Jimmy Carter (3125 words)

  • David C. Dougherty (Loyola University Maryland)

Over more than two centuries, American Presidents have run the gamut from the very able to borderline incompetent. Some have increased the prestige of the office; others have diminished it. Very few, however, have brought dignity and gravitas to the office itself after they left it. And none has done so to the degree of the thirty-ninth president, Jimmy Carter. Twenty-two years after he lost his campaign for re-election, President Carter's exemplary devotion to peace, justice, and human dignity was recognized by his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor no American president had achieved since Woodrow Wilson (1919) and Theodore Roosevelt (1906). In 1980 a repudiated national leader, Carter emerged from devastating political and personal defeat to manifest the very best in American politics, and to take his place in history as a widely honored statesman and world leader.

The path to Stockholm began inauspiciously in Plains, Georgia, on October 1, 1924. James Earl and Bessie Lillian Carter's eldest son was named after his father, but throughout his adult life he represented himself as a man of the people, taking his oaths of office as Governor of Georgia, then as President, as “Jimmy Carter” to the chagrin of many American traditionalists. As a child, he learned about peanut farming and public service, always in the shadow of the Baptist Church in which his family was active. He won a Senatorial appointment to the United States Naval academy, from which he graduated in 1946, the year he married Rosalyn Smith Carter. As a naval officer, Carter served in the submarine fleet, by 1951 as a senior officer. The following year, he was accepted into Admiral Hyman Rickover's nuclear submarine program, and as a trained nuclear physicist was dispatched to the meltdown of a Canadian nuclear reactor. Within another year, he was on the command staff of the U.S.S. Seawolf, one of America's first nuclear submarines.

By this time, the Carter family was enriched by three sons (their only daughter, born much later, was a child during the White House years), but Carter's father died in 1953, and Jimmy Carter ended his naval career to return to Georgia where he took over the family business. For almost a decade his dedication to detail, innovation, and business sense prospered that enterprise, but the itch for public service overcame him by 1962 when he ran successfully for State Senator. The original tally had Carter losing by more than 100 votes, but with a tenacity that marked his presidential campaign, he demanded a recount, which showed that he won by just under 1000 votes. Three years later, Carter lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary, vowing to run again in 1970. During 1965, he experienced, under the guidance of his evangelical sister Ruth, a religious conversion. From that time forward, he has styled himself a “born-again Christian”, often teaching Sunday school in a Washington, D.C. church while he was President.

True to his word, he campaigned again for Governor in 1970, winning a narrow Democratic primary, and subsequently solidly overcoming his Republican opponent. Georgia elected arch-segregationist demagogue Lester Maddox, a former governor, as lieutenant governor, and the two men could not work well together, Maddox representing the old-style Southern segregationist Democrat, Carter the emerging progressive, pragmatic leader. In 1971, his photograph appeared on the cover of Time magazine (U.S.) over an essay touting this new type of Southern leader – but two years later, when Gov. Carter was a guest on the popular television show What's My Line, none of the panelists was able to guess his job – an indication of the gap between the new progressive tradition that would bring Carter and later William Clinton to power, and the public's level of awareness of national trends.

Carter's was an outstanding state administration. His efforts to end racial discrimination and to re-organize state government to increase efficiency and to place limits on political patronage succeeded beyond even optimistic expectations. As a model of the new southern Democrat, Carter played a part in the 1972 party convention, where he lobbied unsuccessfully behind the scenes to serve as running mate to the eventual nominee, George McGovern. He was subsequently appointed by Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to serve on the Trilateral Commission, charged with bringing together Western European, North American, and Japanese leaders. He was also appointed Democratic national Campaign Chairman in 1973.

Now firmly on the national radar, Carter announced his candidacy for President long before the 1976 election. Despite formidable opposition within the liberal democratic establishment, the dark horse candidate from the south mounted a grass-roots campaign, meeting mill workers and farmers at their places of work, addressing the anxieties of an America recovering from the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration, the failing economy of the Nixon years, and the Vietnam war that dismantled the myth of American military invincibility. Carter focused his campaign on human rights, economic opportunity, energy conservation, and restoring honor and credibility to the White House. Surprisingly, he won the Iowa caucuses, then primaries in New Hampshire, Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin – demonstrating the national appeal of his laid-back style and his message of hope and responsible government. He accepted the party's nomination, and with vice presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale (Minnesota) won the popular vote over incumbent Gerald R. Ford by slightly more than two per cent, and the Electoral College by 57 votes.

Inauguration day 1977 introduced a new informality in American politics, one that characterized the Carter administration. Taking the presidential oath as “Jimmy” Carter, the new president's optimistic inaugural address promised renewal of faith in the office, with a government which would be “both competent and compassionate as the American people are.” He promised to work for international peace and domestic energy independence. After the speech, President and Mrs. Carter left the presidential limousine to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, once more representing himself as a president of the people, not a leader above them. Within two weeks, he addressed the nation on foreign policy, wearing a cardigan sweater rather than the business suits of presidents before and since, once more emphasizing his status as ‘a man of the people'. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in another national crisis, Carter used radio and television to meet directly with the electorate; his cardigan chats were the contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt's famous fireside conversations. He made himself more available for press conferences and public appearances than most presidents in American history before or since.

These auspicious beginnings were undermined by three events. On his second day in office, Carter officially pardoned most Vietnam draft dodgers. This attempt to heal the wounds of a disastrous war angered conservatives from both political parties. Within six months, he cut funding for the development of B-52 bombers, which threatened to alienate those politicians closely involved with the military. Then, in September, budget director and close personal friend Bert Lance was summoned before a Senate panel to answer charges of misappropriating resources for personal gain. The Lance scandal dragged on for six months, undermining the high moral ground on which Carter took office, and Lance's eventual resignation was taken by the president's political enemies as proof of administration misconduct.

While these firefights raged, the administration was making great progress on many fronts. Congress approved Carter's initiative for a cabinet-level Department of Energy, designed to encourage alternative fuels and conservation. Had Congress acted on, and subsequent administrations heeded, the Carter initiatives on energy, it is likely that the United States would be much less dependent on foreign petroleum resources than in 1978 (rather than more), and the impact on global economies and military/political alliances would be great. He also was pro-active in saving the Social Security Administration from a twenty-first century crisis, another initiative undermined by subsequent administrations.

His greatest achievement contained some of the seeds of his fall from power. Recognizing that peace in the Middle East was a national and international goal as well as a moral imperative, Carter initiated contacts with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli premier Menachem Begin. These led eventually to a weekend at a Maryland presidential retreat for the world leaders, which in turn produced the Camp David Accords, a blueprint for peace between Israel and Egypt, who had fought wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973. For this achievement, Begin and Sadat received the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. Although the guiding spirit of Camp David and the single-handed broker of the agreement, Carter would have to wait more than two decades. And although the Middle East remains a cauldron of war and terror, Egypt and Israel have respected their agreement. Moreover, Egypt has resisted the temptation to join the chorus of anti-Israel agitation that persists today. But Middle East demagogues, committed to the old ways of war and terror, declared jihad on the signers of the accord, one promising to cut off the hands that signed the agreement. President Sadat was assassinated by fundamentalists in 1981.

A more devious fate had overtaken his friend Carter. In October 1979, the ailing despot, the Shah of Iran, driven from the country he had exploited, asked America for political asylum so he could receive medical treatment for a fatal illness. Reluctantly, Carter agreed to honor agreements made by former administrations, against his moral and political misgivings. Outraged followers of fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the American embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979, taking 66 captives - thirteen of whom they released in November - and beginning a national ordeal and the unraveling of Carter's presidency. The crisis lasted 444 days, during which America's powerlessness on the diplomatic front was underscored by the failure of the rescue mission Carter reluctantly ordered on 24 April, 1980. True to Yasser Arafat's pledge to cut off the hands of the signers of the accord, Khomeini released the hostages minutes after Carter's successor took his oath of office, even though Carter and his administration had in fact negotiated the release.

As if the crisis in Iran were not enough to run against, Carter had to contend with worsening energy supplies and outrage among commercial hauliers as diesel prices continued to escalate. A trucker's strike and blockade set off an energy riot in 1979, leaving more than 100 people injured and 170 arrested. A nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania suffered the nation's first nuclear accident earlier that year. Although the president showed great personal courage in visiting the scene of the accident, citizens began to make analogies, however frivolous, between the dangers of alternative energy sources, which Carter championed, and the nuclear accident. On July 15, 1979, the president delivered the speech that effectively brought his administration to an end, the “Crisis of Confidence” or “national malaise” speech in which he warned that the nation needed to return to principles and altruism, rather than the cynicism and self-interest that had prevailed since the late 1960s. He outlined several tough energy policies, all of which would require personal and corporate sacrifice to move the country toward energy independence. Opponents within his own party, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, faulted leadership, and Kennedy mounted an unsuccessful but bitter campaign for the 1980 Democratic nomination. His opponent in the general election, Ronald W. Reagan openly ridiculed Carter's call for sacrifice and his lack of a positive message, implying that self-interest is as legitimate a national ideal as service.

Finally, Carter had to face Soviet aggression, the last gasp of that imperial state, in Afghanistan - with few allies at home or abroad. His Secretary of State, Cyrus R. Vance, who had so ably assisted the Camp David process, had resigned in protest at the Iran rescue mission. The Soviets rebuffed Carter's call for them to leave Afghanistan, so he recalled America's ambassador to the USSR, asked the Senate to table discussions of the SALT II treaty he and Vance had negotiated, and announced the “Carter doctrine”, warning that any Soviet aggression in the Middle East would be treated as a provocation against the United States. With Republicans uniting behind a formidable, ruthless presidential candidate, and Democrats unwilling to back him in the house or the senate, Carter made a decision that once again opened him to ridicule by his political opponents: he ordered American athletes to boycott the 1980 summer Olympic Games in Moscow.

With all these factors in place, the 1980 election was a foregone conclusion. Although he won his party's nomination, Democratic leaders kept their distance from their standard-bearer, and the opponent was backed by a fervid alliance of new conservatives. The November election was a landslide: President Reagan won 51 per cent of the popular vote to Carter's 41 per cent. The Electoral College results were even more one-sided. Reagan won 440 more electoral votes than the incumbent.

January 1880 was, for the Carters, the inverse image of the promise of 1976. Now thoroughly trounced in the polls, betrayed by his party, with his ideals and aspirations rejected by the press and public, even an object of scorn in the national media, President Carter returned to Plains to salvage what he could of what he then called his “altogether empty, unwanted life.” He and his family withdrew from the public eye, and he devoted his energy to restoring the family business, which had acquired substantial debt while he was in Washington. Although he succeeded once more, his heart wasn't really in it.

Nor was it in the planning for the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. Although these have become an expected legacy of ex-presidents, often repositories for presidential papers and museums celebrating the president's achievement, Carter told Rosalyn he was uncomfortable with the notion of “building a monument to myself.” His humility and the stinging defeat of 1980 made this an unwelcome task indeed – until suddenly he was inspired to create the Carter Center, not simply as a museum or library, but as a vital center for the study and promotion of world peace and justice. Once he defined this altruistic goal, he rallied the precision and thoroughness that characterized his public life toward making the Center an active force for good in the world. President Reagan dedicated the Center in 1986, graciously praising his predecessor's humility, grace, courage, and dedication to the highest and best American ideals. With the Center's opening began the great phase of Jimmy Carter's public life, his role as elder statesman, champion of human rights and justice, and peacemaker. What he quoted to praise Begin and Sadat on celebrating Camp David could now be said of Carter: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Carter's rise from his political exile began in a typically humble way. A long-time amateur furniture-maker and carpenter, President Carter attracted national attention by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, an organization dedicated to providing low-income housing for the poor. It was a great story for a press that had been hostile, even contemptuous while the presidency unraveled. Most ex-presidents wear business suits while they cash in on their term, write their memoirs and sign books, or seek new sources of power; or they wear cardigans at golf courses or yacht clubs. Here was an ex-president in a hard hat, nail apron, and blue jeans. With hammer and pen, with work and words, President Carter has done much to attract volunteers and donations to this great cause.

As the Habitat photos started appearing in the national press, Carter nurtured the Center and its role as a champion for peace and justice. This endeavor has brought great honor to America, even as other leaders keep finding ways to undermine the country's credibility. The world looks to Carter to supervise elections, to broker peace, to make recommendations for change. When international integrity is needed, the statesman from Plains answers the call. Among his many great diplomatic achievements are overseeing the installation of Haiti's first democratically-elected president in decades, then supervising the re-election. He has negotiated peace agreements in trouble spots including Bosnia, Sudan and East Timor. Bringing his personal credibility to the democratic process in ways no American leader has done before, Carter has supervised elections in such diverse nations as Palestine, Panama, Zambia, Jamaica, Venezuela, Nigeria, the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma, Indonesia, Paraguay and Mozambique. With former presidents Ford and Reagan, Carter was instrumental in negotiating NAFTA, a trade alliance among the Americas. His Center persuaded a major drug manufacturer to donate drugs to battle river blindness in Africa and Carter personally administered vaccines in Columbia in the aftermath of an earthquake.

He was no longer a prophet without honor in his own land when President Clinton presented Jimmy and Rosalyn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor America can bestow on a citizen. The Nobel Prize validated what the international community had long known: that no citizen so exemplifies what is best in the American spirit as this ex-president.

While establishing himself as a statesman, President Carter began an impressive career as a writer. As of August 2004, he is the author of seventeen books, including the memoirs Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (1982), An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood (2001), and Turning Point: A Candidate, A Senate, and a Nation Come of Age (1992). He published a book of poems, Always a Reckoning (1995), and an historical novel, The Hornet's Nest (2004). He has also written about the political process and prospects in Negotiation: The Alternative to Hostility (1984), The Blood of Abraham (1985) and Talking Peace: Visions for the Next Generation (1993). To round out this diverse group of writings he, sometimes with Rosalyn, wrote inspirational and spiritual books like Living Faith (1996), Sources of Strength: Meditations of Scripture for a Living Faith (1997) and The Virtues of Aging (1998).

Looking back at a modestly-successful, one-term presidency through the lens of an exemplary career as an elder statesman, we can see that Carter's ideas were ahead of his time, and that his initiatives could have made the United States, and the world, a better place. He worked for responsible fiscal restraint, and was one of two presidents since 1960 who made a serious attempt to end a cycle of deficit spending; it was he who for the first time made human rights part of both the national agenda and foreign policy; he encouraged energy independence, conservation, the development of alternative fuel sources and environmental stewardship; and he led the movement to end the toleration of racism as an ‘American condition' forever. Even if under-appreciated while he was president, these are impressive achievements, especially considering the inherited political attitudes and fiscal problems his administration faced. History will undoubtedly look back at his time in office as a transition, when important issues were placed on the national agenda for the first time, when it took moral courage and conviction to put them out there. Perhaps his most important legacy can be summed up in something his long-time friend, advisor, and one-time political liability Bert Lance told a documentary film-maker: “He never lied to the American people.”

Citation:
Dougherty, David C.. "Jimmy Carter". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 September 2004
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5827, accessed 25 March 2017.]

Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here.