I recently wrote about President Carter’s “superiority” complex, where I objected to the former president’s rather conceited claim of “superior” ex-presidential service, as measured (by himself) against other ex-presidents.
Yet, there’s an important area where I’d like to defend President Carter. Carter hasn’t had many defenders on this score, given that he dared to criticize a political saint to Democrats, the late senator Ted Kennedy.
In recent comments to CBS’s Leslie Stahl, Carter blasted Kennedy, blaming him for the Carter administration’s inability to pass a national “health plan.” Carter described Kennedy as “irresponsible and abusive.” “The fact is that we would have had comprehensive health care now,” Carter told Stahl, “had it not been for Ted Kennedy’s deliberately blocking the legislation that I proposed in 1978 or ‘79…. It was his fault. Ted Kennedy killed the bill.”
When Stahl asked Carter if he felt Kennedy did this “just to spite you,” Carter didn’t equivocate: “That’s the implication. He did not want to see me have a major success in that realm of American life.”
Carter pointed to political motivations by Kennedy: “I felt like he went after me. I was the incumbent president…. He decided that he was going to replace me as a Democratic president.”
I understand Carter’s point, and his suspicions. In fact, this wasn’t the only realm where Kennedy opposed Carter. The rest of the story is far more disturbing.
According to Vasiliy Mitrokhin, a KGB official and senior Soviet archivist who defected from Russia in 1992, bringing with him a huge cache of documents, Kennedy went after Carter on more than healthcare.
Specifically, on March 5, 1980, Kennedy reached out to Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev, via a message personally delivered in Moscow by Kennedy’s close friend and confidante, John Tunney, the former Democratic senator from California. According to Mitrokhin, Tunney was there “to relay [Kennedy’s] ideas on ways to lessen international tension to the Soviet leadership.”
What tensions? That’s the shocker: In Mitrokhin’s account, Kennedy, amazingly, blamed the escalation in Cold War tensions not on the Soviets but on Jimmy Carter. Mind you, this was mere weeks after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, their first direct military intervention outside the Warsaw Pact since World War II.
“[T]he Carter administration was trying to distort the peace-loving ideas behind Brezhnev’s proposals,” argued Kennedy, in Mitrokhin’s words, with “the atmosphere of tension and hostility ... being fuelled by Carter.” The Carter White House was “feeding public opinion with nonsense about ‘the Soviet military threat’ and Soviet ambitions for military expansion.”
Yes, the Massachusetts senator had somehow concluded that Jimmy Carter was guilty of belligerence and that Leonid Brezhnev was committed to peace, including a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan—which the Red Army had just invaded and would bomb mercilessly for a decade. Ted Kennedy ensured that the Soviets heard his unique conclusion, delivered by a personal liaison.
The KGB itself concluded that some of Kennedy’s “proposals are acceptable to us … as they contradict the line taken by Carter and other politicians.”
What’s so especially remarkable about this incident is that it occurred precisely the time that Kennedy was challenging Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. More so, Carter was far and away the weakest, most naïve of our presidents when it came to the Cold War. He trusted the communists to an unhealthy degree.
That fatal mistrust is best captured by the June 1979 photo of President Carter kissing Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev at the Vienna Summit. (See the photo on the cover of my latest book.) Six months after that kiss, Brezhnev betrayed the devout Christian from Plains, Georgia, sending his Red Army into Afghanistan. Carter got the awful news as he was celebrating Christmas with his family in the White House.
Only the most peculiar observer would consider blaming the escalation in Cold War tensions on Jimmy Carter rather than the Soviets.
Behold, one such observer was Senator Ted Kennedy. And Kennedy wasn’t shy about letting the Soviets know his feelings—right smack in the middle of the Democratic presidential primaries.
Personally, I’m not surprised by this at all. Kennedy did a similar thing to Ronald Reagan in May 1983. (Click here.) Of course, Reagan was a Republican; Carter was Kennedy’s own political flesh and blood.
Alas, it’s interesting that the media now, today, is giving attention to a Carter-Kennedy spat over government healthcare, whereas there was an even deeper, more troubling rift over foreign policy. Healthcare is one thing, but reaching out to the Soviet leadership at the height of the Cold War—and during a heated election campaign—is something else entirely.
If President Carter still feels spited by Ted Kennedy, he has good reason.