as expressed at Notre Dame, the Obama administration announced it will no longer use the term "terrorism." Instead, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the government will be changing it instead to "man-caused disasters." Nor will the term "enemy combatants" be used, because, according to Attorney General Eric Holder, the term is not compatible with American "values." Next the Obama team had the Pentagon issue an internal memorandum saying "this administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' [GWOT]. Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"

Once the new terminology was squared away and duly communicated to a watching world, the administration wrapped up its internal debate about its strategy for the war in Afghanistan. In a blink the behind-the-scenes discussions were on the front page of the New York Times. Predictably, Vice President Biden -- who had insisted the surge in Iraq would not work -- was warning of a "political and military quagmire" ahead in Afghanistan, according to the Times. The final (for now) decision is a lesser variation on the Iraq surge, targeting al Qaeda by sending an additional 4,000 troops -- yet forbidding them from participating in combat. Rather, the objective will be to train the Afghan army and national police. In other spheres of U.S. foreign policy, Obama has told the Russians he wishes to "reset" the U.S.-Russian relationship, in part by standing down on the deployment of U.S. missiles in Poland in return for assistance on Iran, sent his envoys to Syria (where the Bush administration had reportedly sent U.S. warplanes to destroy a partly constructed nuclear reactor), invited Iran to a conference on the future of Afghanistan and indicated the U.S. is prepared to talk with the Taliban. Only days ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on Fox appealing to the North Koreans to talk to the administration.

"Words matter," President Obama is fond of saying, and so they do. Jimmy Carter's words at Notre Dame in fact mattered a great deal, as did the actions that flowed from those words. As the date draws near for the Obama appearance at Notre Dame, it is a useful reminder that this same occasion 32 years ago became the stage on which the words of Jimmy Carter set the Carter presidency, America and the world on a fateful course. The world -- which very much included the Soviets, the Iranian mullahs and the Nicaraguan Communist guerillas among many others -- was watching and listening.

The results included the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the establishment of a Soviet and Cuban base of operations in Central America, the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran, the taking of American hostages in Iran, the mass murder by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and finally the wreckage of Carter's presidency. (And that doesn't even count the crippling of the US economy with double-digit inflation, interest rates and unemployment.) Perhaps most disturbingly, the Carter era as represented by Carter himself in his Notre Dame speech would eventually set in motion the creation of Al Qaeda and the Islamic terrorist zeitgeist that has engulfed the world ever since.

A bare two-plus months into the Obama era it appears the new president is guiding his administration and the country almost precisely along the same path of moral equivalence Carter began to tread at Notre Dame. Sending the entire world a message outlining the spirit in which President Obama intends to govern. Unintended consequences be damned.

You might call it Jimmy Carter's Spirit of Notre Dame.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.