Carter in Cuba

Ex-presidents devote themselves to a variety of pursuits upon leaving the world’s most powerful office. Gerald Ford and George Bush (41) focused on private pursuits and enjoying their families, especially their grandchildren. For excitement, Ford plays golf and Bush jumps out of planes. Nixon spent most of his ex- presidency enduring the shame of resignation and writing books on foreign policy desperately trying to achieve the status of elder statesman. Unfortunately, the oldest American to leave the presidency, Ronald Reagan, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan is on, what he described as “the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.” It is too soon to say definitively how Clinton, who has many years ahead of him, will spend his post-presidency years. They only certainty is that he will earn a lot of money. Because of his charitable work on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, Carter has often been held up as the best ex-president. In 1980, the country was obviously convinced that this was an apt role for Carter so they hastened his transition with a landside vote intended to make Carter an ex-president.

Carter also has the annoying habit of complicating the foreign policy of his successors by independently consulting with foreign leaders. Cavorting with despots is Carter’s particularly favorite activity. He apparently believes that others are enlightened by the beacon of his own virtue.

Carter’s recent trip to Casto’s Cuba is illustrative. On balance, Carter’s trip was probably salutary. He met with and encouraged dissident groups and emphasized America’s commitment to freedom and democracy. He gave an address at the University of Havana that was broadcast on Cuban state-controlled radio and television. To his credit, Carter delivered his address in Spanish.

Nonetheless, the opportunity to give such an address is rare. Measured against what could have been, Carter’s speech was a disappointment. It is not that Carter’s speech was a bad or inappropriate one, but rather that it could have been so much better, so much more memorable, and so much more important.

Carter’s tone was one of moral equivalency between the world’s dominant democracy and an island ruled by a thug. Americans may be freer, but heck, Cubans are lucky enough to have socialized medicine. It is sort of like arguing that Hitler may have had some human rights problems, but gee, the trains ran on time. Carter believes in a variant of the “I’m OK, you’re OK” foreign policy. Carter worried that Americans and Cubans suffered a “misunderstanding,” as if our differences are minor and inconsequential.

Contrast this speech with a speech given at Moscow State University in 1988 by Ronald Reagan. While in his speech Carter dutifully mentioned human rights violations, Ronald Reagan explained how political and economic freedoms were not just another choice, but essential to the dignity of man. While in Cuba, Carter described how Americans are free to start their own businesses. Reagan made heroes out of entrepreneurs by calling them “explorers of the modern era…with courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown.” Carter extended the hand of friendship to the Cubans. Reagan directed the Soviets to a higher calling hoping that “freedom…will blossom forth …in the rich fertile soil of your people and culture.”

It is not so much that Reagan employed soaring rhetoric and powerful imagery while Carter’s language was more pedestrian. There is something more fundamentally different. Carter is apologetic about America. Reagan saw America as a “shining city on a hill.” Reagan always sought to be as good a president as his country deserved. Carter sought to make his country as good as he perceived himself to be. Reagan believed in America, Carter believes in his own rectitude. In his righteousness, Carter squandered a unique opportunity to call Cubans to freedom and to make a powerful demand for Castro to free his people. It is unfortunate that Carter delivered such a forgettable speech.

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