This is the last one in this series, I promise. We left off last time when Jimmy Carter assumed the Presidency in 1976 after a narrow win over Gerald Ford. Interestingly, Carter is still alive today and pushing near 90, while Ford made it well into his 80s, before saying sayonara. Being president seems to promote longevity. In any event, Carter’s presidency is often deemed a failure by most historians, but like Nixon, he did make some significant accomplishments.
James Earl Carter started off the 1976 race with like a 30 point lead over Ford according to reliable polling data. This was primarily due to how adversely the Watergate scandal had affected the GOP. By election day, however, Carter appeared to be in over over his head and entire lead had evaporated, leaving him to win by the slimmest of margins. He did this by carrying every southern state except Virginia, in a complete role reversal of today’s voting patterns. This occurred because Carter was a southern Governor with evangelical religious beliefs. Now, a Democrat can’t get elected dog catcher in the deep south. His presidency was marred by a poor economy, as evidenced by high rates of inflation and fairly high unemployment. They called it stagflation at the time. Nevertheless, there was considerable achievement.
Carter, using personal diplomacy, managed to pull off a peace treaty with Israel and Egypt, who had been in a virtual continuous state of war since Israel’s founding in 1948. In what came to be known as the Camp David accords, Carter got both sides to not only make peace, but to establish diplomatic relations, which was unthinkable in the Arab world at that time, and even to this day. He also turned over control and ownership of the Panama Canal to Panama where it belonged, despite the howls of protest from the Rush Limbaugh-types, that such action would allow Red China and Russia to invade and conquer the U.S. at will. These accomplishments paled, however, because during Carter’s presidency, the Shah of Iran was overthrown and the country was taken over by the fanatical mullahs that run the government to this day. One of their first actions was to invade the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and take all personal assigned there as hostages. As negotiations for their release dragged on and on, Carter authorized a daring covert rescue attempt. But 2 of the rescuers’ helicopters crashed in the air over Iran during this botched attempt, killing all on-board. It seemed to symbolize all the ineptitude of the Administration, and doomed Carter’s chances for re-election.
In 1980 Carter ran for re-election against a second-rate movie actor, who had managed to become Governor of California, named Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan talked as a tough conservative, but had a huge gift of gab, including a lot of self-deprecating humor, and had actually governed California as a moderate. In any event, due to the poor economy, the botched hostage rescue, and Reagan’s highly skilled campaign abilities, Carter lost the election in a landslide. Reagan set out to quickly change the political landscape by sharply increasing Defense spending, cutting social spending, and significantly reducing income taxes, especially for the wealthy. In the end, his cuts in social spending were modest and around the fringes, but his Defense increases and tax cuts sharply led to huge deficit spending. The accumulated deficit from George Washington through Jimmy Carter was one trillion dollars when Reagan took office, but mushroomed to four trillion in the following 12 years, or a 300% increase. Today Republican candidates for President all hail Reagan as their model, but the truth is that the tea-party dominated GOP would never allow Reagan to be their candidate. He had too much common sense and pragmatism. Reagan eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease which started appearing late in his second term.
Reagan was followed into the presidency by his Vice-President George H. W. Bush, a very decent, honest and down-to-earth individual. The year was 1988, and the Democrats put up the Governor of Mass. named Michael Dukakis to oppose Bush. But like the George McGovern candidacy and the Carter years, the Democrats and Dukakis went into a full incompetency mode, and Bush won the election easily. His 4 years in office were generally unremarkable, but he did agree with Democrats to a small increase in income tax rates, for which his was branded a traitor by right-wing Republicans. He also led us into the first Gulf war against Iraq, when Saddam Hussein tried to take over oil rich Kuwait. Bush was successful in freeing Kuwait, but he let Saddam stay in power, which we paid for dearly soon after.
In 1992 the economy experienced a slight down-turn, and it cost Bush his re-election bid to another southern Democrat Governor named William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton ran on a platform of: “It’s the economy, stupid,” and the country seemed to believe him, as he won easily despite a reputation of sexual affairs outside of marriage. The 8 Clinton years (he won re-election in 1996 against a hapless Bob Dole) were probably the best era of peace and prosperity in my lifetime, and I’ve been around over three-quarters of a century. We had a booming economy, low interest rates, low inflation, and except for a relatively brief scuffle with Serbia, the absence of war. Of course, in Clinton’s second term, the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted, and Clinton became only the second president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. But Clinton survived the scandal, and because the times were so good, his approval ratings were through the roof when he left office. To this day, there are still those that bemoan the fact that he’s no longer president.
I’ve already written about how the election of 2000 was taken away from Clinton’s Vice-President, Al Gore, despite his winning at the polls, and how this led to the second Gulf war with Iraq and the ensuing huge loss of life and destruction. George W. Bush, son of the former president, George H.W. Bush, assumed the Oval Office, only to be hit with the tragic events of 9/11, eight months later. He is a decent man like his father, but he got us into a highly questionable second war with Iraq which took about eight and a half years to extricate ourselves from. Under his presidency the prescription drug benefit was added to Medicare, another huge accomplishment on the road to try to achieve universal health care. But the economy took a huge hit starting in 2007 and the country soured on the second Bush presidency. This paved the way for the first black president elected to the Oval Office in 2008, Barak Obama. We all pretty much know how it’s turned out since then. In 2013, either Obama will be back in office, or we will have the newly elected Mitt Romney.
In any event let’s drink a toast to those that made it, but , more so to those that tried and failed. How much different would our lives be, or would the nation’s affairs be, if the other guy had won instead. It would be interesting to theorize about it.