Thirty years ago Congress enacted, and President Carter signed, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the outgrowth of the investigations of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, mercifully much better known as the Church Committee. One of the many ironies of this 30th anniversary of FISA is that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence became a permanent fixture in the wake of these investigations, and it is, of course, the SSCI led by Democrat Jay Rockefeller that is doing its damnedest to help the Bush administration destroy that 30-year old law.She changed the focus of my Presidents Day reflections from Washington and Lincoln to Carter. In my social circles, Republicans are not the only ones who mention his name with scorn; Democrats are not kind either. He is often dismissed as incompetent in the ways of Washington. That may be true. Some claim to be “outsiders” ready to ride in on a white horse and save the country. Jimmy Carter really was an outsider.
I’m not in a position to evaluate the whole of his presidency, but if integrity matters in the person we have in the White House, he had it. He pledged a more open government to a people who were looking for a change in leadership after the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of a vice president (Spiro Agnew) and a president (Richard Nixon). After his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980, he left with his personal integrity and that of the office he held intact.
There were many things that caused his defeat after only one term in office, the most commonly mentioned was his failure to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran. I believe that there were two main reasons why he was defeated and they were based on decisions he made knowing that either or both of them would cost him another term as President.
First, President Carter countered decades of "ugly Americanism" by negotiating treaties with Panama for the return of the Canal and then by steering those treaties through the Senate ratification process.
Second, President Carter resisted the cacophony of calls for the invasion of Iran. He made an attempt to rescue the hostages which failed because of a unique set of weather circumstances, not his ineptness. The rage in the United States was for revenge against Iran. His decision was not to do anything that would result in the death of the hostages.
The electorate (that’s us folks) didn’t forgive him for either of those decisions. In 1989, long after he had left office, I took a group of graduate students to have lunch with him in Atlanta. I was able to ask him why he made those two decisions knowing full well that they would cost him the presidency. Without hesitation, he and Rosalynn spoke the same words at the same time: “Because it was the right thing to do.” It wasn’t a sound bite; it was all of the justification either of them needed. I thanked them.
And then came McJoan’s reminder on Sunday about the first FISA legislation being signed into law by President Carter. She included his signing statement:
I am pleased to sign into law today the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. . . . The bill requires, for the first time, a prior judicial warrant for all electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purposes in the United States in which communications of U.S. persons might be intercepted. It clarifies the Executive's authority to gather foreign intelligence by electronic surveillance in the United States. It will remove any doubt about the legality of those surveillances which are conducted to protect our country against espionage and international terrorism.The willingness to transcend one’s own self-interest for a greater good is the mark of a genuine leader. Whatever his failings, we had that in Jimmy Carter. Happy Presidents Day!
PS: This morning, I received these reflections from an old friend:
There was only one at our house. All of the others were impostors.
Eleanor was the champion of the poor and the black and she was our example.
FDR also but not quite so much, but he was the only president ever mentioned in a positive tone.
Except for the also-rans who were defeated by Ike and Tricky Dick.
Presidents are a lot like preachers: some are good, some are bad, most are forgettable.