Monday, June 21, 2004

I had a chance to read a few books on vacation. I was feeling a bit political after a brief hiatus. Here are some notes on a few books that I read (or partially read).

  • The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry, by Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute.

  • As you may have gathered from a close and careful reading of the title, this book is not exactly a love-letter to our 39th president. Still, it's more carefully considered than its feverish, Coulter-esque title indicates.

    The conventional wisdom holds that Carter is the greatest former president in the history of America, a claim that's repeated ad nauseum in the media. Carter has an image as an evangelical Christian do-gooder who campaigns for human rights around the globe.

    While the post-presidency Carter has certainly done some admirable things (such as his work with Habitat for Humanity), Hayward shows that the real Jimmy Carter is a theologically liberal, mean-spirited, meddlesome, self-promoting leftist--who's borderline treasonous to boot (as when he engaged in a letter-writing campaign asking heads of state to break from the U.S.-led coalition in Gulf War I).

    Carter, both during his presidency and after, has seldom met a dictator he wouldn't coddle. Never more has this tendency been on display than when he negotiated a disasterous treaty with North Korea (without the approval of the Clinton Administration, which was too gutless to put the brakes on him) to freeze their nuclear weapons program in exchange for two nuclear reactors--a treaty with which the communist dictatorship of North Korea never complied for even a single moment. After brokering the "deal," Carter immediately went on CNN to broadcast before even informing the Clinton Administration of the terms of the settlement, thus essentially obligating the administration to accept it.

    Hayward (despite the somewhat misleading title of the book) focuses mostly on Carter's abysmal and manifest failures as president, and the book would have been improved by a similarly in-depth focus on incidents like the Korea fiasco and its current repurcussions. But he does a good job of poking through Carter's image (bolstered by relentless media coverage and a Nobel Peace prize for which he shamelessly campaigned, and which was given to him, by the admission of one Nobel committee member, as a direct political slap in the face to the current Bush administration) to show a man who has done untold harm to oppressed people around the world through his exaltation of leftist dictatorships and totalitarian governments.

  • Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, by National Review editor Rich Lowry.

  • According to Lowry, Clinton is obsessed with his historical legacy. Ironically, though, he failed to actually leave one. While certainly not supportive of Clinton, Lowry is suprisingly fair in his account, using Clinton Administration or Democratic sources almost exclusively--in their own words--to make the most damaging points about Clinton. He's also willing to criticize his own side when appropriate, such as Newt Gingrich's tone-deaf mismanagement of the Republicans 1994 majority.

    When most people think of Clinton, they think of Monica. But even if his self-inflicted sex scandals were to magically disappear, we're still left with a paradox: Clinton was a very popular (more so than his critics like to admit), two-term president (who probably would have won a third term if it were constitutionally permissible), and yet he failed to leave behind any distinguishing policy initiative whatsoever. Clinton himself is left to trumpet his battle against impeachment attempt as his great legacy.

    Through his almost paralyzing personal indecisiveness, his governance-by-opinion-poll, and his inability to tolerate opposition, the president who was most concerned about his legacy ended up without one.

  • Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do About It, by Os Guinness.

  • Guinness, of the Trinity Forum, is a perceptive and prescient observer of evangelicalism and the culture at large. He examines the rampant anti-intellectualism that dominates the evangelical culture, diagnosing causes and suggesting solutions.

    Puritanism, the first major strain of Christianity in America, was rigorously intellectual and culturally potent. But because of the onset of pietism, pragmatism, a deep distrust of academic education and achievement, and a host of other internal influences, Christians detached from their Puritan roots. They began sitting around waiting for the "rapture" to occur and reduced interaction with culture to mere personal evangelism.

    Though these observations will not be new to those who are interested in such things, they were much-needed in 1994 when they were published, and evangelical culture is a long way from reversing the trend. It is significant that anti-intellectual American evangelicalism has failed to produce more than a few scholars or institutions of any real stature since Jonathan Edwards died nearly 250 years ago.

    The slide will continue until evangelicals begin to realize, as the great Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper did, that "there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry 'Mine!'"

    I also got a few pages into Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King, Russell Kirk's The American Cause, and Debating Calvinism by Dave Hunt and James White, but I haven't gotten far enough in any of them to say anything beyond that I'm enjoying all three of them so far.

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