As an old guy with a particularly long interest in the career of Georgia’s Democratic President Jimmy Carter, I noted with interest some new revelations about the end-game of the 1980 elections, and wrote about it at New York:
Jimmy Carter’s slow drift toward life’s end after the longest and most impressive post-presidency in U.S. history has spawned a lot of retrospective assessments of the 39th president and his legacy. But the New York Times has brought us a look back that’s also news: Longtime Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes, now 85, decided to let it be known that he was part of a scheme in 1980 to make sure Carter’s reelection campaign wouldn’t benefit from an early release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran whose captivity had tormented the White House since November 1979.
Barnes’s story is indeed stunning. For decades, it was generally assumed that Iran’s revolutionary regime countenanced the hostage taking by allied students and activists and refused to negotiate a release with the Carter administration because of entrenched hostility toward Carter over his friendship with the deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and/or because they had reason to expect a better deal from Carter’s general-election opponent, Ronald Reagan. (Iran released the hostages, after 444 days, on Reagan’s Inauguration Day.) But no one has really offered concrete evidence of a dirty Republican deal with Tehran until now. And the prime mover in the reported drama happens to be one of the shadier figures of the modern era, former Texas governor John Connally, a powerful career-long political fixer who was suspected of personal corruption.
Best known for being wounded in the same car that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in, Connally, a protégé of Lyndon B. Johnson, played a large role in the defection of southern Democrats to the Republican Party during Richard Nixon’s administration, during which he served as Treasury secretary. His influence was best reflected by his success in convincing Nixon to impose the heretical step of wage and price controls to (temporarily) rein in inflation. Connally was reportedly Nixon’s preferred pick to replace disgraced vice-president Spiro T. Agnew, but the hostility of Democrats toward the turncoat and his less-than-ideal reputation led the Republican president to instead choose Gerald Ford, whom Carter defeated in 1976.
Four years later, Connally launched his own presidential campaign, but despite lavish funding and enthusiastic backing from corporate leaders, he floundered in Iowa and New Hampshire, losing to Reagan. According to Barnes, a longtime political associate and business partner of his fellow Texan, Connally was determined to land a high-level Cabinet appointment in a Reagan administration, so, with Barnes in tow, he put on his globe-trotting shoes to prove his worth. Per the Times account:
“What happened next Mr. Barnes has largely kept secret for nearly 43 years. Mr. Connally, he said, took him to one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.”
The Iranians appear to have gotten the message, as a happy Connally later reported to Reagan’s campaign chairman and future CIA director William Casey.
So should we conclude that if Connally’s mission hadn’t take place, Carter might well have won a second presidential term, relegating Reagan (and quite possibly his running mate, George H.W. Bush. and his running mate’s son George W. Bush) to the political dustbin? Tempting as the hypothesis is, it is not terribly plausible.
First of all, the Islamic regime in Tehran didn’t trust any American politician enough to depend on indirect promises of a “better deal,” and its hatred of and desire to humiliate Carter ran deep, independent of any comparison with Reagan.
Second of all, if Connally played such a dramatic role in postponing a potential hostage release, Team Reagan was notably under-appreciative. Hoping to become Secretary of State or Defense once Reagan took office, he was instead offered the Department of Energy (which the new administration intended to abolish); Connally contemptuously rejected the gig.
More important, the Iran-hostage crisis was just one of the problems weighing down Carter’s reelection campaign heading into 1980. Far more damaging than the hostage situation or any international issue was the economy, which had produced the election-year disaster of “stagflation.” In 1980, the average unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, the average inflation rate was 12.67 percent, and average home-mortgage rates were 13.74 percent. This was a political-economic catastrophe for Carter.
And that wasn’t all. Carter had to deal with a deeply divided Democratic Party and one of the strongest primary challenges any modern incumbent president has faced from liberal legend Ted Kennedy. (Ironically, a rally-round-the-flag effect stemming from the hostage crisis undoubtedly helped Carter hold off Kennedy’s challenge.) And Carter’s reelection campaign had a big strategic problem to overcome. He had narrowly won the 1976 general election thanks to the excitement of southern and southern-inflected voters (many of them former Nixon and future Reagan voters) who were thrilled to have credible presidential candidate emerge from their region of the country. But it was extremely difficult for Carter to maintain that unique coalition, particularly against an ideological candidate like Reagan. He also lost a lot of liberal voters to third-party candidate John Anderson, who ran to Carter’s left. Under these circumstances, it was actually impressive that Carter lost to Reagan by only 9.8 percent of the popular vote (though he lost the Electoral College by a 489-to-49 margin). Well before Connally and Barnes’s Middle East tour, Carter’s job-approval rating (per Gallup) had already slipped well below 40 percent, never to recover.
As much as it might give Carter and his friends some grim sense of vindication to know that skullduggery was deployed to keep the hostages locked up as his presidency slipped away, it ultimately mattered only at the margins. But the tale does provide a bit more posthumous damage to the already spotty image of Connally.
Yes, Allan, character matters. That’s why it’s so galling to have this moral midget in the White House. This silly frat boy has not earned ONE thing on his own in his life. Oh, maybe his cheerleading slot, but I doubt that. He has had every string pulled for him to get him out of military service, to allow him to make money by running businesses into the ground, to gain the presidency by having his brother rig Florida and his Daddy’s buddies on the Supreme Court write him in on the most poorly reasoned SCOTUS decision since Dred Scott. He lies. He cheats. He steals from the poor to give to the rich. He wraps himself in the flag and Jesus in order to further the interests of his corporate cronies. PATHETIC! People like you are duped. Even more PATHETIC!
Worst. President. Ever.
Allan, Nick is right. Even if Bush wins reelection he’s a self-limiting disease. Democrats will take over the White House and Congress again, and we’ll once again have budget surpluses and start to pay down the national debt instead of doubling it like the village idiot we have in office now. And once again we’ll have someone in office who isn’t so obsessed with a country that was no threat to anyone outside of the Middle East (and as long as Iran was there to soak up Hussein’s attention he wasn’t much of a threat there either) that he’ll abandon our true enemy right before catching him to go off on a wild goose chase.
Maybe we’ll have a president who listens to people who actually know what they’re talking about instead of just people who tell him what he wants to hear. We sure as hell don’t have that now.
Allan: The difference has always seemed to me that conservatives equate ‘character’ with sex; liberals equate it with ‘public character,’ for lack of a better term. Yeah Clinton lied about sex … but that was between him and Hillary, in my view. Bush lied about war, the most solemn and seriious responsibility a President has. Big difference. And as far as the polls go, survey 5-10 percent more Republicans, you get a Republican lead. Survey numbers more indicative of actual turnout — 4-8 percent more Dems in the last three Presidential elections — and you’ll get the Democrat in the lead.
Your making my argument for me Nick. What your saying is what all democrats were saying back then, character doasn’t matter. There are more things in life then money Nick. Clinton did next to nothing about terrorism even though all the signs we blaring back in his terms. Good debate though.
Hey Allan — But during Clinton’s time, you could comfort yourself with the knowledge of huge budget surpluses, a growing economy, no disastrous war and the fact Administration knew Al-Qaeda was the major threat…
Jim, at least we live in a country where we can have these kind of debates. Now you know how most Republicans felt for eight years when Bubba was in office. It doesn’t feel good does it? Oh and by the way, there’s a new NY Times/CBS poll out that shows Bush up nine.
Oh, the previous data was courtesy of mydd.com, who obtained it from theleftcoaster.com who got it from Gallup.
Get people to the polls, and President Kerry will happen.
Guess what that nasty Gallup poll shows:
“Kerry leads Bush by ten points among independents who are registered to vote, 51-41.”
I’ll take more bad news like that.
And I like my jazz rough.
Nearly 50% of PA voters say that Bush’s moral values are closely aligned with theirs. I think I’m gonna move to another state.
It’s so frustrating to read that people think W is tougher on terror than Kerry. As I recall…now, maybe I’m wrong…but I believe 9/11 occurred during the Bush administration.
Leadership? Well, if you consider lying to people to persuade them to be leadership, then I guess Bush is your man. Bush had led 1,000 Americans to their deaths.
Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I inhabit the same country (and state) with so many nitwits. How anyone…ANYONE…can vote for W is completely beyond me. Grrrrr!