"'Any day is a good day to fight for liberty'," by Ronald N. Neff, part two
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Our Walter Karp table of contents
TOC for Neff's article

The Carter debacle

After the 1976 Iowa caucuses, Murray Rothbard published an assessment of the unfolding presidential campaigns, in which he wondered whether the fix was already in for Jimmy Carter. [2] He based that speculation on which advisors were then working for which candidates. While each of the candidates had fairly predictable backing, Carter had "the all-star cast of top Establishment liberals: Lester Thurow of MIT, Lawrence Klein of the University of Pennsylvania, Joseph Pechman of Brookings, Richard Cooper of Yale." It also transpired that his foreign policy advisor was Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Hubert Humphrey's top foreign policy strategist in the 1968 campaign."

If there was a fix in, it wasn't the party doing the fixing. As Rothbard noted, the party bosses were behind Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the man Carter had nominated at the 1972 convention (thereby, incidentally, double-crossing George Wallace, whose nomination he had promised to second). In 1976, Carter was playing a dangerous game. The idea behind the 1972 "reforms" of the electoral system had been to overcome the bad publicity of 1968 by creating an illusion of democracy without the substance of it. For the time being, Jules Witcover writes, the 1972 primaries had taught the bosses that "it was easier to throw the delegate-selection process to the voters than to maneuver in state party caucuses and conventions and risk challenges on grounds of discrimination later." [3] In 1976, Karp writes, it was expected that "a large field of candidates competing in twenty-eight primaries in every region of the country would produce a deadlock." (LUS, p. 18) The nominee would then be chosen by party oligarchs. [4] Carter was not, of course, an outsider, but neither was he the oligarchs' choice. Karp does not make the mistake of thinking Carter was a noble tribune of the people against Power — although it is easy to misread LUS to that effect. No. As he wrote in a letter to me, "[Carter] was not a rebel but merely an ambitious office-seeker." He won his primaries, by and large, without the support of the party machinery, and that was his strength.

That was also the reason the party must destroy him. If there was in place a system in which a man without party support might win the party's nomination, there was equally the possibility that a genuine foe of privilege might win it. Therefore, the first man since Andrew Jackson who appeared to have been elected solely by winning the favor of "the people" must also be made to appear completely ineffectual. "The people" must accede to their betters and allow experts to choose the so-called leaders of free Americans. And to win back that privilege, party oligarchs set out to make "the people" despise the man they had chosen.

In the November 1976 issue of Playboy, in which the famous "lusted-in-my-heart" interview with Carter was published, there was a little-noticed piece dealing with the Georgian operators working with him. In it, Hamilton Jordan was quoted as saying that the Carter presidency would be different from its predecessors. If we saw a Cyrus Vance as secretary of state or a Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security advisor, we would know that Carter populism had failed. What can any historian say in the face of such a remark, except, "Thou sayest."

Rothbard, of course, was not taken in by such talk and had spotted Carter as a tool primarily of Morgan interests, and when the Carter administration was taking shape, there was no doubt that the Republic was in "familiar [Rockefeller/Morgan] hands." [5] Indeed, from December 1976 to February 1977, Rothbard published articles identifying the Rockefeller and Morgan connections both of Carter and his appointees.

Nevertheless, in a 1977 talk given in Washington, Rothbard could say candidly, "The thing I can't figure out ... is where the hell is the honeymoon? There's supposed to be a honeymoon." Not, of course, that he regretted that there had been none. But he couldn't help noticing that "Congress got feisty around ... December [1976]." [6] How feisty? Even before Carter's inauguration, his choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency was forced to withdraw his name from consideration in the face of an attack led by the new Senate majority leader, Robert Byrd, the first time a Senate of a president's own party had rejected a Cabinet-level appointment since 1925. "Byrd 'just wanted to teach Carter a lesson,' a 'junior' Democratic senator, nameless, explains to Time." (LUS, p. 31)

Such considerations as Carter's Trilateral Commission and Rockefeller/Morgan connections were drivel to Karp, who was convinced that bankers and industrialists were mere beggars of privilege at the doorsteps of that group of party operatives he designated party oligarchs. Indeed he regarded the recently formed Trilateral Commission as "a glorified typing pool full of well-bred appointees and appointees-in-waiting." (LUS, p. 41) In that, even on his own terms, he errs: if such establishment figures are not wielders of real power, their purposes inform the playing out of political dramas. Unsentimental, unprincipled, they know no political loyalties. It is useful to think of them as resembling H.G. Wells's Martians — "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" studying us primitive Earthlings from a psychic distance of millions of miles. The outcomes of the dramas that play out within parties are a matter of indifference to them: if they are the directors of policy, they care only that party personnel follow their directions. If they are mere favor-seekers, it does not matter to them from whom they must seek favors; they will seek them from whatever hand holds them. "Privileged wealth is always allied to those who can dispense and protect special privilege" (IE+, p. 80), and the financial-industrial presence is always an important indicator of the shape of the alliance forged between them and those who hold ostensible political power.

Karp does not, of course, deny the value of wealth to Power; but he thinks that it is the tail, not the dog. His analysis has this merit: it supplies an explanation for the absence of a Carter honeymoon.

Seeing Congress as the locus of power in the United States, Karp is able to find in the all-important choices of leadership in its halls the roots of Carter's destruction. The Dixie-Daley alliance must have men loyal to the requirements of Power and party rather than men loyal to anything so ephemeral as a president's programs or reputation. In the House, for majority leader, the crafty Speaker "Tip" O'Neill backed a man whose sole purpose was to draw votes from the front-runner, Philip Burton of California; and the candidate of Illinois's Dan Rostenkowski, Jim Wright of Texas, was ushered into the position on the promise of a familiar Boston-Austin kind of paralysis, for Wright had said that if chosen he would "deploy the great powers of the speaker as sparingly as possible," meaning that House Democrats would be "free to desert 'tenuous majorities' at the expense of the new Democratic President." (LUS, p. 25)

In the Senate, Hubert Humphrey, "the old hero of the party," was deserted by everyone, and the new majority leader chosen there was Byrd, than whom, says Karp, "a more Heepish legislator has perhaps never been seen in the United States Senate." (LUS, p. 27) Byrd made it clear that he, too, would allow party discipline to break down.

Not, it must be understood, that Karp was in favor of party discipline. But he recognized a cover when he saw one. Anyone interested in the Carter presidency must ask why legislation that could pass a Democratic Congress when it was opposed by Republican Nixon failed when it was supported by Democrat Carter.

To the next part: "The Carter debacle," continued.

Posted June 17, 2002

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