Malaise Memory Loss

“A Four-Decade Secret: One Man’s Story of Sabotaging Carter’s Re-election,” read a March 18 headline in the New York Times. As their White House correspondent Peter Baker explains, 85-year-old Democrat Ben Barnes claims that Ronald Reagan’s Republican allies delayed the release of American hostages from Iran in 1980. Without this sabotage, the piece implies, Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter was a lock for a second term in the Oval Office. Establishment media were all over it.

“Reagan Allies Schemed to Delay U.S. Hostages Freedom to Sabotage Carter, Alleged Witness Says,” headlined Rolling Stone. “Republicans tried to delay release of US hostages to sabotage Carter, ex-aide claims,” proclaimed the Guardian. A key player is John Connally, the Democratic governor of Texas from 1963-1969, who “ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980,” as the report contends. 

“Former Texas lt. gov says political mentor sabotaged Iran hostage talks to stop Jimmy Carter’s re-election,” read the headline in the New York Post. Government media also got on board. 

“New Claim about Iran Hostage Crisis Sabotage May Change Narrative of Carter Presidency,” announced the PBS News Hour, with guest Jonathan Alter, author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life. According to Alter, Reagan’s campaign manager William Casey, later to run the CIA, went to Madrid to meet with representatives of the Ayatollah Khomeini.  

It was an extremely unpatriotic move on the part of William Casey,” Alter contends. But there’s a problem. “Now, as far as whether the hostages would have been released before the election, whether Jimmy Carter would have won, that is unknowable.” And as the New York Times story concedes, “Confirming Mr. Barnes’s account is problematic,” mostly because William Casey died in 1987 and John Connally passed away in 1993. 

John B. Connally III, eldest son of the former governor, told Rolling Stone he disagreed with Barnes’ account. He accompanied his father to a meeting with Reagan and said there was no mention of any message to the Iranians. The hostage deal “doesn’t sound like my dad,” Connally said. “It’s not consistent with my memory of the trip.” 

The story all hinges on the word of Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and vice chairman of John Kerry’s 2004 election campaign. So, as Daniel McCarthy writes, “people less sophisticated than a Times White House correspondent might classify partisanship as an obvious motive.”

With Carter, 98, entering hospice care, Barnes set out to change the narrative of the Carter presidency—a rather tall order. As Alter concedes, “there were a number of other factors in 1980, including a wretched economy,” which is true. On Carter’s watch, the “misery index” a combination of inflation and unemployment, topped out at 21.98. Instead of his own inept presidency, the Georgia Democrat blamed the people. 

“The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us,” Carter said on July 15, 1979. “For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.” 

And so on. 

In the aftermath, pollster Pat Caddell used the word “malaise.” The address became known as Carter’s “malaise speech,” and it stuck. In “Saturday Night Live’s” “Dukakis After Dark” sketch, former president Jimmy Carter (Dana Carvey) is asked to explain his loss to Reagan. 

“I had to accept the fact that I was a downer,” Carter says. “A liberal downer. A malaise-ridden liberal downer. A free-spending, malaise-ridden, liberal downer.” He was. 

In 1976, the massive National Education Association supported Carter for president. The Georgia Democrat repaid them by creating a new bureaucracy, the Department of Education. Allegedly concerned about bureaucratic inefficiency, Carter supported the creation of a new bureaucracy more powerful than all the others.

The Senior Executive Service (SES) serves as “a central coordinating point” between presidential appointees and “the rest of the federal workforce.” The SES oversees “nearly every government activity in approximately 75 federal agencies.” Like other bureaucracies, the SES didn’t work as intended

Around the time of the malaise speech, Carter’s approval rating was in the 20s. The Georgia Democrat never caught on with young people.

“I didn’t trust the son of a bitch as far as I could throw him,” writes Bruce Bawer, the author of While Europe Slept who was 19 during Carter’s 1976 campaign. He recalls: 

Carter was slick. Boy, was he slick. His big, toothy smile was the phoniest thing I’d ever seen. He insisted that his name appear on the ballot as ‘Jimmy,’ not ‘James.’ And he talked a lot more about his religion than any other presidential candidate in my lifetime had ever done. I’d never heard such sanctimony from a politician. It was while listening to him that I heard the term ‘born again’ for the first time. Although plainly trolling for evangelical votes, he acted as if he was far too virtuous to think of doing such a thing.

Bawer judges Carter “an absolutely horrible Commander in Chief. At home, he gave us high inflation, high unemployment, and an energy crisis that led to long lines at gas stations. And abroad? He treated allies shabbily. His posture toward adversaries was one of reflexive appeasement. He seemed to equate passivity in the face of provocation with Christian virtue.” 

One of those virtues is humility, but the sanctimonious Carter, who banned liquor from the White House, exaggerated his accomplishments. 

Carter was not, as he claimed, a “nuclear engineer.” Navy Lt. Carter, a graduate of the Naval Academy, did begin nuclear power school but resigned his place to take over the family peanut farm when his father died. Jimmy Carter is the only president to have filed a UFO sighting with the Air Force, and the only president who claimed to be threatened by a “killer rabbit.” 

According to his press secretary, “there are just certain stories about the president that must forever remain shrouded in mystery.” Maybe so, but four years in power left little mystery surrounding the Georgia Democrat his own self. For millions of voters, Carter was a bust and the nation needed hope and change. 

Reagan won 489 of 538 electoral votes and 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41.0 percent. The Georgia Democrat carried only six states and the District of Columbia. Undaunted, Carter quickly mounted a campaign for the worst ex-president of modern times. 

As Steven Hayward notes in The Real Jimmy Carter, the Georgia Democrat cozied up to dictators and undermined the foreign policy of sitting presidents. In a review titled “Malaise Forever,” Jonathan Last wrote, “At the end of the day, the real Jimmy Carter is not quite so bad as Steven Hayward supposes, and yet much, much worse.” 

As the Georgia Democrat nears the end, the New York Times pegs Carter’s 1980 loss to the malfeasance of Ronald Reagan, John Connally, and Bill Casey. Confirming the one-source story was “problematic” but they went with it anyway, and that comes as no surprise. Back in the early 1930s, the Times reported that all was well in Ukraine, even as Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in a planned famine. (See Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty: The New York Times’ Man in Moscow, by S.J. Taylor, for the rest of the story.) 

Meanwhile, changing the narrative of the Carter presidency should prove heartening to Joe Biden. The Delaware Democrat can fail in grand style, with the confident expectation that future newspaper accounts will blame it all on those who want America to be great. To adapt Milan Kundera, the struggle against fake news is the struggle of memory against forgetting. 

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: August 1, 1979, Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images