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
bloodbath, with tens of thousands killed, and the South Vietnamese
off their lands to make way for North Vietnamese settlement. Many
Vietnamese became “boat people” where they became prey to
pirates. Others went through the horrors of Communist
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
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
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
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
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