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Really excellent interview with Rick Perlstein on Ronald Reagan by David Dayen

This passage caught my eye, even though it's not about Reagan:

You talk about Jimmy Carter as just this smile, someone who was an empty vessel for everyone’s beliefs that they projected onto him. You use this phrase, “they yearned to believe,” to describe liberal feelings toward Carter.

Could you believe that Dems could be attracted like iron filings to a magnet to a blank-slate candidate where everyone sees what they want to see? Yes, how about Barack Obama? It’s very similar. Of course, there’s this old adage, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. But I hope people see the parallel between liberals’ love of Carter, who was not a liberal, and who studiously declined during the campaign to commit himself to any liberal policy, and the present day. Remember in late 2006, Ken Silverstein wrote this article in Harper’s, talking about how Obama was in bed with agribusiness, in bed with local energy interests in Illinois, and not to be trusted? Well, in this time I’m writing about, also in Harper’s, there was an article by Steven Brill called “The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter,” pointing out all of his flaws and misstatements, and it went nowhere. Because they yearned to believe. That’s something I put in throughout the book, they yearned to believe. And it’s a powerful force.

It is, it is.

But I'm not sure that Carter was a empty vessel, or, if he was, the issue is how he became so. I remember when I got sold on Jimmy Carter: Hunter Thompson did it with this article on Carter's Law Day speech. I like this little bit:

One day I was leaving the railroad track with my pockets full of rocks and hands full of rocks, and my mother came out on the front porch - this is not a very interesting story but it illustrates a point - and she had in her hands a plate full of cookies that she had just baked for me. She called me - I am sure with love in her heart - and said, "Jimmy, I've baked some cookies for you." I remember very distinctly walking up to her and standing there for 15 or 20 seconds in honest doubt about whether I should drop those rocks which were worthless and take the cookies that my mother had prepared for me, which between her and me were very valuable.

And this:

The first speech I ever made in the Georgia Senate, representing the most conservative district in Georgia, was concerning the abolition of 30 questions that we had so proudly evolved as a subterfuge to keep black citizens from voting and which we used with a great deal of smirking and pride for decades or generations ever since the War Between the States - questions that nobody could answer in this room, but which were applied to every black citizen that came to the Sumter County Courthouse or Webster County Courthouse and said, "I want to vote." I spoke in that chamber, fearful of the news media reporting it back home, but overwhelmed with a commitment to the abolition of that artificial barrier to the rights of an American citizen. I remember the thing that I used in my speech, that a black pencil salesman on the outer door of the Sumter County Courthouse could make a better judgment about who ought to be sheriff than two highly educated professors at Georgia Southwestern College.

And this:

The point of the book is, and what Tolstoy points out in the epilogue is, that he didn't write the book about Napoleon or the Czar of Russia or even the generals, except in a rare occasion. He wrote it about the students and the housewives and the barbers and the farmers and the privates in the army. And the point of the book is that the course of human events, even the greatest historical events, are not determined by the leaders of a nation or a state, like Presidents or governors or senators. They are controlled by the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment and unselfishness and compassion and love and idealism of the common ordinary people. If that was true in the case of Russia where they had a czar or France where they had an emperor, how much more true is it in our own case where the Constitution charges us with a direct responsibility for determining what our government is and ought to be?

That the Democrats lost to Reagan... They have a lot to answer for, good as Reagan was. Note that on the next page of Thompson's book, he goes on to say this:

Earlier in the interview, Perlstein says this:

Why do you think that is? How did Reagan overcome the dominant culture of the time? Was it just easier for America to stop thinking about all the bad things that were happening?

Well, first it’s Reagan. The issue of Reagan’s intelligence is a controversial thing. Liberal friends love to dismiss him as dumb. Everyone has a Reagan story that allows us to dismiss him and his appeal. For example, people would make fun of the fact that while in office he would only read one-page memos. Well, so did FDR, because it’s a good management technique. But whatever you think about his intelligence, what’s unquestionable is that Reagan had extraordinary emotional intelligence. He could sense the temperature of a room, and tell them a story and make them feel good. And that’s more fun, right? It’s more fun to feel good than feel bad. That’s part of our human state. And also that’s what leaders are for. Leaders are for calling people to their better angels, for helping guide them to a kind of sterner, more mature sense of what we need to do. To me, Reagan’s brand of leadership was what I call “a liturgy of absolution.” He absolved Americans almost in a priestly role to contend with sin. Who wouldn’t want that? But the consequences of that absolution are all around us today. The inability to contend with climate change. The inability to call elites to account who wrecked the economy in 2008. The inability to reckon with the times when we fall short.

So you can see that Carter the presidential campaigner, at least, and Reagan the campaigner, were tapping into the same vein. So why did Carter fail and Reagan succeed? What happened between Law Day and Inaugural Day?

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Barmitt O'Bamney's picture
Submitted by Barmitt O'Bamney on

And also, somehow, in what seems to be on its face another highly underhanded maneuver ( but far be it from me to imply that the Republicans are born cheats, thieves, bribers and procurers) George Will and Team Reagan got ahold of Jimmy Carter's debate Briefing Book. So, come debate night, Ronald Reagan would know everything President Carter would say - or rather he could unknowingly parrot George Will's pithy prepared responses to everything Carter would say. Purse lips and adjust bow tie.

You take the village idiot from the fuck-dumbest Podunk in the land, give him advance knowledge of and prescripted rebuttals to the arguments of the schmarterest brainiac emeritus from Acme University, and as long as your idiot shows up sober and remembers his lines, he will WIN the debate hands down, in the eyes of the TV audience, including a majority of those tuning in from Acme University. Rhetoric is a beeyotch that way.

Reagan, the a B movie actor with smalltown American charisma, was a tool -nay, a supersonic heat seeking missile- ginned up between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, crafted perfectly and expressly to destroy America. In just another couple of years, his advancing Alzheimer's would have made his take down of Jimmy Carter, the Navy veteran, the nuclear reactor engineer, a loser bet. We came >THIS

Barmitt O'Bamney's picture
Submitted by Barmitt O'Bamney on

Dur! "We came (( this )) close to surviving the hit." - Wot I meant to say. Is there really no preview function here?

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

I will write much more later, but the quick answer is that Jimmy fell for the fiscal responsibility lie, he thought that the federal gov't was like Georgia, he did not get the significance of a fiat currency. Therefore he lowered the federal deficit and we had a rotten economy, although unemployment did go down under Carter. Also inflation was very bad, that was partly because of the oil shocks. Also, while we did not know it at the time, the Lewis Powell Memo was going into effect and a massive corporate machine was pushing us to the right, beginning with the press. Lastly, the Democratic establishment hated Carter.

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

I wouldn't have posted my comment along these lines below if I had read yours first.

Submitted by lambert on

A Governor would think the Federal government was like Georgia.

Rainbow Girl's picture
Submitted by Rainbow Girl on

Thanks for these fascinating excerpts and sources - much to go read in greater depth and mull.

The Silverstein article in Harper's, to which I still subscribed at the time, was the defining moment for me in getting a picture of who exactly Obama was (aside from the brilliant SurrondSound P.R. fictions that were deployed by the DLC/DNC Apparatchik Machine.

Yep - Obama was an agribusiness supporter and a methane guy, etc. Just the facts, ma'm. Didn't see anything in there about some great progressive figure.

Having read Silverstein's article I was flored by how completely everyone and anyone I knew who wanted a Democrat back in office was oohing and ahhing about the "community organizer," "black man champion of the people," etc. etc. In other words, how millions of highly educated (er, credentialed) "progressives" were so ignorant about basic facts such as, well -- what Obama had actually been doing in Illinois.

So when I voted for Obama the first time because TINA, I did it holding my nose and had to go underground after his victory to avoid all the invites for get-togethers to celebrate America's manchurian candidate.

Thanks in great part to Corrente Wire, at Round Two, I was able for the first time in my voting life, not to give my vote to the best of the worst. I.e., I voted for Jill Stein. The blurry-eyed "progressives" I knew, who had swooned for the P.R.-Produced Fake Obama The Messiah, for the most part, swooned again. My favorite defense was from a gay guy who told me -- in all seriousness -- "but at least with Obama you'll be able to get an abortion." Whatever!

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...a discussion delineating and defining the two ruling American parties as though there is actually a difference. We're on a sinking ship with two life boats, both of which have 4" diameter holes in their hulls and the discussion is, which one is best/worst?
IMO, this is a discussion defined by 4 walls of a prison room without a door.
My question is this; what will it take to move on to actual change? Not faux change, genuine change. Second question, are we capable?

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

There is a case to be made there was a coup in the 2000 U.S. election. Even if that isn't true, something has happened and the body politic is irrevocably broken.
The denial is strong and pipe-dreams rule the moment. The evidence strongly supports there is no democracy to vote for, rendering voting an irrelevant scam. It's irrelevant because it changes nothing. A problem cannot be fixed unless and until the cause is identified. Generally that knowledge also shows the path to a solution. I am talking about the national election not local. Local elections can be effective and some are.
We are no longer in control of national politics or policies. This drags us (sometime kicking and screaming) wherever the powers want to go. Ukraine has a potential for catastrophe, but it's full steam ahead regardless of what we think.
Cycle of coups? I have no say in that, nor should I.

Submitted by lambert on

You write:

A problem cannot be fixed unless and until the cause is identified. Generally that knowledge also shows the path to a solution.

And you propose to do that in ignorance of history? Seems odd.

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

And am I missing something. You are saying I'm ignorant of history?
The solution is easy, yet impossible; revolution, period, nothing else will suffice. And, I'm not saying violent revolution per se, I'm saying a societal revolution, but that's not going to happen.
Not enough pain, misery, and understanding one's genuine position. Denial and rationalization rule. That's my take, which I do not expect to be popular or liked or given any traction...

Submitted by lambert on

I'm saying that, at least on this thread, you don't seem to regard not being ignorant of history as important. DCBlogger is shedding light on events in the past, some of which I had forgotten, and others of which I did not know about.

The legacy parties are going to be around for awhile, so we had better understand them as best we can, the better to destroy them.

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

But the 4" hole in one lifeboat has a counter-clockwise thread, and the 4" hole in the other lifeboat has a clockwise thread! How dare you claim there is no difference!

Submitted by lambert on

Which, come to think of it, we have, but that wasn't want I meant.

I'm well aware of the broken-ness of the legacy party system. That's not the same thing as saying I wish to remain ignorant of history, or that I do not feel the need to explain history to those who have not yet come to the same views I have. If you want to do a strange bedfellows alliance with the right, then you had better be able to talk about Reagan from history, as opposed to whatever the party line is or was.

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

Due to circumstances beyond their control.

As an experiment, let Reagan have won the nomination from Ford in '76 and gone on to win the presidency that year then check ahead to how big a landslide Reagan would have won running for re-election in '80 and let me know what you find out.

Digby had a relevant comment about this just the other day. She started out by quoting the above cited Perlstein:

Ronald Reagan scored a comfortable victory in 1980, promising a new day in Washington and the nation. Then Reaganomics ran into brick wall. Unemployment—7.4 percent at the beginning of his term—was heading toward 10 percent by the summer of 1982. The gross domestic product declined 1.8 percent. On Election Day, voters punished him by taking 27 House seats from his Republican Party, including most of the ones gained in 1980. That gave the Democrats a 269–166 seat advantage—far greater than the 51-seat advantage Republicans enjoy today.

The day after that woeful election, Reagan’s aides sent him into a press conference with defensive talking points. He tore them up. “We’re very pleased with the results,” he said, claiming that the GOP had “beat the odds” for off-year elections (he went back to 1928 to make the claim). “Wasn’t he in worse shape for 1984?” he was asked. “I don’t think so at all,” he replied. Hadn’t it been a historically uncivil campaign? He agreed—because of all the opposition did to “frighten voters.”

Barack Obama gave a press conference the day after his “shellacking” too. The contrast to Reagan couldn’t have been more stark. Ignoring the fact that the electorate had pretty much been switching their party preference every two years since 1992, he conceded the loss as an epochal sea change. “I did some talking,” he said of his meeting with Republican leaders the night before, “but mostly I did a lot of listening.” When asked about jobs, he talked about the deficit. He then boasted that when it came to what was essential to recovery, he really didn’t have essential principles at all: the answers were not to be “found in any one particular philosophy or ideology.”

Reality does bite and Reagan wouldn't have been able to sustain that position if the economy hadn't been improving, but he understood that the only way forward politically was to assert the rightness of his policies and philosophy. It was a gamble, but then it was a gamble either way.

Both Obama and Reagan won their re-elections, likely due to the improving economy as much as anything else. But Reagan had instilled a bedrock belief in a very large number of people that the conservative philosophy was the key to success. I don't think President Obama can say the same thing.

And to recycle part of a comment I left at the Daily Howler once:

How the New Deal/Great Society coalition broke down and the Reagan Revolution marked the Old Deal returned to power is a simple story to tell. It has to do with the fact that after the stock market crash in 1929 populists and progressives were johnny-on-the-spot with solutions to offer to deal with the Great Depression. As it turns out they weren't proposing anything of the magnitude necessary and it took WWII to fix things economically. Meanwhile, the rich were caught flat footed by the Great Depression and the early thirties were a public relations disaster for them. (They did not make that mistake after the 2008 crash. Of course, they got a big assist in pulling that off from Barack "let's look forward, not back" Obama.)

Slowly through the fifties (from Buckley to GE and Reagan to the Birchers), the sixties (Scaife in the aftermath of the landslide Goldwater loss), and the seventies (the Powell Memo) the Right created an intellectual edifice that was poised to take advantage of any crisis that came along to reestablish its political dominance.

The misunderstood by everyone at the time* 70s stagflation was that crisis, and though it started roaring during the Nixon-Ford terms, it doomed the Carter presidency (along with the Iranian hostage crisis which was blamed in part on Democrats being McGorvernite hippie pacifists and the Edward Kennedy primary challenge from the left of the sitting Democratic president in 1980), ushering in Reagan years which we've yet to escape.

In large part because the inflation of the 70s caused the nominal national debt to balloon there was a sense that fiscal policy (i.e. social spending equals unsustainable deficits) was at the root of our economic problems- a notion that survives to this very day. The spectacular irony is that the national debt as a percentage of GDP fell during the Carter presidency [and dramatically during the guns and butter Kennedy-Johnson years] and shot up during what the Right insists were the golden years of the Reagan presidency.


*Stagflation was caused by a combination of bad Fed policy in 1972; the beginning of 20 years of productivity stagnation due a technological business cycle phenomenon having to do with the end of the introduction of the auto era and electrification and the lag before digital technology became widespread; oil shocks after U.S. hit peak oil production in 1970; and labor contracts that demanded inflation adjustments and created a feedback loop despite an oil shortage that required a reduction in (somebody's) living standards.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

If you were born after 1976 it would be hard to imagine how different the world was then. While Nixon had won the White House, the Democrats controlled the country. Most of the Govoernors, State Legislatures, the House and Senate were all controlled by Democrats. Much of the electorate had a living memory of the New Deal and every voter had a living memory of the civil rights movement and the Great Society.

The Democrats were rattled by the landslide defeat of McGovern, but the Republicans were even more rattled by forced resignation of Nixon. The Democrats had roared to overwhelming victory in the elections of 1974. The country had been shocked by the successive revelations of the Ervin Committee, the House Judiciary Committee impearchment inquiry, the Church committee investigations of the CIA and FBI. It was at this time it was revealed to the country that the FBI had spied on ML King Jr. And there were many other squalid revelations. In the spring of 1975 the country had watched on TV as the US evacuated off the roof of the embassy in Saigon. So people were tramatized, but optimistic at the same time.

Also by this time school desegragation had gone north. The spetacle of white parents attacking school busses full of black school children in Boston shocked the nation.

Jimmy Carter was nothing like Obama. He was not supposed to get nominated. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington state was the candidate of the Democratic establishment. But for Chapaquidick, the nominee would have been Ted Kennedy.

Throughout 1975 in the possible match up polls, Jimmy Carter was not even mentioned. Jimmy Carter announced for office in Dec. 1974, what was thought absurdly early and was basically ignored. Except by Hunter Thompson. Thoughout 1975 there were the occassional "curiousity" columns and articles, always positive, by reporters who did not think he had a chance and enjoyed writing what they considered novelty stories. But they added up.

In the summer of 1975 Jimmy Carter came in second in the Ames Iowa straw poll. Uncommitted came in first. But since uncommitted was not available for interview, Jimmy Carter got all the publicity. The Ames Iowa straw poll was nothing like the circus is was to become, Carter's victory was reported in something like page A12 in the Washington Post and so forth. Nobody but Democratic activists noticed it. But of course, that was the target audience. So southerners began to gather around Carter and Sanford and Rueben Askew were left hanging. Carter was to the the southern candidate. Next stop was to make him a national candidate.

So by dint of excellent organization and never ending campaigning Carter began to build steam. I started volunteering at his Washington DC office in September of 1975. The main HQ was in Atlanta. This staggered the political press. How could you run a national campaign from Atlanta? In fact the Versailles press could not comprehend that a one term Georgia Governor could be a serious candidate for President and run his campaign out of Atlanta.

In the second week of January I arrive in Keane NH. It was the only place he did not have a regional coordinator. My first job was to invite voters to come see Carter on a visit to Keanae, at I think the Holiday Inn. So I spent the week on the phone, sending out post cards, knocking on doors, persuading voters that they should see Jimmy. About 30 people showed up, what was judged a good crowd. I will never forget my first sight of Jimmy. He came in wearing a polyester suit, which showed signs being worn. He was short, with rounded shoulders and the loping gait of a farmer. I will never forget thinking my god we are going to put that cracker in the White House. Then he looked at the crowd with that legendary grin and gave the speail and threw open the floor to questions. I should say that Carter has ENOURMOUS force of personality. It is like a magnetic force. It is physical feeling. He can project that like no other politician I have encountered, and I have encountered many including Bill Clinton,

Cater answered questions for something like an hour and then worked the crowd person by person. I will never forget my meeting with him. His eyes are a watery by piercing blue, like laser beams. He is NOT the sort of person you would want to talk to if you had a guilty conscious. He is very friendly and totally unaffected, and warm. And yet with very piercing blue eyes. I do not consider that Carter has any charisma. What he has is force of personality.

Anyone who thinks that Carter is an empty vessel that people project their ideas should watch old tapes of him answering questions. Like Clinton he is very good at that and answers in great detail, something I have never seen Obama do.

Shortly after Carter's first visit to Keane a memo was sent out to Carter campaign staff warning us that there would be a very negative article would be coming out in Harpers and it would be followed by a slew of negative material. Carter was going to win Iowa and would be subject to more scrutiny. As soon as the Harper's article came out campaign staff recieved a point by point rebuttle from Jody Powell. The reason that article never went anywhere is that it did not deserve to go anywhere. It would have been better titled The Pathetic Lies of Steven Brill.

Actually uncommitted won Iowa, but uncommitted was not available for any TV shows, so Carter go the publicity. The next time Carter came to Keane there was no comparison, we rented an audotorum it was it standing room only. And of course there were something like 40 reporters and TV cameras following him. I will never forget that after his speech (following by quesitons) he spoke with a young man who wanted to give him some Spanish peanuts he had grown in NH. Carter kept 40 national news reporters cooling their heels while he engaged in a detailed discussion about growing season, soil conditions and everything else related to growing peanuts in NH. I remember taking the peanut shells from Carter has he muched on the peanuts. Carter knew what he was doing. That young man undoubtedly went back to his small town and told everyone about his talk with JImmy. Somehow I can't see Obama doing that.

Carter was the one and only Presidential candidate who talked about the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. That plus his Born Again Christian schtick, plus that Georgia cracker accent drove people like AM Rosenthal of the NY Times crazy. The journalist elite never liked Carter. And it drove them Crazy when he beat Scoop Jackson in the 1976 NY primary. And then Jimmy went on to beat Frank Church, Birch Byah, and a bunch of other Senate luminaries. And they never forgave him for it.

Submitted by lambert on

... that would be great. Maybe include a takedown of the Brill article for the analytical frame. Needs to be data based though, though your personal experience is wonderful. I'll help with the headline ;-) I can't link to a comment.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

Re "how could the Democrats let Reagan win in 1980"

He didn't actually. October surprise, dirty tricks and all. Does nobody remember Anderson? Anderson got 6.6% of the vote (Wikipedia), all (98%?) of it from Carter, which together with that good old Electoral College magic handed almost the entire country to Reagan. Without Anderson to help him, Reagan would have lost.

And then the whole Reagan Revolution is one of these things like the fabled "Sixties." The real 1960s still had a lot of bouffant hairstyles and guys cruising in stupid cars. Similarly Reagan wasn't Reagan except later (when he actually had Alzheimers and wasn't really Reagan either, but that's another story). Heaps of people didn't like him that much in his first term. "Morning in America was a campaign slogan for his *second* term.

What people ultimately loved him for is the same thing so many of us hate him for: he did indeed absolve Americans of their sins. Specifically, he said selfishness was respectable. And so people could just run amok and feel good about it.

Until reality starts to bite, but that too is another story. The post-Ronzo one we live in now.

Submitted by lambert on

Thanks for the reminder!

Adding: I do (obviously) tend to write third parties out of the narrative in favor of the duopoly. In fact, Anderson and Perot both swung an election (as opposed to the hated Nader, who did not). And Wallace was also a very important figure. I don't know if anything could have saved McGovern in 1972, but if Wallace had not been shot (by a lone gunman, a nut, leaving a diary, naturally) Nixon's landslide might not have a been a landslide.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

Reagan's popularity was largely manufactured after he left office. The right had figured out that one liberal advantage was a hero -- FDR. They needed one themselves. They could create one out of videos of Reagan and misrepresentations of what he did in office, and they did so with enormous success. Remember the Republicans vowing to name a federal building in every Congressional district after Reagan?

Low info voters and those born after Reagan's terms don't remember the policies that hurt average people and the scandals of Iran-Contra and influence peddling; they've just been propagandized into believing the optimism and belief in America. Similarly, they don't remember Carter's calls to change direction on foreign policy and domestic economy; they've been told over and over again that Carter was a weak bumbler.

Submitted by lambert on

I remember sitting in the University Union and hearing some 18- or 20-somethings lamenting the state of politics, and they'd been paying some attention. Then they lamented the lack of good leadership. "If only we had somebody like Reagan." Of course, they were babies then and had no personal knowledge. But that's what people believe. Horribly destructive.