Ford and Carter

In what came to be called his “malaise speech,” President Jimmy Carter complained that America was going through a time of “paralysis and stagnation and drift.”  In many ways, that phrase describes well both the Ford and Carter administrations.  The nation was adrift, and neither man seemed to be able to do much about it.

Gerald Ford was at a great disadvantage from the start.  He was the first unelected president in American history: not even elected to the vice presidency.  He became vice president only when Spiro Agnew resigned and Congress chose him to fill Agnew’s place.  Thus when he became president, he could claim no popular mandate whatever, and he was hardly in a position to challenge Congress-which, after all, had indirectly made him president in the first place.

With no mandate for any agenda of his own, the best Ford could do was to try to salvage what could be salvaged of Nixon’s achievements.  And he tried to do exactly that.

In foreign policy, though, Congress clipped his wings, passing legislation designed to limit the president’s discretionary powers (the "War Powers Act").  With limited power, it was going to be hard to imitate Nixon’s success in foreign policy.

The SALT talks broke down.  Congress looked like it was going to cut back on our nuclear armaments all by itself, so the Soviets saw no need to negotiate.  Worse, the North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies took advantage of America’s preoccupation with its own problems to resume their assaults on South Vietnam.

When America withdrew its troops in America in 1973, we promised to come back in with our bombers should the Communists break the agreement with South Vietnam.  We didn’t keep our promise, and, without American support, South Vietnam fell to the communists. The result was a bloodbath, with tens of thousands killed, and the South Vietnamese pushed off their lands to make way for North Vietnamese settlement.  Many South Vietnamese became “boat people” where they became prey to pirates.  Others went through the horrors of Communist “reeducation camps.” 

But it wasn’t just South Vietnam: Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia fell to communist insurgents, with horrible results—particularly in Cambodia.  The Communist Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) decided to cleanse the country to prepare the way for a Marxist dream society.  In Marx’s dream society, there would be no beggary or prostitution.  The Khmer Rouge took a short cut: they killed all the beggars and prostitutes.  In Marx’s dream society there would be no private business. The Khmer Rouge took a short cut: they killed all the businessmen.  In Marx’s dream society, no one would teach ideas contrary to those of Marx.  The Khmer Rouge took a short-cut: they killed all the teachers.  Whole village were wiped out, with public executions of the most brutal kind, executions that involved mutilation and even crucifixion.  Eight to ten year old children might be taken out, handed rocks, and forced to stone to death their teachers, calling out “bad teacher, bad teacher, bad teacher.”  Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge genocide took the lives of two million people—1/3 of the population.

While all this was going on, Jerry Ford pleaded with Congress to let him intervene--but the anti-war liberals had taken control and refused to let him do anything at all.  Interestingly, George McGovern, the anti-war candidate of 1972 eventually changed his mind and said we should intervene at least in Cambodia.  But America did nothing at all—in my opinion a crime.  It’s one thing to ignore atrocities: we can’t police the whole world.  But in this case, this mess was of our making.  We had destabilized Indochina, and we had some responsibility for helping avert a total catastrophe.

In addition to the foreign policy problems, America faced economic problems as well.  In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had jacked up oil prices by 70% and then by another 128%.  Nixon’s hands hand been tied by the Watergate affair, and so Ford inherited a situation that had been a problem for months.  It was a situation that called for strong action: OPEC's policies were inconvenient for the US, but they were creating disatrous consequences for those third-world countries who had no oil supplies of their own.  Unfortunately, Congress wouldn’t allow Ford enough foreign policy discretion to deal effectively with OPEC.

Foreign policy weakness led to economic problems as well.  The tremendous increase in energy prices led to what was called “stagflation,” a stagnant economy combined with inflation.  Such a thing ran contrary to most economic thinking, and one commonly used method of attempting to end economic stagnation (promoting a mildly inflationary policy) wasn’t going to work, and trying to control inflation the usual way (by slowing the economy) wasn’t going to work either.

Ford tried to control inflation through a voluntary system, his WIN! campaign: Whip Inflation Now.  Don’t ask for higher wages.  Refuse to buy goods priced too high. 

But Ford got very little help from Congress or the press. Instead, Ford was ridiculed at every turn.  Cartoons depicted him as a bumbling Stan Laurel type with a WIN! button on his forehead.  Ford (who happened to be probably the best athlete ever to become president) was depicted as a clutz.  The newspapers featured pictures of him taking a fall while skiing at Vail, and mocked him for hooking a golf shot into the crowd at a pro-am tournament.  But why were they doing this?

Well, shortly after taking office, Ford issued a pardon for Nixon—and this infuriated Congress and the press who wanted more than Nixon’s resignation.  They wanted blood. 

Well, don’t stand between the dogs and their prey or you are going to get bit. 

Despite all this, Ford was determined to try for a 2nd term as president, thinking, perhaps, that, with a popular mandate, he might be able to achieve more than he had as an unelected president.  But Ford faced opposition within his own party.  Many Republicans preferred Ronald Reagan, and Ford had to struggle even to get the nomination.  This left the way open for the Democrats to take the presidency once again…if they could find the right candidate.

But finding the right candidate was tricky.  A liberal McGovern type wasn’t going to have much chance, and most of the leading Democrats were McGovern-type candidates.  Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Georgia Governor James Earl Carter, better known as Jimmy, surged well ahead of the rest of the Democratic field.

The press was mystified, but Carter’s rise should not have been all that great a surprise.  In a field of McGovern wannabes, Carter stood for something different.  Carter was a Georgia peanut farmer, no spoiled east-coast elite rich kid.  He graduated in the top 1/5th of his class at Annapolis.  He was tainted with the “Washington insider” image.  A Southerner, but one who favored integration, not a bigoted George Wallace type.  Best of all, Jimmy Carter was a Born Again Christian, and didn’t apologize for saying so.

What this meant in 1976 is hard to explain.  You have to realize that the 1960’s and 70’s had been a time of confusion and disorder in America.  I tell the students in my History 121 class about Henry Bamford Parks recipe for a successful civilization: physical security, ethical guidance, and emotional fulfillment.  In terms of these latter two areas, America in the 1960's and 1970's wasn't doing so well.  We had no commonly agreed on moral compass.  Further, most Americans were losing confidence in the nation: were we even close to being the "City on a Hill" the founders had hoped for?  Had we ever been?  For some Americans, it seemed we were losing the high-ground we had once held.  For others, that "high ground" was no good thing at all: America's heritage was poisonous.

In general in human history, religion tends to an important source of both ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment.  But American churches had been pretty ineffective in helping stem the decline in ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment. Organized religion didn't provide a consensus moral compus, nor did it help as much as much as it once had in giving us confidence that we were, somehow, a people chosen by God for some special destiny.  But just when it seemed American Christianity was becoming irrelevant, a great religious revival started—something American religious historians say happens about every 30 years n America.  This revival was different, though: it took place largely outside the churches.

One became part of this revival by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior and thus becoming born again.  But don’t all Christians do this?  Well, the born-again experience was more than the lip-service reciting of a sinners prayer.  People changed their lives, giving up their drug habits, leaving behind immoral life-styles, and taking up a lifestyle devoted to prayer, Bible study, evangelism, and living a life as close to that of Christ as possible.

For many Americans, getting born again changed everything, and these born again Christians were thrilled that one of their own might become president.  Perhaps a country led by a born-again Christian could be born again. 

There were some 50 million Americans identifying themselves as born-again Christians at this point, and they were far more likely to be registered Democrats rather than Republicans.  There were enough of them to give Jimmy Carter a solid base and the Democratic nomination—and to give him his slight edge in the general election against Ford. (40 million to 39 million popular vote, 297 to 240 electoral college).

The problem was that during the campaign, Carter had not really made  it clear what he was going to do as president.  The platform the Democrats adopted was practically identical to the liberal McGovern platform of 1972, with nothing in it at all likely to appeal to Carter’s born-again constituency: if anything, the reverse.

Carter had said he wasn’t running on issues: he was running on his character.  “I’ll never lie to you.”  Well, that’s nice: but not enough for an effective presidency. 

It was soon clear that Carter hadn’t a clue as to how to run an effective administration.  He based his foreign policy on the Helsinki Accords, a human rights agreement negotiated during the Ford administration.  The problem was that Carter’s condemnation of human rights violations by our enemies were simply laughed out, and his criticism of human rights violations by our allies undermined them.

In Iran, for instance, Carter condemned the human rights violations committed by the Shah. This helped lead to the Shah’s ouster.  Good!  But it paved the way for the Ayatollah Khomeini to take over, a man who viewed the United States as the “great Satan,” and took American hostages to use as a deterrent to any effective use of American power against him.  Very bad: a natural ally (Iran) now turned into a long-time enemy, with the Iranian people now controlled by a ruthless religious fanatic who was much worse than the Shah.  The Iranian leadership proclaimed Israel "the little Satan."  And the U.S.?  Why, we were the great Satan, to be resisted at every turn.  Forty years later, Iran is still a bitter foe of American and American interests.

And then there’s Nicaragua.  Carter undermined Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator, complaining that his human rights practices fell far short of the Helsinki Accord ideal.  Somoza was soon gone.  Good!  But this allowed the Sandinistas, a Communist group, to take over.  We now had a bitter enemy in control of Nicaragua, and the people of the country were under a regime more ruthless than Somoza’s had ever been.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan.  Carter punished them: by cancelling our grain deal and forbidding our Olympic athletes to go to the Moscow Olympics.  A bad deal for American farmers and for our athletes, but Moscow suffered not at all.

And when the Khmer Rouge atrocities got so bad that now-Communist Vietnam decided to step in and top them, Carter stepped in--to put pressure on the Vietnamese to stay out of Cambodia!

Carter’s domestic policies were little more effective.  Inflation jumped to 13% per year.  Interest rates went to 20% and higher.  Carter’s solution: more government spending—more of what got us into our economic mess in the first place!

Not surprisingly, Carter was extraordinarily unpopular, and the Republicans had an excellent chance of preventing his reelection—if they could put up the right candidate.

They did.  They put up a very right Candidate: Ronald Wilson Reagan.