by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & any studies have concluded that most American voters couldn't pass a freshman-level American government examination. From what I've seen over 40 years of teaching freshman about American government, this is certainly the case. Uninformed voters base their choices not so much on knowledge or awareness, or even experience -- rather, they choose based on impressions most often derived from symbols that have been chosen for effect and manipulated accordingly. What I find so troubling isn't bias as much as it is commercialization and pack journalism. Barack Obama has been dubbed by the media as "exotic" -- whatever that means -- and you see this characterization over and over again. That's pack journalism.
Or why was it that the press corps treated Al Gore so badly while giving George W a pass in 2000? Well, it turned out that Dubya just made better copy; the writers thought him more fun to be around. Lost was any sense of who George W really was. That was pack journalism.
And alas, it was not until after the election of 2000 that the public learned of Bush's impulsiveness, his lack of curiosity, his general intellectual laziness, his limited and highly impressionable worldview, the role of his religion on policy choices. The uninformed but willing voter heard not much about any of this.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & N & lt;/span & o president was distorted more than Jimmy Carter. To be fair, his piety and, for want of a better term, "neurotic morselizing" (Carter had a fetish for detail) set him up. The press finds piety annoying and morselizing boring. So Jimmy Carter was viewed as a dismal president, a president who was naive about foreign affairs, who favored big government and lots of regulation, who got sandbagged by the Soviets in Afghanistan. He was seen as the president personally responsible for the Iranian hostage saga (made all the more indelible by the ABC program America Held Hostage, on every night at 11, complete with a day counter). Then came Reagan, and the media attributed to Reagan the fall of the USSR, deregulation and the end of inflation. Well, today, almost 30 years later, we know that the public perceptions of Jimmy Carter were, for the most part, badly distorted.
Today we know that Carter and his administration didn't at all miss the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- they provoked it. For six months prior to the Soviet invasion, the CIA had secretly been sending arms to the Mujahadeen. And, according to plan, this 10-year Soviet misadventure was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
Here's an excerpt from a 1998 interview that Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, gave to a French publication:
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn't believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don't regret anything today?
ZB: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap, and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, 'We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.' Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Q: And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
ZB: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & C & lt;/span & arter also took much bad press over his statement that the national energy crisis was "the moral equivalent of war" -- symbolic of the big government that Carter was supposed to want. Turns out he was right on this as well. Auto fuel efficiency did improve under Carter -- it has gone the other way since he left office. Reagan gave our shining city on a hill the SUV.
Carter was judged by the press to be weak on defense, and it is true that his administration was charged with a post-Vietnam drawdown. To maintain readiness in the face of budget cuts, Harold Brown, Carter's Defense Secretary, made the call to invest in "smart weapons" -- expensive, but not so labor intensive. We now know that the weapons used in Gulf War I were developed during the Carter term, not during the Reagan years.
Or consider deregulation. It became all the rage during the '80s; but it was Carter who launched the campaign, not Reagan. The airline deregulation act was proposed by Carter and signed into law in 1978.
Carter was also blamed for inflation, yet he inherited this problem from President Ford, who inherited it from the post-Vietnam economy. Remember those buttons: WIN (Whip Inflation Now)? They were minted during the Ford years, not the Carter years. And who ended inflation? Paul Volker, the tough-minded Federal Reserve chairman, and Reagan got the credit. But it was Carter who appointed Volker (who is today advising Barack Obama).
By failing to look carefully into the facts and by failing to distinguish the important from the trivial, the media leaves our uninformed-but-willing American public out in the dark, vulnerable to the symbol manipulators, panderers and demagogues. And that's an especially serious problem when the electorate isn't that well informed in the first place.