A quarter of a century has passed since 44 states said "No, thanks" to Jimmy Carter's offer to serve a second term, yet he still evidently thinks his loss is explained not by foreign policy debacles, such as invading Iran with eight helicopters, and a misery index -- inflation plus unemployment -- of 22, almost triple today's index. Rather, he seems to think approximately this:
Ronald Reagan won because he won the only debate. He won it not because of Carter's debate performance ("I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry . . .") but only because Reagan had Carter's briefing book. And Reagan had it because this columnist gave it to him.
That last accusation, for which there is no evidence, is, as he has been told, false. But he is a recidivist fibber. Last Oct. 21, on National Public Radio, he said: "We found out later that one of Ronald Reagan's supporters inside the White House had stolen my briefing book, my top-secret briefing book that prepared me for the debate. And a very prominent news reporter was the one who took the briefing book to Ronald Reagan and helped drill him on the things that I might say if he said certain things." Asked who that reporter was, Carter replied, "It was George Will, and it was later known that he did that."
But one cannot know what isn't so, and "top secret" is a government classification inapplicable to campaign fodder. Still, Carter continues to retail -- and to embroider -- his fable. Recently in a Plains, Ga., church, he illustrated his aptitude for the virtue of forgiveness by saying that once, after columnist Will read a report of his telling his briefing book tale, Will wrote to him "asking for forgiveness."
Well. The only letter I ever wrote to Carter was in response to one he wrote to me on Oct. 29, 1993. His letter began: "For a number of years I have felt some resentment toward you because of the reports that you either knew about or actually used my personal briefing book in preparing Reagan for our campaign debates [sic]." He added:
"Because of this feeling, and despite my lifetime interest in baseball, I even refrained from reading your 'Men at Work.' Recently, in order to learn how to be a better Braves fan next year, I spent $1 in a used bookstore for the book, and really enjoyed it.
"Even if the news stories about the debate incident are true, I feel that we are even now.
My Nov. 10 reply was untainted by any request for forgiveness:
"Dear President Carter:
"I am delighted that you have at long last overcome your repugnance and given yourself the pleasure of 'Men at Work.' I am distressed, as I suspect you naughtily knew I would be, to learn that this masterwork was found in a used bookstore. That is more evidence of the decline of Western civilization."
Then, to the point:
"Regarding your briefing book, I will tell you what I have told many others. When I got to David Stockman's house on the day he was preparing to play the role of you in the debate preparations, he had on his kitchen table what I gather was the briefing book. I do not know how he got it; more to the point, I do not know who thought having it would be helpful. Frankly, you deserved better. My cursory glance at it convinced me that it was a crashing bore and next to useless -- for you, or for anyone else."
Even though, as a columnist, my support for Reagan was well-known, my participation in his debate preparation was as inappropriate as it was superfluous -- after three decades of public advocacy, Reagan was ready. And speaking of the inappropriate:
The role of ex-president requires a grace and restraint notably absent from Carter. See, for example, his criticism of the United States when he is abroad, as in England two weeks ago. Having made such disappointing history as president, Carter as ex-president should at least refrain from disseminating a historical falsehood.
So strong, however, is the human impulse to believe comforting myths that Carter probably will continue to promulgate the fiction that I gave Reagan the utterly unimportant briefing book, thereby catalyzing the 1980 landslide. But to be fair: As a candidate, Carter promised only that as president he would never tell a lie, thereby leaving himself a loophole for his post-presidential career as a fabulist.