The Sacramento Bee – Opinion
As Jimmy Carter lives his final days, we wonder if he and the country were cheated | Opinion
Jack Ohman – March 27, 2023
As President Jimmy Carter lives out his final days in hospice care, America has already begun observing something of a pre-state funeral for a good man whose stature has only grown in the 42 years since he left the White House.
During Carter’s one term in office, he was labeled an “incompetent” politician by some critics, largely because 52 American diplomats and foreign service workers were taken hostage in Iran, and Carter was unable to bring them home in time to save his own presidency.
That stroke of bad luck, a terrible hand that Carter’s presidency drew, came on the heels of a recession, an energy crisis and the lingering aftermath of the Vietnam/Watergate era that dampened American patriotism. Carter, ever the honest soul, made the hostages and sagging American optimism his primary concerns, to his political detriment.
If he had been more cunning and less earnest, Carter would have played performative politics and appealed to our latent jingoism and xenophobia. That’s what Ronald Reagan did to throttle Carter at the polls in 1980.
But did Reagan have clandestine help that we never knew about until now?
It was a bitter irony that as Carter lay dying in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, a dirty story about the Iran hostages materialized out of the mists of time.
Peter Baker, the White House Bureau Chief for The New York Times, published an article on March 18 with this opening paragraph:
“It has been more than four decades, but Ben Barnes said he remembers it vividly. His longtime political mentor invited him on a mission to the Middle East. What Mr. Barnes said he did not realize until later was the real purpose of the mission: to sabotage the re-election campaign of (President Jimmy Carter).”
Barnes was a former lieutenant governor of Texas, arguably the most powerful political job in the state, and a longtime aide to the late Texas Gov. John Connally. Connally died in 1993, after surviving the assassination attempt that claimed the life of President John F. Kennedy.
When Reagan won the GOP nomination for president in 1980, Connally “resolved to help Reagan beat Carter,” and then make the case to Reagan that he should be defense secretary, wrote The New York Times.
“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,” according to The Times.
A perusal of President Carter’s memoir, “Keeping Faith,” shows no reference to Barnes, and only one derisive mention of Connally about his debate performance.
There is this poignant passage, however:
“It was very likely I had been defeated and would soon leave office as President because I had kept these hostages and their fate at the forefront of the world’s attention, and had clung to a cautious and prudent policy in order to protect their lives during the preceding fourteen months.”
I can tell you that the political milieu of October 1980 featured the oft-expressed bleatings of Republicans warning voters of a sneaky “October surprise,” orchestrated by President Carter.
Carter had ordered a hostage rescue mission in April 1980. This attempt ended tragically when a chopper hit one of the mission’s C-130 transport planes. Another chopper was about to fail, and the mission was aborted.
Of course, this tragedy was widely trumpeted by the GOP as Carter’s latest incompetent failure.
About half of the Iran hostages are still alive, and The New York Times reported on March 22 that they are divided about whether the Barnes revelations were meaningful, or whether Connally’s efforts were effective.
We’ll never know. But we know this: Jimmy Carter did his best to be an honorable president. He reached the twilight of his life at peace, unlike Barnes who shared a story with The New York Times that reeked of the opportunism and dirty politics that are all too common in our republic today. Carter was as decent a man in The White House as he was when he left the White House.
It’s why some are already shedding tears for Jimmy Carter ahead of an emotional state funeral to come.