Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2002 / 15 Adar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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More mush from The Wimp

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- IT happens whenever Jimmy Carter stops fixing houses, making ceremonial appearances and otherwise being the country's finest ex-president. And starts talking about politics -- foreign or domestic. That's when we can all be grateful he's an ex-president.

Because that's when he manages to bring it all back: The Seventies. Those polyester policies. The whole Carter presidency, which, for all its wordiness, might be summed up in a single, surreal image that Salvador Dali could have painted: a limp train wreck.

There was nothing dramatic about Jimmy Carter's single term, just a vacuous collapse in the face of forces he never saw the point of resisting. He did follow a balanced policy: When he wasn't wishy, he was washy.

Jimmy Carter was an exceptional president, for which many Americans are grateful. Somehow he was able to preside over an economy that was stagnating and overheating at the same time. (How he carried that off is still hotly debated by economists.) And his foreign policy somehow managed to combine drift and impulse, irresolution and self-righteousness, in equal, discordant parts till the whole pointless equation canceled itself out.

You never knew in which direction the Carter administration would veer tomorrow -- gasoline rationing? a minimal and therefore disastrous resort to armed force in Iran? -- only that it wouldn't work. Which may be why, after all, he substituted general hand-wringing for policy.

The unstated but clear message from the White House during those directionless years was that we had everything to fear, including fear itself. Best to go down gracefully. Seldom had the American spirit sunk so low, and understandably so. At every critical juncture, the country's president could be relied on to retreat into vapid generalities. The subject didn't matter -- defense, the energy "crisis,'' and, of course, the hijacking of a whole American embassy in Teheran.

The country got used to being held hostage, and to Jimmy Carter's explaining, night after night, in that maddeningly oh-so-reasonable way, that there was really nothing to be done. Defeatism personified, he addressed catastrophe in the calmest way, in the voice of a man who found disaster routine. He kept explaining the need to appreciate the complexity of international affairs, by which he seemed to mean that America's function in the world was to get kicked around -- by whatever bunch of bearded megalomaniacs chose to kidnap our people next.

At home and abroad, Jimmy Carter had to be the most incompetent president of the latter half of the 20th Century; the competition isn't even close. But even his incompetence might have been bearable if he hadn't also been such a bore. That interminably whiny voice, that picture of an American president huddling before a White House fireplace in a sweater, shivering before the might of the oil sheiks, delivering pious little lectures about the wisdom of impotence in foreign affairs ... it went on for four years that seemed more like four eternities.

It was in the middle of the Carter Years that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, speaking at Harvard, the epicenter of the moral and therefore political paralysis of those years, delivered his diagnosis of the West's malaise: "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.''

The Russian writer and seer was right and, like any prophet, was roundly booed for saying so. That was the same year a new pope, John Paul II, in his inaugural sermon, felt it necessary to tell us, not once, not twice, but three times: "Be not afraid!''

The world has undergone some welcome changes since the aimless Carter Years. But last week, as if America had been on a roll for entirely too long, we were treated to more mush from the wimp. Jimmy Carter -- Jimmy Carter! -- chose to lecture another president on foreign affairs. He said George W. Bush's identifying the axis of evil in world affairs was "overly simplistic and counterproductive.''

What wonderfully Carteresque language. We had almost forgotten the Seventies sound of it. His words still have all the grace of a leisure suit, the practicality of bell bottoms. Overly simplistic? As opposed to what -- just simplistic enough? When George W. Bush issued his warning to the axis of evil, were his words as counterproductive as Ronald Reagan's when that president spoke plain about the evil empire?

Of course, Jimmy Carter thought the Gipper's straight talk was pretty dangerous stuff, too. So did the ayatollahs. They turned their hostages loose even before Ronald Reagan had taken the oath of office -- as if they'd been listening to some of his campaign speeches, or just noticed that mad glint in his eye. Maybe it had dawned on them that, as of January 20, 1981, the United States would no longer have a pushover for a president. There are certain advantages to having a commander-in-chief who appears capable of anything.

The Taliban never got the word. They must have thought they were still dealing with Jimmy Carter's America. Or maybe Bill Clinton's. They seemed genuinely surprised when a president didn't just denounce them but removed them. The United States wasn't supposed to fight back. We were supposed to issue a statement, file suit, maybe launch an errant missile or two, anything but go to war and wipe them out. The Taliban, shall we say, miscalculated.

Now Iraq, Iran and North Korea have been warned. They can change their ways or share the fate of the terrorists they sponsor. It's as overly simplified as that.

Reacting to this president's talk of an axis of evil, Jimmy Carter is, as he was in office, dismayed. "I think it will take years,'' he warns, "before we can repair the damage done by that statement.''

Ah, yes, Ronald Reagan's straight talk was going to do us a lot of damage, too. That cowboy was going to invite a nuclear holocaust -- the end of the world. What the Reagan-Bush administrations did end was the Cold War -- and the Soviet Union with it. Call it, as they do on the cereal boxes, an Extra Added Bonus. Now the constant threat of nuclear armageddon, which we were once supposed to live with indefinitely because of terribly complex reasons, has receded, if not vanished. Talk about overly simplifying matters.

Sometimes a little plain English, and plain rearmament, can accomplish things not all the mush in the world can. Iraq's Saddam Hussein, for example, responded promptly to making the Axis of Evil list. He announced that his country might be interested in welcoming arms inspectors after all.

And behind the rants of Iran's ayatollahs and the canned outrage of North Korea's depraved little dictatorship, a regime now busy starving its own people, one can sense tyrants trembling. Maybe because they're being confronted, not appeased. PB

Once again the United States has a president who's not afraid to call evil evil. It's refreshing. Almost as refreshing as the realization that Jimmy Carter isn't president anymore. Sometimes that thought comes out of the blue, like a random ray of sunshine on a pre-spring day, a glimmer of light that reminds you the clouds have lifted. Other times there's a specific reason to be grateful. As when Jimmy Carter makes the news by issuing the same kind of fearful, dismayed, tractionless comments he made for four cheerless years as president. That's when it hits you: Hey, he's not president anymore. Talk about a heartening thought.

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