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Jonathan Chait reflects on Gerald Ford

Tuesday, January 2, 2007
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HH: What better way to start a new year of broadcast than with one of our favorite lefty radicals from the New Republic, Jonathan Chait, also a Los Angeles Times columnist. Happy New Year, Jonathan.

JC: Happy New Year to you, too, my favorite right-wing, radical nut.

HH: What’s your resolution this year? To get one or two things right? (laughing)

JC: You know, when am I going to start being wrong? It’s just boring being right all the time. It’s tiresome.

HH: Well, we’ll start with your column on Sunday’s Los Angeles Times – When Ford Lost, So Did Dems. First, I’ve got to ask. Are you a fatalist, Jonathan? Does stuff happen? Do leaders matter, and their decisions matter?

JC: Sometimes they matter, and sometimes they don’t.

HH: Because it seems to me in this column you’re arguing that the 70’s would have happened regardless of whether or not Ford or Carter were president for those four years.

JC: That’s correct. Yes, I believe, as do most economists, that…well, it depends on what part of the 70’s you’re talking…I mean, the 70’s would have happened, yes, it would have been the 70’s no matter what.

HH: I’m not talking Captain and Tennille. I’m talking broad…

JC: It still would have been the 70’s. I mean, it wouldn’t have been 1984, it wouldn’t have been 1913.

HH: Was Jimmy Carter at all responsible for the stagflation that occurred in the 70’s?

JC: At worst, he was responsible around the margins. But fundamentally, no one could have changed that from happening. No, that’s what most economists believe. They believe that we suffered oil shocks as the basic cause. You had rising levels of international competition that adversely affected the American economy, et cetera.

HH: So would have Khomenei have happened with or without Carter?

JC: Yes, I believe he would have happened…Yes, I believe there would have been a revolution in Iran, even if Gerald Ford was president, yes.

HH: And the Soviets would have gone into Afghanistan, regardless if it was Carter or Ford?

JC: Yes, I believe that, yes.

HH: And so, did Carter…

JC: I don’t believe…yes…go on.

HH: Did Carter matter at all?

JC: Well, you know, yes, he mattered, but I don’t think he would have prevented those large, fundamental events from happening, no. To say that he couldn’t have prevented those things from happening doesn’t mean he didn’t matter. But you know, yes, I think those things would have happened anyway. Some presidents are more consequential than others. I think Carter is relatively an inconsequential president, compared…you know, every president is consequential. He was probably less consequential than most.

HH: And to the proposition that the marginal income tax rate of 70% in those years, and to massive runaway spending on the part of a Democratic Congress led by a Democratic president, and to the idea of indifference to the Shah’s fall, and…

JC: Carter was relatively parsimonious with the budget, and his deficits were much smaller than the ones under Ronald Reagan.

HH: Oh, absolutely true about that, but I am saying that if the marginal tax rate had come down as Reagan brought it down, if Carter had sought to revive the economy, we might not have had stagflation.

JC: Well no, because look, we had a roaring economy in the years after World War II under Eisnhower, under Kennedy, and the top marginal tax rate was 91% under Eisenhower, and it was 70% after Kennedy. So to say that those things were killing the economy, I think, is a-historical.

HH: No, I just think Carter did kill the economy, and Reagan brought it back from the brink, and that’s what happened.

JC: Well, why did he kill the economy? He didn’t raise taxes.

HH: He didn’t cut them. It requires leadership. If something’s broke, and you’ve got to fix it, 70% marginal was killing us.

JC: Then how come we had such a fast economy during the 50’s and 60’s?

HH: Different set of circumstances, different set of time. But when you’ve got inflation and no growth, you’ve got to get growth going. John F. Kennedy cut taxes in 1962, and the result was tremendous.

JC: To 70%. Why were we able to thrive under that 70% tax rate?

HH: Because people suddenly had an incentive to go out and work harder, because they were going to keep more. And then after that incentive wore off, they had to be incentivized again.

JC: Oh, so your view is you just have to keep cutting taxes, basically perpetually?

HH: You betcha.

JC: It works for a while, but you need to cut some more…

HH: It worked all through the Bush years.

JC: So eventually…you’re going to have to cut taxes down to zero, eventually, right?

HH: I would love to replace everything with a sales tax, you bet. Jonathan, I want to get to the other part about Ford, though.

JC: Okay.

HH: You admit that you were four when Ford was unelected, in some respects.

JC: Fully confessed to having been four in 1976.

HH: All right. So…

JC: I plead guilty.

HH: So there are some statements here about him, and I was a big admirer, and worked for the president on the campaign trail in 1976, because I’m an old guy, Ford emerged as a critic of the religious right, you wrote here.

JC: Yes.

HH: When did that happen?

JC: When did that happen? It happened over the last, what, ten, fifteen years. Do you want me…I mean, if you want to pause this segment, and have me go look something up and get back five minutes later…

HH: No, just send it to me. I just never saw it. I’m unfamiliar with it, and so if you’ll send it to me, I just never saw him as a critic of the religious right.

JC: You know, if you want…again, you want to pause this program and have me spend five or ten minutes on Google or Nexus, I’ll do that.

HH: No, no, no. Just send it to me anyway. We can’t pause for technical reason.

JC: Okay.

HH: How about advocate of political reforms?

JC: Yeah, he was always running around with Jimmy Carter, talking about the need for election reforms. He was…what other political reforms was he for? Campaign finance reform, he was always on those good government, left, right sort of panels.

HH: Again, I don’t recall that. I did a couple of events with Gerry Ford, and he was usually pretty robust in his defense of whichever Republican was in. He was a big Reagan fan. He was a big fan of…

JC: You think at the time he was partisan?

HH: …of W., and so political reforms…again, I’d love the record here. Now what I want to get to is, his recently released comments…

JC: I would consider voting reform to be political reform, wouldn’t you?

HH: Well, you wrote, “In his post-presidential career, Ford emerged as a critic of the religious right, and an advocate of political reforms, both of which placed him far to the left of today’s GOP.”

JC: Right.

HH: He was not far to the left of today’s GOP. He was absolutely the embodiment of today’s GOP…

JC: Hang on. Voting reform is political reform, do you agree?

HH: Yes.

JC: Okay, campaign finance reform is political reform.

HH: Of a wholly misguided and misshapen form.

JC: Correct.

HH: But yes…

JC: Right, exactly. It’s far to the left of today’s Republican Party.

HH: And I don’t recall Gerry being for McCain-Feingold. I could be wrong. I’m just saying…

JC: Okay, I can’t say I’m 100% on that. I’m about 90% sure that Ford was for that, and was, you know, you have a few people who are always like the token Republicans on those groups that came out in favor of those things.

HH: But are you 70 or 60 or 50% on the religious right critic stuff?

JC: I’m 90.

HH: You’re 90.

JC: Yeah.

HH: Boy, you know, if I’m going to write for the L.A. Times, I’d be 100 on those. But in any event, I want to get to this part…

JC: You’re probably right. You’re probably right.

HH: His recently released comments criticizing the Iraq war…made in a 2004 interview, but embargoed until after his death, show how alien he found the current president’s reckless foreign policy. Are you referring to the Woodward interview?

JC: Yeah.

HH: Do you believe Bob Woodward?

JC: Yeah.

HH: Do you believe Bob Woodward when he interviewed Casey at his deathbed, too?

JC: I don’t know.

HH: Have you seen a transcript of this interview yet?

JC: The full transcript? No. I’ve only seen newspaper articles about it.

HH: And so, do you really know what he thought about the war? Because he just appeared with the President a couple of weeks ago. He never spoke out in public about this, and was generally supportive of the invasion, as far as I can recall. You’re basing…

JC: As far as you can recall?

HH: All you’ve got is Woodward.

JC: Now wait a second. Whoa. Hey, wait a second. How…as far as you can recall? Well, point to something specific. I mean, you’re asking me to point to something specific.

HH: Yeah, but I didn’t write the column. You wrote the column.

JC: Right.

HH: You wrote the column that said that the Woodward interview shows how alien he found the current President’s reckless foreign policy.

JC: You’re…on the one side, we’ve got something he was quoted as saying to one of America’s leading newspaper reporters against your vague recollection.

HH: Well, no. You wrote how alien…

JC: You said well, that doesn’t square with my vague recollection. Well, I’m sorry…

HH: Wait a minute…how alien he found the current President’s reckless foreign policy. Did he say he found President Bush’s policy alien and reckless?

JC: That’s a fair characterization of his remarks to Bob Woodward.

HH: What did he say to Bob Woodward?

JC: Do I have the remarks from him? No. He criticized the war.

HH: Yeah, but that doesn’t…

JC: Do we have to pause this and look up again? Because you know, this is a circumstance where it’s hard to debate someone who lives in an entirely parallel universe where newspaper reporters make things up and we can’t really take anything as fact.

HH: Well, Woodward does make things up. I mean, we know that. Don’t you agree with me he makes stuff up?

JC: Woodward?

HH: Yes.

JC: No.

HH: Well, many people do. Thomas Edsall thinks he made up the CIA thing with Bill Casey. You’re not buying that one, are you?

JC: You know, I don’t know.

HH: Okay, take it from Tom on that one. Let me go back here. Ford comes through as an innocuous figure, but you say the pardon was a pretty rotten act. Why was the pardon a rotten act?

JC: You know, I’ve gone back and forth about that one, but I think it wasn’t an appropriate way to deal with some fairly serious crimes that Nixon committed. I think Nixon probably should have had to, you know, face, you know, more investigation and sanctions for some pretty serious stuff he did as president.

HH: Did you approve of the recapture of the Mayaguez? Unilateral use of force without consulting Congress?

JC: Yeah.

HH: Okay, good. That’s progress. How about this? “And a Democrat probably would have won the presidency in 1980,” you wrote. Which Democrat?

JC: Well, I think most Democrats would have one. It depended on who they nominated, of course.

HH: But of course, he had a contender in 1980, for the nomination.

JC: In Ted Kennedy.

HH: Ted Kennedy.

JC: Right.

HH: So I would have to assume it would have been Teddy, don’t you think?

JC: Who knows?

HH: Well, that would have been good for the country, right?

JC: You know, well, Ted Kennedy didn’t get through the Democratic nomination in 1980, granted an sitting president.

HH: Incumbent president with a hostage crisis on his hands.

JC: Nonetheless.

HH: How’d he handle the hostage crisis, by the way? Carter?

JC: How did Carter handle the hostage crisis?

HH: Yeah. Was he responsible for that?

JC: You know, he wasn’t responsible for the fact that Iranians took our embassy hostage, no.

HH: What are presidents responsible for, Jonathan? Honestly, if he gets away with inflation, he’s not responsible for Khomenei, doesn’t have to get them out of the embassy, not about the Afghans coming…

JC: Wait, are you saying that, like foreign…so then, is Bush responsible for September 11th? Because you know, I agree…

HH: Of course not. Only his response to events.

JC: Right. But the fact is…

HH: He is responsible for our not having been attacked…

JC: Right, but the fact that it happened is not Carter’s fault, right? Are you saying the fact that our embassy was taken hostage is Carter’s fault?

HH: Absolutely, it was his fault. Absolutely. He…

JC: Not just his response, but the fact that it happened was his fault?

HH: You know, if you convey the sort of weakness Jimmy Carter embodied, that’s the sort of response that comes back. Jonathan, I hope you have a healthy and a happy 2007, and that you will join me early and often on the Hugh Hewitt Show, because I love your columns. I really do. I’m enChaitmented with them.

End of interview.

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