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Book Review

There was only one topic I wanted to discuss in a blog post on Jimmy Carter, and that was how a Presidency could fail. It is as important, if not more so, to study failure as it is to study success. I scoured Amazon & Google for books on the Carter presidency, hoping to find a treatise on how it went so wrong.

Unfortunately, I found myself knee-deep in the right-wing hate machine. Boy, how conservatives use the failings of Jimmy Carter’s presidency as as a way to prop up their own agendas. Book after book after book is set up to just drag the 39th president through vitriol-laden mud, leaping to grandiose conclusions about “character” and “socialism”. Here’s a man, a guy who truly cares about people, whose character is almost above reproach (especially compared to most politicians), treated so harshly by such an abundance of writers, all to “prove” how right-wing ideals are just so great for this country …

Mattson Book

Anyway, before I get too high on my political soapbox, I eventually came across “What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” by Kevin Mattson. His book isn’t an analysis of the entire Carter presidency, but it is an insightful piece on the infamous “malaise speech” of 1979. Through interviews and research, he assembles not just a narrative on the crafting of the speech, but a collage of the various bad decisions leading up to it. It’s not hateful, or condescending, or serving some personal agenda. It is a fair analysis, a decent read, and, in my opinion, helpful for anyone studying not just the Carter presidency, but leadership in general.

Unbiased, analytical approaches to contemporary political events are rare. They do exist, though. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

——————–

Kevin Mattson at Ohio University

Failures in Leadership

When it comes to posting about Jimmy Carter — Nobel Peace Prize winner, home builder, human rights advocate, international statesman — I could have gone in many directions. In light of his recent cancer diagnoses, I could have focused on his positive, post-1980 accomplishments, and may have gotten a lot of positive comments and referrals. Instead, I feel compelled to talk about his greatest failure: his leadership during his tenure as the 39th President of the United States.

Before I go on, I have to say it’s really unfair for me to criticize others for poor leadership. I have practically no leadership abilities at all. I’ve proven time and time again that this is a skill or talent that I simply do not possess, and almost every attempt I’ve made to take leadership of anything has been a fairly abysmal failure. However, I think I can recognize good leadership when I see it. I’ve known a lot of good, and even great, leaders personally, and through careful observation of their methods, I think I have a fair bead on what makes a good leader. I’ve also known a lot of horrible leaders, and am fairly certain I know what poor leaders lack.

Any post criticizing Jimmy Carter would also be unfair if it did not include a disclaimer statement about “level of difficulty”. Carter was elected President in 1976, a period of great internal strife in the U.S. President Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1973. America’s most divisive and most embarrassing confrontation — the Vietnam War — ended in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon. The Cold War’s nuclear arms race was well into its fearful Mutually Assured Destruction phase. Inflation was at a troubling 12%, and the nation was in a depressing funk barely masked by the revelries celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday. Carter was entering into a losing proposition, it would take immense skill to turn the ship of state around.

A_SENIOR_CITIZENS'_MARCH_TO_PROTEST_INFLATION,_UNEMPLOYMENT_AND_HIGH_TAXES_STOPPED_ALONG_LAKE_SHORE_DRIVE_IN_CHICAGO..._-_NARA_-_556256

Yeah, times were GREAT!

Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, during his tenure as President, was a pretty poor leader.

Of course, that’s not particularly insightful. Folks have been saying this for 35 years, Jimmy Carter has taken quite a bashing from all sides since 1980. If he hadn’t been so successful in his post-Presidential career, he’d be nothing but an entry on a list between Martin Van Buren and Calvin Coolidge: barely remembered unless you went to Carter High School or your commute took you over the Carter Bridge. I’m glad he went on to do great things after his presidency, he’s probably one of the most ethical men to ever hold the office, and he deserves better than a minor footnote in a history textbook. So how did an otherwise good man fail to be an effective leader?

In my opinion, one event, more than any other, illustrates exactly why Carter was such a bad leader as President. That event was his infamous Malaise Speech, delivered to the nation via broadcast television on July 15, 1979. This was a speech that, although initially receiving a favorable reception by the American people, would go down in infamy as the worst speech ever given to the nation by a seated President. This was a speech that would become so reviled, it not only resulted in the loss of the White House to the Republicans in 1980, it most certainly caused the death of American progressive politics.

But wait, something here doesn’t quite compute, does it? How could a simple speech ruin a Presidency and kill a political movement? Speeches are nothing, really, just air exiting through a larynx, magnified by microphones and amplifiers. Most people, even then, rarely listen to political speeches, and of those who do, few even remember anything about them. Throughout American history — over 400 years if you include the colonial period — only half a dozen or so political speeches (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, etc.) have entered into the national consciousness. It’s certain that dozens upon dozens of Presidential speeches quite literally sucked, full of triteness and pandering and even lunacy. Did any of them derail a presidency?

No, and this speech, itself, did not derail Carter’s. What killed his presidency, and what marked Jimmy Carter as a terrible leader during that phase, was he felt that the nation actually needed a speech to solve its problems. That was the fundamental mistake, the fundamental error, the fundamental misunderstanding of leadership that Carter had during that period. What he did was deliver a speech as the solution, rather than delivering a speech to communicate the solution. 

Not a great idea.

Not a great idea.

So many people in positions of authority try this tactic. These folks think that they can inspire people by words. They’ve heard the lore of those half-dozen cool American speeches, or have seen Patton, Braveheart, Henry V, or even Independence Day, and think “ooh, that’s what I need to inspire my troops, a good speech!” Well, no, nothing can be farther from the truth.

My first encounter with a real leader was my Boy Scout scoutmaster. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy. I can’t remember his speaking voice, honestly. But all the kids loved him because he did stuff. We always had stuff to do, every meeting was full of activities, and our camping trips were chock-full of things to do. His job moved him to second shift, and we got a new scoutmaster. That one was a chatty guy, and the absolute worst scoutmaster. Activities dropped, camping trips dropped, and I dropped Scouts entirely.

Later, I worked at an apple orchard. The owner was not necessarily soft spoken, but he was a great guy. He motivated us to work hard, not through his words, but because he was a hard working guy. If you were employed by him, you would be ashamed to be a slacker because he worked so hard.

I would see other good leaders who displayed good leadership because they loved what they did, or they took the time to teach those under them, or they took bold moves, or they were simply good at their job. They were leaders because they did stuff, not because they talked about stuff. It’s not even about caring for your people — there is no doubt that Jimmy Carter cared about the American people — it’s about recognizing that doing is a prerequisite to leading. 

If Carter had focused more on getting things done as President, he could have made all the crappy speeches in the world and no one would have cared. But he felt the people needed a speech, and history has proven that was a bad choice. Fortunately, Mr. Carter would go on to do plenty of good things in his post-Presidential career, and now he is well respected by many. But for one, brief time, when it was needed the most, he had the wrong idea of what true leadership actually is.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

==============

I didn’t bring my camera when I visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. All photos used in this post are public domain and hosted on Wikipedia Commons.

Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

Character Above All Essay on Jimmy Carter

Jimmy & Roslyn Carter Work Project at Habitat for Humanity

Google Map to JCNHS

Everything Is Ruined

Liberty, Authority, and Madness

I do not want to be writing about this. It’s two days before Christmas. I do not want to write about this. But I can’t shake it out of my mind. It’s consuming me in an unhealthy way. The only way through it is to go through it, so I guess I need to write about it. Then maybe I can relax. Which might be impossible.

An infinite number of curses upon cop-killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley. God dammit.

Having a cause in this media-saturated age, interwoven as it is with high-speed social networking, and choked to death with pundits whose jobs are not to inform, but to inflame, is immensely frustrating. It is so easy for events to go out of control, so easy to divide people down ideological lines, so easy to replace discourse with patriotic sloganeering, and so easy to drive total crackpots to commit insane acts of violence.

This Ismaaiyl Brinsley character ruined everything. God dammit.

Look, there are serious issues with law enforcement, and the lousy laws that enable them. Yes, I know, it’s #NotAllCops. It’s also #NotAllCities (or towns or counties or whatever). A  fair criticism of this post can be applied to the generalization that “there are serious issues with law enforcement in this country”, but I tend to think that problems in this country are the problems of this country. Like it or not, we are all in this together, and if we have flaws in our Constitution, in court rulings concerning the Constitution, or in the execution of laws under our Constitution, anywhere in the country, it violates all our fundamental rights. Cleveland today, Shelbyville tomorrow. These things are a real problem for all of us.

A lot of people will disagree with me, many quite vehemently. Many, if not most, Americans love their police departments and the cops who serve in them. I understand completely: these men & women take great risks and do very dangerous jobs and have to deal with the worst of society on a daily basis. I, on the other hand, drive a desk. There’s no way I can understand what it’s like to do a job where every knock on a door can end in a bullet to the gut. The most I have to worry about is carpal tunnel syndrome. I get that, I really do.

But here’s the problem, and it’s a fundamental one: people in authority are the biggest threat to our liberty.

Let’s go back to my lame, doughy life. I do computer work for a living. How much of a threat am I to your God-given rights? Well, I could learn how to write viruses and manipulate social media to crack your bank account passwords. That would be a pretty harsh violation. I could stalk you, or threaten you, or send a lot of pizza deliveries to your house. I could do worse. And all that would be bad.

But in the end, I have no power, no authority. Eventually I would be caught, and I would be tried, and I would be sentenced. The laws are meant to keep me from doing those nasty, nasty things.

When you look at the lowest of society, those who most often clash with law enforcement, they have even less power to violate your liberties. Yes, there is crime in these areas. Yes, the crime there is nasty. All that is true. But these folks have far less power, far less authority, than even I do (I can at least afford a really good lawyer).

Now let’s take authority figures. Police officers. FBI officers. DEA officers. The NSA. Even Congress (or state legislatures, or other lawmakers), through the laws that empower those law-enforcement officers. Depending on your level of conspiracy-belief, you can toss in various corporations and high-power donors who fund those lawmakers’ candidacies. What can these people do to your civil rights?

A lot. An incalculable amount, actually. They are the ones who have the authority to do so. So I’ll say it again: authority figures are the Number One threat to your fundamental civil rights. If you doubt this, read the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is basically calling out the King of England for using authority to violate fundamental rights. He’s not calling out pirates or brigands or thieves, he’s calling out the King, Parliament, and British law enforcement.

This is why it is vital that we treat any overreach by any law enforcement officer or agency with the gravest seriousness and to the fullest extent of the law. They are both our protectors and our greatest risk to liberty. Yet recent cases concerning police overreach — most egregiously the Eric Garner case in NYC and the Dontre Hamilton case in Milwaukee — suggest it is not taken seriously (shooting 14 times in self defense? Would you get away with that?). There is enough going on, enough cases being reported in all sorts of jurisdictions, that there is definitely something wrong happening. And we have to take it all seriously.

Unfortunately, many protestors and their allies, missed the real point, and muddied the message. The real message isn’t “there are bad cops”; it’s the cultures, systems, and laws that are in place that suggest that we do not take overreach seriously.  They made it all about “bad cops”. That was the message that got through. It was a whole “us vs. them” message, a message whose only possible result would be inflaming the situation.

Which led to that asshole Ismaaiyl Brinsley ruining everything. God dammit.

Now we’ll never get it fixed. Brinsley screwed it all up. He brutally murdered two police officers for no damned reason whatsoever, and in doing so, he’s ruined any chance of fixing it.

When you have a cause, especially one you are the minority, you have to keep the moral highground at any cost. I had seriously thought that this cause — the cause of implementing better law enforcement practices and better systems of checks-and-balances — had that moral high ground, even in spite of the Ferguson looters. Other protests all across the country were fairly peaceful, even in NYC. It looked hopeful, maybe this would be noticed and lawmakers would be emboldened to work against the entrenched systems to get real change done.

But now, that moral highground is lost. Lost because some batshit crazy asshat decided shooting cops was a good thing.

Without the moral highground, the cause is lost. People will reflexively, and jingoistically, forever link “reforming police” with “murderous looters”. All the Facebookers will post all their memes and motivational posters full of pithy little slogans. Everyone will be peer-pressured into keeping silent about the real problem and keep silent they will. Lawmakers will pick up on all of this, and do nothing (or perhaps make it even worse).

The cause is lost. I hope liberty doesn’t suffer.

Things I’m Thankful For

Here are a few things I’m thankful for:

  • I’m thankful that I’ve had a pretty lucky run on this Earth so far.
  • I’m thankful that I was born with certain advantages that made it easier.
  • I’m thankful that I’m a fairly smart guy. I inherited that from my mom’s side of the family. I also got my snark from that side of the tree as well, and because my snark provides me with infinite enjoyment, I’m very thankful for it.
  • I’m thankful that I don’t mind working hard. I inherited that from my father’s side. My father is a hardworking man, and my grandfather fed his family through the Great Depression by working his ass off, either in employment or by foraging for their very survival. When in doubt, work hard. It usually clears things up.
  • I’m also thankful I was born with another advantage, something that put me to the top of many lists, and made my life easier than so many others, for I was born a white man.
  • I’m thankful that I can walk into an office, a law firm, a bank, or a grocery store without being prejudged because of the color of my skin.
  • I’m thankful that, if I run out of something crucial for me or my family, I can walk into a convenience store at 11:30 PM without having my intentions questioned. At worst, people think I’m just a dumbass, whereas others who may enter such a store late at night are instantly believed to be criminal until proven otherwise.
  • I’m thankful that I’ll only be pulled over or questioned by law enforcement if I truly do something wrong or suspicious. Others can be pulled over simply for having a non-preferred skin tone.
  • I’m thankful that if I do get too drunk, or too angry, or too belligerent in public, or even to a cop, I can probably get a fair break and a decent defense. I probably wouldn’t get shot outright.
  • I’m thankful I can succeed or fail based on my own strengths & weaknesses, of both talent and character. Others have the deck stacked so hard against them, they have to exhort a Herculean effort simply to earn a comfortable living.
  • I’m thankful I was born a guy, and I don’t have to deal with some utterly bullshit glass ceiling that restricts either my salary or my advancement opportunities.
  • I’m thankful that, in my youth, I could go to dates or parties without worrying if the other person in the room was going to drug me & invite their friends to rape me.
  • I don’t even have to do unnatural things to my hair simply to fit in. Boy is that a big deal.

There is no greater blessing than to be able to go through life and succeed or fail based on one’s own talents, skills, actions, and character. Unfortunately, there are far too many people in this free country who have to do all of that while being hamstrung by the prejudices, indifferences, and intolerances this land has carried for over 300 years.

If you want to share the blessings you have received, work to make this country a better place. Race, color, creed, or gender should never be used to make anyone’s life harder.

Unfortunately, that’s simply not the truth in America today.

Peace.