Is it the very unseemliness of the death watch over poor Jimmy Carter that has forced everyone to talk balls?
We human beings often react this way when we catch ourselves doing something that's in poor taste or otherwise undignified. We break wind in a reception line, we tell a dirty joke within earshot of a toddler, and in our mortification we turn on the motor mouth. Hovering ghoulishly over the deathbed of a celebrated stranger for endless days, as members of our nation's press corps are doing, waiting for him to hurry up and croak already and wandering the streets of his tiny hometown to find a resident who hadn't been interviewed half a dozen times by the BBC, is one of those circumstances of cringing self-embarrassment.
So we blather. We talk balls. We say anything to fill the silence that might call attention to the shabbiness of what we're doing. We say things like … oh I don't know … like, Jimmy Carter "moves humanity forward every single day." Or, maybe, that he had "the sweetest and best parts of our character." We might even describe Jimmy Carter as "probably the most intelligent, hard-working, and decent man to have occupied the Oval Office in the 20th century."
That first quote, which translated into concrete terms means "I really, really like him," comes from the former TV newsreader Maria Shriver. She's a Kennedy by birth and a Schwarzenegger by marriage, so words aren't really her thing. The second comes from the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who uncorked his extravagant sentiment during a sleepy chin wag on MSNBC's Morning Joe. The third appeared in the New York Times from the left-wing historian and journalist Kai Bird. He's a fine writer. Words really are his thing. In fact he wrote a whole book about Jimmy Carter. You might expect him to know better.
Inevitably a kind of one-upmanship set in. Public commentators are so competitive. Mia Farrow went on Twitter—it's not clear she ever gets off—and called Carter a "great, great man." "Hold my beer," said the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, metaphorically. (He doesn’t strike me as a big drinker.) Carter, Kristof tweeted, was "a great, great, great man," thus beating Mia Farrow's two greats with a third. Maybe Twitter pays him by the word. (Thanks, Elon.) Kristof also tweeted that Carter "leaves this planet so much better than he found it," presumably by moving humanity forward every single day. It's helpful, too, that Kristof specified Carter was from this planet. There were moments back in the '70s when a lot of Americans were unsure.
Jon Stewart, the TV comedian, announced to a waiting world that "Carter is one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I've ever had the honor of meeting." Stewart has spent all his adult life meeting people in the television business, so I'm willing to believe him. But the record is pretty clear that more often than not Carter evinced the personal qualities we associate with all supernaturally ambitious, highly successful politicians: a warmth extending not much deeper than the epidermis, below which hums a circulatory system coursing with ice water. Stewart went on to add, "He's the best of us," which sounds like he'd been reading over David Ignatius’s shoulder.
Indeed, Ignatius's comment, silly as it was, wasn't even the silliest comment made on his segment of Morning Joe. That was a job for the eponymous Joe. Like so many on-air "news personalities," Joe Scarborough has lately decided to hire ghostwriters to write books of popular history under his own name as a way of persuading viewers that he's smarter than he seems. Which might work—except then he opens his mouth!
As with his fellow death watchers, Scarborough wanted to praise Carter in the worst way, and did. "Carter's foreign policy accomplishments," Scarborough said, "you can stack them with just any president since Truman."
You can? How so, Joe?
Look at 1979, he said. There was the normalization of relations with China and the Camp David Accords. Good on Carter!
"You have the Iranian, obviously, revolution." Um…
"Which of course ushered in a terrible time," Joe quickly added. Yes, terrible.
"Also, you have the Russians going into Afghanistan…" Terrible too? Maybe not, said Joe. The invasion, after all, "was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire."
A fresh interpretation, for sure. It's almost as if Morning Joe, in his death watch reverie, had decided that when the Soviets rolled their tanks through the Khyber Pass they were stepping into an elaborate trap laid by the fiendishly clever peanut farmer from Plains. Yet no NSC minutes from the era—I want to put money on this if you'll let me—show Carter muttering, through that famous smile, "Now I've got them right where I want them! It's the beginning of the end for those commie bastards!"
Of course, the disaster of the Afghan invasion wasn't any more to Carter's credit than the disaster of the Iranian revolution. Again, Morning Joe's interpretation was fresh, if slightly insane. The revolution led to the taking of dozens of American hostages for 444 days while Carter sat on his a…
No, said Morning Joe, Carter "had the humanity to just wait it out." In truth, though, Carter didn't want to wait out the hostage crisis. What he wanted to do, and what he did, was send in a special-ops crew to rescue the hostages with violence, and the mission failed with a horrifying helicopter crash in the desert. Joe Scarborough was just a kid in 1979 and may have forgotten. Still, he said, he had recently watched an HBO documentary on the hostage crisis. Historians must do research. He found himself deeply moved by the images of Carter greeting the hostages after they'd been released. "Those hostages would not have been alive—all of them would not have survived—but for Jimmy Carter," Joe insisted, and a viewer, reaching for a house slipper and taking aim at the TV, wants to cry, "Joe! Oh, Morning Joe! The hostages wouldn't have been hostages but for Jimmy Carter!"
Oh well. It's true that Carter wasn't as terrible in the job of president as many of us thought at the time, or as terrible as some of us have thought since. He began the era of government deregulation that Ronald Reagan accelerated. He appointed Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he kept quiet when Volcker undertook the bloody and politically ruinous task of ending inflation. He abandoned the amorality of the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger foreign policy and elevated human rights to a formal international concern, while retaining the good sense to suck up to friendly tyrants when it was strategically necessary. He let Willie Nelson smoke weed on the roof of the White House.
How pleasing it would be if we could have a period of dignified mourning for a public servant who lived a long and interesting and complicated life—a man who, moreover, as his highest aspiration, longed to be a good Christian, and who worked at it, and who probably came closer to his goal than most of us will. How pleasing it would be if we had a media culture that knew how to handle such a legacy, if we had a public square where balance, self-restraint, and tasteful candor were valued over the unctuous seductions of graveyard prose and partisan water-carrying.
But we don't, so we can't. We're left to blather.
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.