Shades of the Carter Years

I remember it well. It was during the final years of the Carter administration—the rise of militant Islam. The birthplace was Iran under the severe rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini. He had chased the Shah out of the country and taken over, along with his fanatical followers. Khomeini determined that the United States was the Great Satan. Therefore, it made no difference to him that the U.S. embassy was officially American soil; his hordes stormed the embassy and took more than fifty hostages. The news showed them taken out into the streets, blindfolded and humiliated.

But, in fact, it wasn’t the hostages themselves who were humiliated; it was the nation they represented. And weakness trickled down from the top in the person of an ineffective president who was out of his league trying to deal with the situation.

Sound familiar?

Jimmy Carter didn’t know quite what to do. At one point, he finally decided on a rescue mission, but it had to be scrubbed when a helicopter went down in the Iranian desert. Another wonderful photo op for the militants. Another humiliation for America. Yet Carter won renomination in 1980 and went into the general election against Ronald Reagan. Polls showed that, despite his troubles and general ineffectiveness, not only in foreign affairs but on the economy—the economists had to invent a new term called stagflation to describe just how bad things were—he held a lead over Reagan right up to the week before the election.

Sound familiar again?

But common sense prevailed in 1980, and Reagan won in a blowout, which confounded most experts. Wouldn’t it be nice to have history repeat itself this year?

At the same time that the presidential campaign was in full swing, Americans were transfixed by a miniseries on TV called Shogun, a drama about a European castaway in Japan who has to learn how to survive in a foreign land. He eventually works his way up in the society to a prized position known as a shogun. One particularly brilliant cartoonist saw a linkage with the current administration:

Although this was a pre-internet age, this political cartoon went viral. It showcased the incompetence of the Carter administration, and it hit a nerve. Even Carter’s reelection team posted it in their cubicles as a reminder of how their candidate was perceived.

The past few days have evoked memories of the Carter years. Iran remains the biggest threat in the Middle East, developing a nuclear capability and threatening to annihilate Israel. America still earns the eternal hatred of this Islamic empire. It has spawned even more radicals who now are taking over many Islamic countries, with the mobs, murders, and threats we’ve witnessed in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. The world has become even more dangerous.

And whom do we have in charge at such a crucial moment?

This does not inspire confidence.

Presidents, Polls, Professors, & the Public

Young America’s Foundation is an organization devoted to conservative principles in culture and government. While it doesn’t claim to be openly Christian—other conservatives are welcome—the concepts it promotes are consistent with Biblical principles. In the last few years, it has established the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, where it holds a number of significant seminars and conferences. The organization also bought the Reagan Ranch in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, and is keeping it as Ronald Reagan had it when he lived there. I’ve visited with some of the leaders, both in Virginia and Santa Barbara, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to Reagan’s ranch. The last time I was there, I was told to just let them know ahead of time, and on my next trip, they would arrange a visit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since; not sure when I’ll be able to go again.

Recently, the Foundation commissioned a poll of college and university professors. They took the opinions of 284 professors on the ranking of presidents. Which presidents did they consider to be the most influential and/or most effective? What grade would they give each president? The answers may not surprise you.

Not one of these professors considered Reagan as his/her top choice. Sixty percent didn’t even put him in the top ten of all presidents. Overall, they gave him a C+ for his achievements, apparently overlooking the tremendous economic resurgence during the 1980s, his pivotal meetings with Gorbachev, and the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, stemming from the combined efforts of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. In fact, when they were asked to state what they considered to be Reagan’s greatest accomplishment, nearly 1/5 of them could come up with nothing.

Here are some other indicators of how college professors view American presidents:

  • When asked to list their picks for the three greatest presidents, they mentioned FDR more times than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.
  • They mentioned FDR four times as often as Reagan.
  • FDR ranked in the top three presidents for 54% of these professors.
  • Overall, Bill Clinton received six times as many favorable mentions as James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

From where does this stem? Well, three times as many professors identified themselves as liberal than as conservative. The review of this poll that I read doesn’t break down the professors by discipline, but I would suspect that most of them were history or political science professors, and the fact that there were three times as many liberals as conservatives only surprises me in the sense that I thought the divergence might be even greater, given the stance taken by national leadership for these disciplines.

Now for a counterpoint. In February of 2011, the Gallup organization polled Americans nationwide to determine their idea of who should be considered the greatest presidents. In that poll, Reagan came in first, 5 points ahead of Lincoln. Reagan also topped the list in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and ranked first or second in eight of the ten “Greatest President” polls conducted by Gallup since 1999.

I have my own critique of public opinion polls, and how they seem to fluctuate based on the public’s feelings rather than facts. I don’t always consider the majority viewpoint to be the most accurate. Yet I find this poll fascinating. What it indicates is that as time has gone by, people are looking back at the Reagan years with increasing fondness. I think they remember them, when compared to today, as solid, strong, and patriotic. They believe that America came back from the brink in the 1980s, after the disastrous events of the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan was the antidote to LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. He called us back to our roots, and that led to revitalization.

I believe America can be called back again, and I believe we can overcome the national disgrace of the Obama years. The only question is: will we do so this November? The future is not fixed; our decisions can redirect the ship of state as well as the drift of the culture. One more thing: Christians need to take the lead in this redirection. Now is the time to call us back to a humble dependence on the One who will bless if we come to Him in genuine repentance and a sincere desire to do His will.

Death of a Vision? Or a Rebirth?

About seven years ago, a vision took shape in my heart and mind. Yesterday that vision may have died, but I am hopeful that it’s merely a prelude to a resurrection. Let me explain. I’ll start first with the basic facts, then go on to what I think the Lord may be teaching me through this episode.

I’ve always admired Ronald Reagan: his character, his principles, and how he attempted to convert them into action. I’ve equally admired Whittaker Chambers, a man less well known than Reagan, but one who was instrumental in sending a warning to Western Civilization that it must return to faith in God or all will be lost. Reagan was the quintessential optimist; he believed freedom was the wave of the future. Conversely, Chambers was the epitome of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who held out hope but whose message was primarily one of judgment.

Both men are considered cornerstones of modern American conservatism. Yet even though they were part of the same movement, their perspectives on the ultimate success of a West grounded in a Biblical worldview differed significantly. My goal was to examine the roots of Reagan’s optimism and Chambers’s pessimism, show how those diametrically opposite temperaments manifested themselves during their lives, and then evaluate, to the extent it is possible, which viewpoint is more accurate with respect to the future of freedom.

For seven years, off and on while teaching fulltime, moving from Virginia to Florida, and blogging daily, I slowly made headway on the book. My search for a publisher was difficult until last November when an academic press gave me a contract. It wasn’t until after I signed that contract that I fully understood some of the ramifications: I would have to pay for the typesetting and for any permission fees for the use of quotes from other sources. I also didn’t realize that I was not guaranteed a paperback version of the book. It was slated to come out in hardback only, and would be turned into a paperback if it sold well enough, which would be difficult because the price tag was going to be over $60. How many people are currently willing to pay that much for a book?

Nevertheless, I moved forward with all that was necessary to submit the manuscript, simultaneously making the case for a paperback version. Things seemed to be going in that direction, and one scholar who reviewed the book for the publisher—a man who is a Reagan expert and has written a number of Reagan books—was so delighted with my manuscript that he even wrote a wonderful foreword for it.

I was also getting all the permissions together, and pretty successful at getting those fees down to a reasonable level. One source, though, that had rights to two of the books I quoted from extensively, required a fee that was far above all others, and one that I just couldn’t pay. It would have been fiscal suicide for me to have done so. Even communication with the publisher didn’t change that source’s opinion on how high the fee had to be.

Therefore, my publisher and I came to a mutual agreement yesterday to dissolve the contract. The book is dead.

But is it, really?

I admit my first reaction a week ago to the fee demand was one of anger, which then turned to discouragement. All I could think about was seven years of labor wasted. Slowly, though, as I meditated on what God would want me to think and to do, I began to see things from a different angle. Perhaps this was His way of getting me out of a bad situation; maybe another door will now open, one that won’t be so restrictive.

He reminded me of the many times in my life when I came to a point of near-despair over some turn of events. One in particular always comes to mind. Eighteen years ago, I was a candidate for a teaching position at an evangelical college on the West Coast. I recall how my office would have faced the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean; I was sure this was God’s call for me. When I didn’t get the position, I was devastated. Anger and resentment burned within me over what I considered to be a bad decision by that college. Yet a couple of months later, out of the blue and totally unanticipated, I was contacted by a university where I had sought to teach earlier. Within a matter of days, I had that position, and it was one that was truly fulfilling for a number of years. I learned a valuable lesson: God is always at work even when you don’t see the evidence at first; trust Him and He will guide your steps.

There may be another lesson He is teaching me through this current mini-crisis. It’s possible I was too focused on academic credentials as I sought to get this book published. Perhaps I wanted to impress others a bit too much, and pride was taking hold of my heart. The Lord reminded me that humility is the way to please Him. If I never publish another book, that’s okay, as long as I am doing what He has called me to do—teach this generation His ways through history.

I am at peace with the state of my manuscript. I believe I’ve written something that is worthwhile, and I will see if another publisher is willing to take it on. I don’t know if that publisher exists, but if God wants it to be published, it shall be. Meanwhile, I will continue to do my best with the tasks He has given me already.

I just finished reading the book of Ecclesiastes again. The theme throughout that book is the futility of any work that is done purely in one’s own strength or for one’s own purposes. The last chapter offers the sort of wisdom we all need, but especially someone in my field:

But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

I take that admonition to heart.

Restoring Humility to the Oval Office

Policies, as essential as they are, aren’t the only consideration when choosing leaders. Character is of equal significance. One of the key traits I seek in a candidate is humility. Pride is the cause of untold miseries. An arrogant leader is prone to mistakes based on his unrealistic evaluation of his own personal importance. What really gets to me are the polls that show a majority of Americans think Obama is likeable. Since when?

This is the man who wrote his autobiography in his early thirties. Who does that? This is the man who served only two years in the Senate, but who spent most of that time running for president. He has no legislative credentials during that tenure. This is also the man who declared that his election would signal the healing of the planet and the lowering of the oceans. Is there any greater indication of arrogance?

Then last week we were treated to the spectacle of the biographies of presidents on the White House website having been altered. Did you miss that one? Most of the twentieth-century presidents had a comment or two added about Obama. Huh? What did Obama have to do with FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, or Reagan? It was a bald attempt to insert his “accomplishments” into the stories of earlier administrations. Fortunately, it has met with the ridicule it deserves:

A narcissist is someone who is overly self-involved, and often vain and selfish. For the narcissist, the world revolves around him, his thoughts, and his deeds. I would say the cartoonist captures the essence of our current president.

What a contrast can be provided by looking at Ronald Reagan. He brought the nation out of the depths of economic despair and followed policies that led ultimately to the dismantling of the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union. Yet one seeks in vain for any comment from Reagan boasting about his accomplishments. On the economy, whenever anyone tried to give him credit, he would say he simply got the government out of the way; it was the genius of individual entrepreneurs that created the turnaround. When the USSR collapsed, you didn’t see him taking a victory lap. Most of what he did to help bring about that collapse was behind the scenes.

He also did little things that revealed his humility. Reagan had a pen pal in a Washington, DC, school. He visited the boy’s home a few times, but reporters never knew about it. It was something that came from his heart, not from cynical political advantage.

Then when Reagan realized he had Alzheimer’s, he wrote a letter to the American people—his final public utterance. I can imagine some would use this opportunity to focus on self, but again, Reagan had a different spirit. Here’s how that letter ended:

In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

How many of us, facing a future filled with lost memories and steadily decreasing mental capabilities, would concentrate instead on how grateful we are to have been allowed to serve? How many of us would be thinking more about our fellow citizens than ourselves? The humility that Reagan brought to the office of the presidency should be an inspiration to us all. It should also create within us a desire to see that kind of humility restored to that office.

Government “Solutions”

I don’t adhere to the philosophy that government is evil. Rather, I believe it is established by God to accomplish justice. As stated in the book of Romans in the New Testament, it should protect those who do good and punish those who do evil. When government stays within its God-ordained role, it is honorable and necessary.

But when government steps outside those boundaries, it creates unceasing mischief. When Reagan took office, in his first inaugural address, he famously noted that in the circumstances he faced at that time, government was not the solution but the problem.

That’s where we are again.

Ever since Reagan left office, we’ve allowed a steady drift toward government solutions for everything. That drift has escalated into a race during the Obama years. Here are a couple of government “solutions” we now have to deal with:

Isn’t it just grand that we no longer have a choice for the type of light bulb we want to buy? And these new, supposedly highly efficient, “green” bulbs, if they should ever break, are more of an environmental hazard than anything produced by private industry in the past 150 years. Note also the official name of Obamacare: the Affordable Care Act. See the price tag? Let’s see now, what were we promised at the beginning?

The scariest thing is that there were people who actually believed that. The costs of the act were generally put off until after the 2012 election, and the desirable features came first, but the hard reality will soon hit everyone.

Remarkably, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration to kill the economy, it still shows signs of life. Wherever the free market can see cracks in the stifling government net of regulation, it will insert itself and continue to prosper. But will voters really understand the nature of any recovery that we see? You can be sure the president will try to spin any sign of economic life to his advantage:

Will the electorate buy into the big lie again?

Reagan, Santorum, & the Nervous Nellies

Listening to the panic within the GOP establishment about the possibility of Rick Santorum being the Republican presidential nominee reminds me of 1976 and 1980. The criticisms I hear today of Santorum by GOP insiders are similar to the ones leveled against the “outsider” back in those earlier presidential campaigns. The outsider at that time was a guy named Ronald Reagan.

I remember clearly how adamant his Republican critics were that it would be an embarrassment to have Reagan at the head of the ticket: he was a grade-B movie actor, we were told; he had a tendency to say foolish things; he was too focused on the problems and didn’t have a “sunny” enough disposition. Can you believe that last one, now that everyone points to Reagan’s optimism? But back in the day, he was the one who came across to some as too hardline—he would turn off the moderate voters.

As today, we were gravely informed that disaster would befall the GOP if Reagan were the candidate. So, in 1976, the GOP establishment lined up behind Gerald Ford. Of course, he was the sitting president, so much of that was to be expected. But the venom directed at Reagan was unceasing. In particular, we were assured that a prolonged primary season, one that lasted right up to the convention itself, would destroy any chance Ford would have against Carter. It did go to the convention, and Reagan only barely lost the nomination. While it’s true that Ford lost to Carter, blaming Reagan for that would be to omit how badly Ford performed as the candidate. It also would dismiss the effects of Watergate and Ford’s pardon of Nixon. No, Reagan’s challenge was not the reason Ford lost; he accomplished that all by himself.

Again, in 1980, the Nervous Nellies of the squishy middle wanted someone else besides Reagan, whether it was Bob Dole, Howard Baker, or George H. W. Bush. We were gravely informed once again that a Reagan candidacy would be a disaster because he couldn’t draw in the independent voters. The economy at the time was eerily similar to what it is today. There was a weak incumbent—Carter—just like there is today with Obama. Yet the polls still predicted a Carter victory right up to the week before the election. Imagine all the “I told you so’s” being whispered among the Republican moderates. Well, that election was a blowout for Reagan. The rest is history.

That’s why I’m not swayed by our current crop of Nervous Nellies. They’ve been wrong before; they can be wrong again. What we need is someone who stands for genuine Biblical principles in government—no, that’s not a theocracy—and who’s willing to take on the incumbent philosophically as well as on specific policy issues. We need someone who can explain “why” we need to change our perception of government, not merely tell us “what” he’s going to do. Reagan was good at the “why” as well as the “what.” Santorum deals with foundational thinking, whereas Romney doesn’t seem to have a foundation.

By the way, do you recall that Romney won Michigan this week? Well, you recalled incorrectly. It turns out that the delegates are split 50/50 between Romney and Santorum. In most worlds, that’s called a tie. This isn’t over yet.

The Game Truly Is On Now

“Game on” was how Rick Santorum described the status of the Republican presidential primary race the night he won Iowa [even though he didn’t know he had won it for another week]. Well, if that win was a signal that the game was on, last night served as an indication this is a serious game for sure. Polls had hinted he might take Missouri, eke out a slight win in Minnesota, and could be encouraged by a strong second-place finish in Colorado. After the votes were counted, he had swamped Romney in Missouri, scored a solid victory in Minnesota, and stunned all pundits by taking Colorado by five points.

Santorum had a perfect three-for-three evening.

Despite the expected caveats—Missouri was just a “beauty contest,” none of those states actually awarded delegates at this point, turnout wasn’t that high—the results have changed the trajectory of this “game.”

What are we witnessing? First, Romney has never nailed down the conservative vote, and it showed in a big way. Second, Gingrich may have already peaked and is now beginning a fade because conservative voters are switching allegiances; when they compare Gingrich with Santorum, they are liking Santorum better. Third, this obviously is no longer a two-man race. Fourth, lots of money and organization may not trump issues after all. And how about this possibility: should Gingrich now leave the race so he won’t drain support from Santorum? How’s that for turnabout?

I’ve always despised the mantra that whoever wins early is the presumptive nominee. I recall another primary battle back in 1976, when an upstart challenger named Ronald Reagan took on the incumbent president Gerald Ford. Reagan lost one primary after another, and the experts were saying he should pull out. Then the tides shifted, and he began winning them all. The race was so close it wasn’t finally settled until the Republican convention that year. Yes, Reagan fell short, but I doubt that anyone today seriously thinks anymore that Ford was the better candidate. So I say, let the race continue.

Santorum is correct when he says that Romney cannot be the Republican spokesman to critique Obamacare, given his background and ongoing defense of Romneycare. Santorum also is someone who can put those midwestern states in the Republican column in November. I’m also convinced he will be the best person to tackle the looming Iranian threat.

Romney last night in his speech said, “This is a time for real change in Washington—fundamental, bold, dramatic change.” I couldn’t agree more. But when has Romney ever been the candidate espousing fundamental, bold, or dramatic change? He’s the mushy middle who will superintend the status quo. I can’t imagine him doing anything bold. He’s always been the “go along to get along” guy. Santorum, on the other hand, has been rock solid on issues dear to my vote—sanctity of life, significance of family, and Biblical morality as the cornerstone of policy.

Santorum has passed one test. Now, can he do the same in Arizona and Michigan at the end of this month? Michigan is another of Romney’s “home” states—he seems to have a number of those. Yet Santorum’s message of reviving manufacturing could play well there. Arizona is quite conservative, and the ongoing battle that state has with Obama over illegal immigration may also be fertile ground for him.

I think he was correct to say “game on” in Iowa. That terminology is even more appropriate now.