It was the first hint of things to come, and it did not bode well.
President-elect Jimmy Carter, over the objections of everyone from the AFL-CIO to conservative Democratic Senators (think Robert Byrd), had just nominated former JFK speechwriter and noted liberal Theodore Sorensen to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Democrats, flush with their first presidential victory in twelve years were suddenly divided, appalled and decidedly angry — at each other.
It was December, 1976.
What could the new president possibly be thinking? All of the tons of positive press, the absolute glow that surrounded the Man from Plains, the ex-Naval officer and successful Georgia businessman/farmer who had just defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford, was suddenly being turned upside down. Before Carter had even been sworn in there were worried whispers about his competence, the startling revelation of a decided and previously unnoticed tendency to left wing politics.
Sorensen, famous as JFK’s alter ego, had emerged from JFK’s shadow in the thirteen year since the President’s death. His emergence startled. Sorensen, in the words of one Democratic Senator as quoted in the New York Times, had shown himself to have a “pacifist background.” His background as a conscientious objector, ignored when he was simply a speechwriter, was now front page news. Conservative leader Barry Goldwater was outraged at the thought that a pacifist would head the CIA, and in spite of the fact Democrats controlled the Senate he was not alone.
Jimmy Carter would not back down from his choice. “Carter Stands Firm, Supports Sorensen As Director of CIA” proclaimed the supportive front page of the Times. The stand-off went on for weeks. Conservative Democrats went after Carter’s choice as the incarnation of “radical chic.” The domestically liberal but foreign policy conservative AFL-CIO head Lane Kirkland, who would later play a role as an ally of the Polish anti-Communist union Solidarity during the Reagan era, was appalled. Labor union leaks sprung like a sieve, tying Sorensen to left-wing activist Jane Fonda.
Still, like Pelosi and her support of Murtha, Carter refused to abandon his first choice. The end was an unhappy one for the new president, the end coming after his inaugural. Senate Democrats, including Senators Byrd, Biden and Inouye, forced an end to Sorensen’s CIA appointment. Carter moved on to Admiral Stansfield Turner, who was confirmed.
But the episode sent chills down the Democratic Party leadership of the day, and with reason. The Sorensen episode turned out to be an introduction to a presidency that became the historical embodiment of weakness in the presidency. Almost without a pause, Carter kept whirling on as one of the most self-destructive leaders in the history of any modern political party on the planet. His cardigan-sweater television appearance had a President of the United States proclaiming an energy policy that begged a nation of can-do Americans to give up their freedom to heat their own home. Then there was the plaintive bleat about Americans having an “inordinate fear” of Communism. The kiss on Soviet leader Brezhnev’s cheek. The shock that after that kiss the Communist leader would — really!!! — invade Afghanistan. Towards the end was the infamous “malaise” speech, in which the President blamed America’s troubles on — Americans. That was even too much for a disgusted Ted Kennedy, who promptly challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination. The last straw was the Iranian hostage crisis, Carter’s kowtowing to Islamic radicals who called him — yes, Jimmy Carter! — the Great Satan. Finally, on the morning of the Wisconsin primary, there was the abysmal failure of the Desert One “rescue” attempt of the hostages.
By November of 1980, shocked Democrats were staring at the precursor of Red America — a 44 state Reagan win over Carter, the Senate turnover to the GOP after over two decades.
There is a reason for the unsettled reaction of Democrats not only at Pelosi’s backing of Murtha, but her apparent imminent support of the once-impeached Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings to be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Rank and file Democrats rallied to Pelosi’s nemesis, Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, over Murtha as Majority Leader. But just as Democrats were unable to stem one Carter disaster after another they now face another dilemma. Will they — can they — prevent the promotion to one of the most sensitive positions in the War on Terror to a man earlier Democrats decided was, essentially, a crook worthy of impeachment?
The Carter experience is instructive here. Regardless of what increasingly uncomfortable Democrats did or said as the Carter presidency unrolled — or unraveled — they found themselves confronted with a leader who personified a deadly combination. Jimmy Carter proved to be both weak yet unstoppable within the rank and file of Democratic activists. Salivating at the prospect of a supposedly “extremist” Reagan candidacy, Democrats to this day are reeling under the devastating impact of Carter’s presidency and his uncanny ability to make one bad personnel and policy choice after another.
As Democrats stagger forth after abruptly overruling their new leader’s choice of Jack Murtha, Nancy Pelosi’s Ted Sorensen, they are clearly beginning to look at the soon-to-be reality of Speaker Pelosi and shudder at the realization they have are about to have a Carter-like Speakership.
One awaits the mantra of Democratic disaster to emerge from the past of the 2000 election as the Pelosi-sponsored Alcee Hastings gets his moment in the sun, a mantra that no doubt already has Karl Rove chuckling.
The Pelosi legacy begins.
Jeffrey Lord is the author of The Borking Rebellion. A former Reagan White House political director, he is now a writer in Pennsylvania.