Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Fertile Ground

Most people would agree that Jimmy Carter would not have been elected President in 1976 had the Watergate Scandal not preceded the election.  Those were pretty bad times:

The scandal led to the discovery of multiple abuses of power by the Nixon administration, articles of impeachment, and the resignation of Nixon as President of the United States on August 9, 1974. The scandal also resulted in the indictment of 69 people, with trials or pleas resulting in 25 being found guilty and incarcerated, many of whom were Nixon's top administration officials.

Enough with the thugs and crooks, America said.  Straight from Central Casting came Mr. Carter, the little-known, unassuming former peanut farmer and Governor of Georgia.  Despite his Southern upbringing, which many considered made him too conservative to be desirable among Democrats, and his skimpy resume, his status as a relative outsider vaulted him to a surprise Democratic nomination:

Jimmy Carter ran as a reformer who was "untainted" by Washington political scandals,  which many voters found attractive in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which had led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.

Mr. Carter then managed to eke out a narrow general election win over incumbent Gerald Ford.  (Nixon had appointed Ford to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice President after Agnew’s resignation in disgrace in 1973, and Ford became President upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Incidentally, Ford continues to be the only person to have served as both Vice President and President without being elected to either office.)

And so it came to be that, in 1976, we elected ourselves a thoroughly decent man, but, according to most historians, a below-average president.

The depths of Watergate constituted, at the time, the lowest point in the nation’s history with regard to trust in government.  Within a span of two years, both the President and Vice President had resigned in disgrace (based on unrelated scandals, no less) and dozens of government officials had been indicted.  Not surprisingly, the percentage of Americans who said they  trust the government always or most of the time, which stood at 77% one year into Lyndon Johnson’s administration in October of 1964, plummeted to 36% around the time Mr. Carter was elected to office.  And rather than stem the tide, the Carter administration exacerbated the problem, with the trust number hitting an all-time low of 27% in 1980, around the time President Carter gave his infamous “malaise speech,” in which he awkwardly blamed the nation’s economic woes on a “crisis of confidence.”

The trust-in-government number has gone up and down since then, but as of October of 2015, the percentage of Americans who trust their government was sitting at its all-time low, 19%.  Less than one in five of us trust our government.  And once again, our nation has been captivated by an outsider.  Except this time it’s not Jimmy Carter, a decent man lacking the qualifications and wherewithal to be an effective president.  This time, of course, it’s Donald Trump, a xenophobic, narcissistic, bigoted demagogue; a thin-skinned racist with the temperament of a 3-year-old.

I voted for President Obama twice, yet am disappointed in his administration.  The bulk of my disappointment doesn’t stem from specific actions or policies.  I can see both sides of the arguments around Obamacare, and the nuclear deal with Iran.  I am certainly unhappy that Mr. Obama presided over the dramatic expansion of the illegal surveillance of Americans that began under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11, and was largely exposed by American hero Edward Snowden.  But my biggest disappointment is that my optimism about the Obama administration being a unifying force has been dashed.  

In March of 2008, as then-Congressman Obama was neck and neck with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, I wrote:

President Barack Obama. The possibility titillates. As our nation, indeed the world, desperately yearns for leadership, here comes a US President with a richly diverse background, endowed with a keen intellect, superb oratorical skills and exquisite charisma. Obama's election could easily inspire uplifting change, and result in dramatic disruption of tired paradigms. An intelligent, articulate leader with the rare ability to actually bring people together presents a formidable foe for all that ails us, as well as a catalyst for the kind of grass­roots activism not seen in this country for forty years. True leadership brings with it a can­-do attitude, which has been missing in action in this country for far too long.

I continue to think President Obama has a keen intellect, superb oratorical skills and exquisite charisma.  Yet somehow we find ourselves more divided than ever, over politics, race, ethnicity, and economics.  Race relations have deteriorated to the point that there are powder kegs ready to explode everywhere.  Our political parties are so divided that we have what can truthfully be called a non-functioning government.  The man I thought would bring us together has presided over us being torn apart.  And we trust our government less than we ever have.

Whether President Obama is to blame, or the Republicans in Congress, or, most likely, a combination of both, somehow our nation became fertile soil for a candidate who appeals to the worst in all of us.  A buffoon who would never have transcended the reality television world where he belongs had we not been so divided, and so unhappy with our government.

Watergate begat Carter.  And that was bad, but not catastrophic.  Eight years of ineffective government under President Obama and the intransigent Republicans begat the Trump candidacy.  

I hope the last word in the previous paragraph never becomes obsolete.

Photo by Alan Murray-Rust [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons