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Ever the Wonderboy

The Real Jimmy Carter takes us a stroll down memory lane with our worst ex-president.

By 8.16.04

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The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry.
By Steven F. Hayward
(Regnery Publishing, 272 pages, $27.95)

Mea Culpa: I was one of the pathetic dupes who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, an angry reaction to the Nixon/Watergate mess and the dim-bulb succession of Veep Gerald Ford, a man seemingly better qualified to bolt bumpers on Fords in his native Michigan than to take pratfalls in the White House.

A quarter-century later that brief interlude in the voting booth haunts me while it produces endless amusement for my wife Pamela, who saw the peanut farmer from Plains Georgia for what he was, a nasty, egocentric Lilluput whose Cheshire-cat smile shielded a blurred, disjointed, hopelessly murky and marginally schizophrenic personality that prompted comedian Pat Paulsen to quip, "They wanted to put Carter on Mt. Rushmore, but they didn't have room for two faces."

Steven Hayward is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank populated by few, if any, fans of James Earle Carter, Jr. Yet Hayward the scholar assaults the ex-president not with the hyperbole of an arch-critic or political foe, but with the scalpel cuts of an academic surgeon, carefully dissecting the little man's political career and his more recent love-fests with every degenerate dictator on the planet. While the liberal media have elevated Carter to a position of "America's greatest ex-president" due to his hand-wringing, Chamberlain-like advocacy of peace at any price wrapped in a hopelessly hypocritical mantle of born-again Christianity, Hayward spikes this adoration with a prosecutor's indictment that reveals Carter as a petulant loser whose post-presidency actions often border on the treasonous.

This of course only adds to Carter's appeal among the U.S.-hating European left, who awarded him a Nobel Peace Prize for his Quisling-like behavior -- a display of Yankee baiting unequaled until the year's awarding of the Cannes Film Festival Palm to that fat, socialist crypto-slob Michael Moore for anti-Bush agitprop.

How else can one explain Carter's unconscionable efforts to sabotage the 1990 Gulf War or his cozy relationship with anti-American terrorists like Yasser Arafat, Danny Ortega, Hafez Assad, and the North Korean gangsters? But perhaps his anti-American behavior has nothing to do with politics, but more with jealousies directed at the Bush family and their connections to Ronald Reagan -- the man who squashed him like a hollow cashew in the 1980 presidential election.

One ongoing theme of Hayward's analysis centers on Carter's incredible pettiness and dark penchant for veiled hatred. It was during his failed 1980 presidential campaign that ABC's Barbara Walters noted in an interview, "Mr. President, in recent days you have been characterized as mean, vindictive, and hysterical to the point of desperation."

Hayward thankfully avoids lapses into psychoanalysis while carefully recounting Br'er Jimmy's dismal and often contradictory record as a public and private figure, but he cannot avoid describing a truly bizarre personality. One can not read about how Carter isolated himself from his Democratic cohorts in Congress, his demented selection of peaceniks like Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and arms control chief Paul Warnke, plus lefties like Anthony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, et al., without puzzling over his sanity.

For all his erratic behavior, Jimmy Carter is a fierce duplicitous warrior bent on his own form of success. During the run-up from his father's peanut farm to the governorship of Georgia, he simultaneously courted the axe-wielding racist Lester Maddox and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- a juggling act that deserves high marks for cleverness if not morality. Throughout his long career, his toothy smile and cuddly demeanor concealed a knife-edged ruthlessness and propensity to align himself with unsavory characters in behalf of his own glory. Moreover, this wily old fox never hesitated to bloat his résumé, claiming to be a "nuclear physicist" following his service on nuclear submarines.

Carter's Panama Canal giveaway, his obsession with "human rights," his instantly failed Camp David accords, his betrayal of the Shah of Iran, and his botched handling of the 1978 oil crisis all helped to plunge his approval rating to a dismal 25 percent even before he was assaulted by a "killer rabbit" while fishing in Georgia. That loony episode, coupled with his collapse from exhaustion during a 10-kilometer run in suburban Maryland, elevated him to stardom in most stand-up comedians' monologues, a hilarious distraction from his fumbled effort to solve the Iranian hostage mess that was the capstone to his failed presidency.

THE REAL JIMMY CARTER only goes part way in revealing what a hapless dunce (or "grinning dunce" as this magazine memorably labeled him) the subject truly was. Hayward stays the course in dealing with Carter's bungled policy decisions while essentially ignoring his even goofier private life. Almost unmentioned in his steely wife Rosalynn, who hated Washington society as much as it hated her, or his soused, redneck brother Billy and his scraggly daughter, Amy, who plunged into the counterculture at Brown and disappeared forever.

While the White House has sheltered a ragged parade of mountebanks, scoundrels, and poseurs over its two-century history, few have bordered as close to dementia as Jimmy Carter. His erratic behavior, which ranged from the saccharine to canine viciousness, is truly the subject not of Hayward's polite dissection but rather that of a learned psychiatrist. After reading The Real Jimmy Carter, one is led to wonder not only what is wrong with the man's mental state, but what form of dementia seized me and my fellow citizens who gave him 50.1 percent of the popular vote in 1976.

Six weeks before the election Carter admitted in a Playboy interview that he lusted in his heart after women. Most of the major media did not include in their coverage his additional remark, "Christ says, don't consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a bunch of woman while the other guy is loyal to his wife." That interview, plus his speech vilifying his fellow citizens for their alleged "malaise," stand as the only memorable remarks to come out of his presidency. Not exactly equal to the Gettysburg Address or Roosevelt's "day of infamy" speech, but branded trademarks of a tenure in the White House of a man who makes Warren G. Harding, U.S. Grant, and even Bill Clinton look like later-day Pericleses by comparison. H.L. Mencken once said that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people. In my case, during the month of November 1976, he was dead right.

Brock Yates is author, most recently, of Against Death and Time: One Fatal Season in Racing's Glory Years (Thunder's Mouth Press). This review appears in the July-August issue of The American Spectator.

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About the Author

Brock Yates is author, most recently, of Against Death and Time: One Fatal Season in Racing's Glory Years (Thunder's Mouth Press).