With the death of former President Ronald Reagan, HUMAN EVENTS Associate Editor Joseph A. D’Agostino sat down with Steven F. Hayward, author of The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry, published this year by Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS. A fellow at both the American Enterprise Institute and the Pacific Research Institute, Hayward contends that Reagan restored dignity and direction to an office that had degenerated under Carter.
HUMAN EVENTS: What were the primary things that happened right away when President Reagan took over the presidency from Jimmy Carter?
Steven F. Hayward: The mood of the entire nation changed almost instantaneously. In fact, I looked at this recently, the Washington Post editorial page from the day after his inauguration in 1981, said–I can quote this from memory–“By the time Reagan left the Capitol the country seemed a different place.” It is pretty obvious where it was a different place from. Carter for all his nice smile and genial personality was a pessimist. We saw that in a lot of ways, culminating in the famous malaise speech. He was openly gloomy about our nation’s future, so we faced the limits to growth.
“Americans must learn to live with less?”
SFH: Yes, America had to learn to live with less, that’s right. Reagan in his own first inaugural address repudiated that quite directly. I forget the exact words, but he was pretty clear that he was referring indirectly to Carter and what had just gone before him. Reagan and Carter were the antihesies of one another. In fact, Reagan himself commented on Carter, referring to his famous malaise speech, saying that leaders who are talking about their nation’s limitations are really talking about their own. . . . With Reagan you had someone who looked at the big picture. Carter always looked at the small picture. He was detail-obsessed. He would read 300 pages a night of memos and reports of his staff and it did not make him a more effective President. Reagan of course, if you handed him a 100-page report, would hand it back to you and say, “Please summarize this in five pages.”
What were some little symbolic things that were different about Reagan right when he took over from Carter?
SFH: One little thing that I haven’t heard anyone comment on in the last week is that Reagan insisted on formal wear for his inauguration. They were wearing morning coats. Carter had made a point of being sworn in in a business suit. He was trying after one bad aspect of Watergate to make the presidency a more downgraded institution, more of a regular thing. So Reagan from the very first moment wanted to restore the majesty of the presidency, beginning with the formal wear at the inauguration, and it went from there. For a long time Carter didn’t have “Hail to the Chief” play. Reagan immediately had the Marine Band play when he’d enter rooms at dinners and so forth.
How come it’s the most elitist people like Jimmy Carter who almost always seem to like to push this sort of populist nonsense?
SFH: That’s a good question. Carter always talked about how he was a populist politician, but he really wasn’t. One of the great problems with Carter throughout his entire political career is that he concealed his true liberalism. . . . People thought, a lot of Democratic voters, conservative Democrats thought that they were electing a conservative Southerner who would be something more like Harry Truman, or even more in foreign policy, like John F. Kennedy. What they got instead, in Bob Dole’s memorable phrase, was “Southern-fried McGovern.” He ratified the leftward drift of the Democratic Party that had been started in the 1960’s and essentially killed the old Truman/Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party once and for all.
When Reagan was President, how did Carter try to undermine what Reagan was trying to do?
SFH: Well now, Carter founded very early, the Carter Center at his presidential library. Dean Rusk, a fellow Georgian and former secretary of state, described it as “Carter’s attempt to found his own little private U.N. in downtown Atlanta,” and he used the Carter Center to convene lots of conferences and unofficial summit meetings with the Soviets on arms control and he was explicitly trying to bring pressure on Reagan to abandon his hard-line views on the Soviet Union and his strategy of peace through strength. Because Carter thought Reagan wouldn’t succeed, he actually would tell the Russians when he would talk to them that there can be no possible progress on arms control as long as Reagan is President.
He actually said that?
SFH: He actually said that to him, [to Soviet] Ambassador Dobrynin at a private meeting in, I think, 1984. . . . Carter has never had the grace to admit that Reagan succeeded or that he was right and maybe he was mistaken in his evaluation of Reagan’s policies.
He has never said, well, it looks like Reagan really did help win the Cold War?
SFH: Not that I’m aware of.
How is Carter, today, meddling in world affairs?
SFH: Well, in sort of two ways. It’s a little less than it was under Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton let him get away with murder, so to speak. However, he is just this last week out in Venezuela, trying to get a referendum on Hugo Chavez, as it’s called for in the Venezuelan constitution that actually may turn out well and he may decide that Carter was helpful in doing that.
How come Carter is so pro-Arab and anti-Israel?
SFH: That’s something that’s hard to explain. . . . He did give a speech, I mention this in the book, he did give a speech in Geneva a few months ago where he ended by saying, “Had I been elected President for a second term, I would have pressed for a final solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.” I found that amazing.
Perhaps that’s an infelicitous turn of phrase?
SFH: Some people make mistakes, but it’s very rare that someone of his political experience would have chosen those particular words by mistake. Perhaps he did. I mean he used the words ethnic purity back in 1976 and got him in a lot of trouble with liberals. People didn’t think that was a mistake.
Did he betray the pro-life cause?
SFH: Oh, absolutely. The 1976 election was the first election after the Roe v. Wade decision. So how it played out politically was a little unclear and in the Iowa caucuses, which is where he made his breakthrough, he would say different things to different audiences. He would imply to Catholic voters and to conservative Protestant voters that he was against abortion, and say I might favor some sort of national statute to regulate it. He would tell feminist groups that he was for abortion rights and he wouldn’t interfere with it. What’s important about that is there was a pro-life Catholic Democrat in that race, it was Sargent Shriver, who had been McGovern’s running mate in ’72. People forget now that there was a pro-life Democrat on a national ticket as recently as 1972; now they can’t even speak at Democratic conventions. So Carter really stole a lot of Shriver’s support from people who were concerned about abortion by, shall we say, prevaricating on the issue.