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In the wake of former President Jimmy Carter’s movingly forthright press conference about his cancer, which elicited an outpouring of admiration for his grace and good humor under the circumstances, bottom-feeders Chris Christie and Ted Cruz lost no time bashing him on the campaign trail as a weak and failed president. Indeed, the moniker “greatest ex-president” is almost always uttered in tandem with the assumption that he was a disaster while in office. He inherited soaring oil and gas prices, high inflation and unemployment, and then confronted the 14-month Iranian hostage crisis that, with the failed rescue mission, cost him a second term. All of this produced an amnesia about what he did accomplish in office and, especially, the values he championed.
As we are forced to listen to Donald Trump’s racist and misogynistic blarings about deporting undocumented immigrants and likening women to dogs, let’s cleanse ourselves by revisiting some of Jimmy Carter’s speeches.
“Ours is the party that welcomed generations of immigrants — the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Poles and all the others, enlisted them in its ranks and fought the political battles that helped bring them into the American mainstream,” Carter noted in his 1976 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. He continued, with words that Bernie Sanders echoes today, “Too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes or to suffer from injustice. When unemployment prevails, they never stand in line looking for a job. When deprivation results from a confused and bewildering welfare system, they never do without food or clothing or a place to sleep. When the public schools are inferior or torn by strife, their children go to exclusive private schools. … An unfair tax structure serves their needs. And tight secrecy always seems to prevent reform.”
He went on to call for universal voter registration, a nationwide comprehensive health program for everyone and “a complete overhaul of our income tax system.” And little did he know how prescient this would be: “We can have an American government that does not oppress or spy on its own people but respects our dignity and our privacy and our right to be let alone.”
In his January 1978 State of the Union address, he named “the final elimination of the barriers that restrict the opportunities available to women and also to black people and Hispanics and other minorities” a national priority.
One of Carter’s most famous — and misremembered — speeches is his “Crisis of Confidence” address to the nation on July 15, 1979, in which he identified the energy crisis as one of the primary causes of the country’s economic and psychic doldrums, and made a passionate argument for energy conservation, restrictions on imports of foreign oil and “an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems.” He asked for a “massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources” to develop “America’s own alternative sources of fuel.” To pay for all this, he called for a tax on corporate windfall profits.
And Carter said what no other president has ever had the guts to say: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. … But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”
His critics quickly dubbed this “the malaise speech” — a word he never used — but the immediate public response was overwhelmingly positive, and his approval rating went up by 11 percent.
Why does his rhetoric seem almost radical today? Our political discourse has moved far to the right, thanks to skilled and relentless conservative messaging from Republicans — as amplified on Fox News and talk radio — which too many Democrats are afraid to refute. But Democrats like Bill Clinton, who borrowed GOP issues such as “ending welfare as we know it” and folded them into the party’s mainstream, are also to blame.
As we laud President Carter for his extraordinary humanitarian achievements since 1981, let’s not let the likes of Ted Cruz smear a legacy based on decency, compassion and a profound appreciation of the relationship between energy, conservation and the future of the country.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.