Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump

I was fortunate enough to have time today to relax at home and read the Sunday paper.  I was hoping that I would encounter something that inspired me to post.  As is usual, I found a few interesting articles in the opinion section, one concerning ex President Jimmy Carter and one about presidential candidate Donald Trump.  (There was also two opinion letters from readers about Trump; what an amazing range of responses does he generate!!)

In 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected president, I was just graduating from high school.  During his term, I experienced (in no particular order) a trip to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics, a semester of college at LaSalle, my first full time (40 hours) job at McDonalds, and my first attempt to live on my own.  While many of my friends went off to college, I eschewed what I considered another four years of droning, and made a number of cross country trips, some via bus, some via my thumb.  I earned my travelling money by working a variety of jobs in manufacturing and retail.  In retrospect, one might say I was "finding myself". 

The country too was experiencing change.  Interest rates were high, as was unemployment.  Urban unrest marked the evening news.  The Iranian hostage crisis was endless.  Recurring energy crises  revealed our vulnerability to foreign countries interests interfering with our own. 

At the time, many considered President Carter the worse president in a hundred years, perhaps ever.  Certainly, the events of those four years, especially his perceived ineptitude in returning our hostages, did not contradict such a harsh appraisal.  If there ever was a four year time when both the domestic and international situation was so negative, it would be hard to find one.  Consequently, it didn't take a rocket scientist to predict that Ronald Reagan would defeat Carter in the 1980 presidential election. 

And, it could be said that had Carter disappeared into historical oblivion (as it seems that George W. Bush has), no one would have blamed him.  But, as the article I read about him indicated, Jimmy Carter was a humanist first, president second.  He believed that as president, one of the most important aspect of his job was to make sure that all Americans, especially those with the least, had a voice in government.  As president, he took his responsibility, what he might call his Christian responsibility, to work for those "on the margins" very seriously even to the point of taking on corporate interests.  While it is certainly debatable that the ills of America in the late 1970's were all his fault, there is no question that he continued his work to provide for those with the least once his days as president ended.

With the revelation that Carter has cancer, and the knowledge that his time on earth is drawing to a close, we may soon see a reevaluation of his presidency, but more importantly, a celebration of his life and his work for humanity.  Perhaps the importance of the Camp David accords will be revisited, especially in light of the continued unrest in the Middle East.  Certainly his work in Africa to combat malaria will be praised.  I know that whenever I saw him on TV, he always seemed to be espousing understanding rather than war, discourse rather than violence. 

Was he a good president?  Perhaps not.  Was he a good human being?  I expect he would be more concerned with the answer to that 2nd question, and I expect that his legacy will confirm that answer to be a resounding yes.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.  I have watched some of his TV interviews, read some of his campaign speeches and proposals.  Perhaps I am biased, but he seems merely a caricature of a candidate.  A created persona designed to attract a certain voter who perceive that there are serious problems, but expects simple answers.  Someone more interested in placing the blame, usually on "them", rather than forcing Americans to look in the mirror and face our faults. 

I recall that, on one point in his presidency, Carter went on national TV and told us in no uncertain terms that we needed to change the way we consumed energy.  That we needed to rethink our relationship with oil.  That we needed to conserve and sacrifice.  His new policies were a failure, in that he was not able to inspire Americans to reduce consumption nor was he able to work with Congress to develop an overall energy policy.  When Reagan offered another opinion, that we were the greatest country ever and that the Soviets were the evil empire, we embraced the shift of blame away from our mirrors. 

As it turned out, Carter was wrong when he predicted that we might run out of oil in the 21st century.  Since 1976, the adjusted for inflation cost of gas at the pump has risen and fallen drastically, but we still debate energy policy, whether to drill in the Arctic, whether to require more stringent coal emission standards, whether to force more transparency regarding the "fracking" cocktail being used to energize the natural gas industry.  But one might wonder what America might be like today had we listened to President Carter and embarked on a national energy policy to find alternatives to the fossil fuels.  Solar panels on every home?  A middle east policy that did not require the defense of oil fields in its computation? 

Donald Trump would have us believe that we need to reevaluate the 14th amendment granting citizenship to anyone born on American soil.  That we need to pass the sins of the parents onto those born of foreigners.  That we need to charge all our institutions, government, education, business, with the job of identifying those here illegally and removing them.  Sort of like a national network of snitches.  That border states and cities should be able to suspend the fourth amendment and conduct illegal search and seizure operations against those who may be foreign born.  And that all these illegal, dark skinned, immigrants come here to take our country away from us, despite overwhelming proof that they come here for a better life for themselves and their children. 

I would imagine that should Carter and Trump debate, Trump's bombastic responses would be more popular than the thoughtful approach that Carter would offer.  Perhaps even that many would consider Trump a better president.  But I can't imagine that anyone would view Trump as a better human.  And it makes me wonder why it is that being a better human does not seem to be a highly valued trait in today's politics. 

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