To call this weekend’s New York bombing (and two other terrorist-related incidents on American soil) a potential game-changer in the ongoing US Presidential race is not necessarily exaggerating. Such events, and the way in which those hoping for power respond to them, can have an impact on public opinion; and it pays for the competing candidates to have stock responses in reserve just in case they occur. Thirty-six years ago, when President Jimmy Carter was running for a second term in office, his attempts to boost his falling ratings by staging an audacious rescue of the hostages being held at the American embassy in Tehran ended in tragic disaster and arguably cost him the Presidency as the country was won over by the untarnished Ronald Reagan.
The Georgian peanut-farmer and former Governor of his home state had swept to power in the wake of Watergate at a moment when the US was suffering from an acute decline in self-confidence; state-of-the-nation movies in that intriguing, immediate pre-‘Star Wars’ era, such as ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Network’, perfectly capture the uncertain mood of the moment in all its ugly albeit undoubtedly compelling glory. Despite being a relative unknown – and an unfashionable Southerner to boot – Jimmy Carter capitalised on the unpopularity of President Ford after his pardoning of Nixon by promising to lead the nation out of the untrustworthy darkness that had characterised the first half of the 70s and into a new era of more open and honest governance. Pardoning Vietnam draft-dodgers of the 60s on just his second day in the White House, Carter made an encouraging start, particularly in the field of foreign affairs.
Anyone who was around in this country during the late 70s will recall Jimmy Carter’s visit to the UK in 1977, and in particular the memorable diversion from the routine London meeting-and-greeting that constituted his unexpected trip to Newcastle. After the toxic legacy of Tricky Dicky and then the Presidency of a man who (to quote Lyndon Johnson) was so dumb he couldn’t ‘fart and chew gum at the same time’, Jimmy Carter seemed to be a breath of fresh air, and his overseas popularity was certainly strong, even if it couldn’t be replicated at home. His role in the building of bridges between Egypt and Israel won him considerable plaudits on the international stage, as did his joint signing of the Salt II treaty with Brezhnev, reducing the escalating arms race with the Soviet Union. Ironically, considering his success abroad, it was an event beyond America’s borders – the November 1979 capture of 52 American members of staff at the US embassy in Iran – that proved to be Carter’s undoing.
Operation Eagle Claw was the name given to the project planned as a means of releasing the US hostages from captivity in Tehran by force in April 1980. Had it succeeded, it would probably have been regarded as one of the American military’s greatest peacetime triumphs as well as a masterstroke on the part of the President that would have virtually guaranteed him a second term in office. But it didn’t. He’d already fought off a Democrat challenge from Teddy Kennedy (claiming he would ‘whip the Senator’s ass’) and then he was up against a former movie star whose Republican renaissance needed a calamitous blunder by Carter to give it the boost it required to ‘make America great again’. Funny how Republican aims always remain the same.
The Iranian Revolution of 1978/79 was the first tangible sign of Radical Islam as we know it today, and the end of the Shah’s unpleasant American-sponsored regime was marked by a new hostility towards the West (especially America) from former Middle Eastern allies. When students inspired by the Revolution took over the US embassy in Tehran, seizing 52 staff members for a period of what eventually turned out to be 444 days, American eyes turned to the President in the hope he would act. He took his time, despite the public clamour for action; and when a sequence of events contributed towards the failure of the mission to end the hostage crisis, Carter bore the brunt of the blame.
The hostages remained held against their will, whilst eight servicemen lost their lives in Operation Eagle Claw when the mission was aborted in the desert, just 52 miles from Tehran. An ill-thought-out project ended when a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft packed with fuel for the intended operation and this was when the lives were lost. It proved to be a devastating blow for Carter’s re-election ambitions as well as one for national prestige; and Reagan couldn’t have wished for a better boost to his campaign. In fact, the Ayatollah Khomeini deliberately withheld the release of the hostages until the day of Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, simply to deny Carter the credit for the belated end of their captivity. To his credit, Reagan offered his predecessor the opportunity to greet the hostages upon their return to the US, but he politely declined.
In many respects, Jimmy Carter’s post-Presidential career in the field of human rights has won him more admirers, and aged 91, he is currently the longest-retired President in US history, breaking Herbert Hoover’s long-standing record four years ago. In terms of history, however, it seems to be the failures rather than the successes that most associate with his term in the White House.
The situation in 2016 is somewhat different to 1980 in that the incumbent President isn’t seeking re-election, though Obama has given his endorsement to Hillary Clinton’s efforts to succeed him. However, Clinton’s recent health problems have served to momentarily stall her campaign, with a renewed terrorist assault on New York just a week after the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 the last thing she needed. Donald Trump’s ignorant willingness to play into the hands of ISIS by proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the US received a gift with the latest (mercifully failed) attempts at claiming American lives in the name of Allah, though his uncompromising reaction to the bombing has been utterly predictable and precisely what his supporters wanted to hear.
It is too early in the campaign to discern how much of an impact these events will have upon it, though Trump’s hardline approach is precisely the kind of rhetoric many in America welcome; that Clinton is prepared to dredge up her time as Secretary of State in relation to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden (presumably proving she’s not ‘soft’ on Radical Islam) is perhaps a measure of how far both candidates are prepared to go when it comes to exploiting an incident that is being promoted within the US media as more a case of what could have happened than what actually did.
© The Editor