Few of us were surprised by Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter for President. Before Reagan’s first year in office was over, I saw the concept of the good life for all being torn apart. I had no doubt about who was stealing my country. But as I’ve researched the past for this blog, I’ve arrived at a more troubling conclusion, one that is getting increasing attention. It’s not just Republicans, it’s the leaders of both parties. Democrats bought into Republican repudiation of working people when Gary Hart mocked “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats” in 1972. It began in earnest when Jimmy Carter carried out much of the Trilateral Commissions’ agenda. Paul Volker, appointed by Carter as Chairman of the Federal Reserve was absolutely clear, “The standard of living of the average American has to decline.” Alfred Kahn, Carter’s inflation adviser, declared labor one of the administration’s “natural enemies.”
In 1980 Carter put the country on an austerity diet that hurt ordinary working people during a time of inflation and unemployment. He closed large asylums for the mental ill. Small housing units were supposed to replace the institutions, but that part of the program never got funded. Homelessness exploded and our prisons became the institutions of last resort for citizens with mental problems.
Shortly after I starting producing ATC Carter faced another crisis. On November 4th, sixty-three Americans were among ninety hostages taken at the American embassy in Tehran. Three thousand students, infuriated that Carter invited the hated shah they had just overthrown to the United States for medical treatment, demanded that he be returned to Iran to stand trial. Correspondent Ted Koppel launched Nightline, beginning every show with the words, “day two hundred and twenty-nine (or whatever it was), America held hostage!” (Dramatic music). It was a nightly humiliation for the President.
In late December of 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support a communist led government. In covering the invasion for All Things Considered, we faced a dilemma. The Soviets claimed to have intervened in Afghanistan because the United States was funding terrorists trying to overthrow the Afghan government. Some of our sources suggested the Soviet accusation might be true, but Carter, who promised never to lie to the American people, vigorously denied them.
ATC did not broadcast the rumors. I wondered what we would have done at Pacifica. We certainly would have been less willing to accept our government’s assertions. Would we have dug more deeply for better sources? Would we have found some way to get more reliable information from Afghanistan, as we had with the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion? (See blog number 51 – Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs https://chriskochmedia.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=838&action=edit).
Cold War tensions increased after the invasion. When the Soviets refused to withdraw, Carter imposed a grain embargo. In March he cancelled American participation the 1980 summer Olympic games to be held in the Soviet Union. In June Carter reinstated the draft for all men between the ages of 18 and 25.
As it turned out, the Soviet Union was telling the truth, although to my knowledge not one member of the American press picked up on it at the time. In an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur in January of 1998, Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, bragged about Carter’s decision. Asked whether he regretted the covert action against the Afghan government, Brzezinski replied, “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.”
The casual willingness with which our leaders throw away thousands of lives in wars to achieve policy goals never fails to astound me.
On April 24th, Carter launched Operation Eagle Claw to rescue the 52 embassy staff held captive Iran. The joint forces operation failed miserable. Eight helicopters were sent to the first staging area, but only five arrived in operational condition. One of the missing helicopters had hydraulic problems, another showed signs of a cracked motor blade and the third got caught in dust storm. Eight men died.
On July 16th, 1980, Ronald Reagan was nominated as the Republican candidate for the presidency. Using the country’s economic problems (inflation and unemployment) as the springboard for his campaign, Reagan’s sunny disposition reinforced his campaign promise “to make America great again.” Another increase in oil prices in 1979 had sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had heated up the Cold War. The failed mission to rescue the hostages had hurt America’s reputation around the world.
Despite Carter’s problems and Reagan’s sunny smiles, Carter remained ahead in the polls until a debate held just a week before the election, on October 28th. It was one of the most heavily watched television shows in history at the time. Watching it in 2017 was a window into a different country. The questions are serious, respectful and informative. There were no questions about Carter’s alcoholic brother Jimmy or his unpopular suggestion that we drive at 55 miles an hour and only heat our homes to 68 degrees. There were no questions about Reagan’s age or his movie career. Debate topics included the Iranian hostage crisis, nuclear arms treaties, military spending, tax cuts, inflation, waste and fraud in government spending.
Carter was forceful, thoughtful and appeared confident. The things people remembered from the debate, however, all undermined Carter’s chances. Even watching in 2017, his invocation of his daughter Amy’s opinion on nuclear war seemed awkward and exploitative. It became the brunt of late night talk show jokes almost immediately. One famous cartoon published the day after Reagan won, showed Amy sitting in Carter’s lap with her shoulders shrugged asking “the economy? the hostage crisis?”
Reagan’s seemingly casual but really brilliant aside when confronted by a Carter criticism, “There you go again,” became part of the national lexicon. In his closing remarks, Reagan simply asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago.”
Carter tried to portray Reagan as a reckless “war hawk” and a “dangerous right-wing radical.” Watching in 2017, Reagan talks like a moderate, slightly to the right of Hilary Clinton. He was skilled at expounding the traditional Republican agenda, making it sound sensible and folksy. Too many people were “locked out of public lands.” Too many regulations hampered the development of nuclear power and job growth throughout the economy. Free enterprise can do a better job than government at building things. “Government isn’t the solution,” he famously said, “government is the problem.” He spoke of protecting working people from rapacious unions.
A few days after the debate, Regan’s poll numbers had switched. He went from 3 points behind Carter to 3 points ahead. On Novemeber 4th Reagan won the election in a landside.