On Presidents’ Day, we like to take some time out from covering current events and issues to look back at past presidents, their ups and downs, and how they shaped the United States. In 2017, we ranked the modern presidents (including Trump) and last year, we pondered which presidents might make up a Mount Rushmore of the worst leaders (including Trump). This year, we’re taking a positive turn to examine my favorite president; James Earl Carter (1977-1981).
Let’s address first the fact that Carter was not a popular leader and is not even that well regarded by Democrats or Republicans. With massive levels of inflation, long lines for petrol, an energy crisis, and a tense Iranian hostage situation dominating headlines in the late 1970s, it was only natural that his image would suffer. Besides these largely external factors however, Carter was perceived as a weak leader, indeterminate in his decision making and unable to inspire a nation brought down by a prolonged war in Vietnam and the controversial Watergate scandal. He was even challenged by the popular senator Ted Kennedy for the nomination in 1980 when he went up for re-election, going on to beat him before eventually losing to Reagan. So… I’ve got a fair amount to explain.
One of America’s biggest problems has always been its unmitigated patriotism. The idea that this is a superior nation where Government is always the problem, not the people, really got a burst of steam in 1980 when Reagan ran against Carter. This was an easy card to play against a president who once stated that “human identity is no longer defined by what one does but rather by what one owns.” Carter was not a man of bluster and pomp; at his inauguration, he demonstrated as much by getting out of the limo and walking towards Congress. Unlike previous presidents before he him, he would not be removed from the people. He would always do what was right and always be honest; a far cry from what we expect of any politician today.
The thing is people don’t like to be told they’re wrong or that they need to change their ways. On almost every measure he undertook, Carter had to face an upwards battle, be it with the return of the Panama Canal, passing energy bills, SALT II, and even a lost battle for national health insurance. With the latter, he was notably more conservative than the great liberal hopeful, Ted Kennedy, but not to the degree that he was senseless or insensitive. Rather, he was being somewhat measured and cautious with taxation, given the economic problems of the time. This was perhaps the Democrats’ greatest chance at a comprehensive health care scheme too up until the Obama administration, destroyed not by the president but by Ted Kennedy, who saw his last-minute withdrawal of support as an opportune moment to leverage his stakes against Carter in 1980. This has been leveled as a failure of the Carter administration despite the fact that Ted Kennedy undermined the bill for mere electoral purposes (when asked why he was running for president, the man could barely even respond).
Carter and Kennedy’s animosity towards each other had been building even before that battle. The reason was simple enough. Carter was an outsider. He was not a part of the traditional Democratic elite and his election had come out of nowhere for a party who had ran Hubert Humphries and George McGovern in 1968 and 1972 to no avail. In the wake of Watergate, the nationally unknown governor of Georgia was able to capitalize on the peoples’ disenfranchisement and rise like no other candidate before or since. In power, he comprised a cabinet of his own people (the so-called “Georgia mafia”) and adopted something of a middle-ground idealism between the Republican and Democratic parties. In many ways, the Democrats had much more trouble with him than the adversary party. Carter would not play ball with them on everything; upon taking office, he quickly axed several water projects that had been in projection for years and set about tackling goals they had no interest in. Kennedy’s opposition would eventually fracture the Democratic party and make it a lot easier for Reagan to win. Had the senator’s personal ego not gotten in the way in 1980, Carter’s success might have been a whole other story.
There were successes too of note. Carter was the only president to broker a lasting peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in the Camp David Accords, which stunned even his most ardent critics. He brought human rights front and center for all the world to appreciate and understand in a way that hadn’t been done by any president before. He established both the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. He didn’t launch a single missile (the only president since WW2 to not do so). And, he tried to tackle America’s growing dependence on foreign resources. He even had solar panels up on the White House!
On paper or online then, it’s quite easy to make a case for the 39th president. A majority of people simply didn’t see him as presidential however. He wasn’t bold in his decision making; he didn’t rock the boat the way Reagan would with the Soviet Union. He didn’t deliver a multitude of triumphant speeches (although his Crisis of Confidence speech, which we looked at back in 2017, was one of the greatest ever given by a president) and he didn’t equate military might with strength as a nation.
On this last point, it’s difficult to wholly absolve him of blame for the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The helicopter rescue was a disaster, if well meaning, and his decision to let the Shah receive cancer treatment in the US too was short-sighted (again, if decent). Carter was made to look foolish throughout the prolonged period in which the hostages were held (lasting 444 days) to the point that they were mockingly released mere moments into the Reagan administration. This episode however also speaks volumes of the man’s decency because the first thing he did, upon leaving office (having stayed up the whole night negotiating their release) was to fly and meet them. Carter might’ve been more successful had he launched a missile, yes (something Reagan would’ve had no hesitation in doing) but above anything, he was concerned what ramifications this might have had for the prisoners. That kind of humanity is often lost in those reaches of powers.
I don’t consider Jimmy Carter to be the greatest US president or even in the top ten but what he was, was a different choice who, given enough time, might have set the US on a much more noble path. They might’ve really had a shot at implementing renewable sources elsewhere (had Reagan not had the solar panels torn down) and might really have made further grounds with the Middle East peace process. Alas, in 1980, America decided to turn the other cheek and have the convenient microwave meal. Carter went on to inspire in his own way, establishing the Carter Center for Human Rights, tackling the guinea worm disease in Africa, monitoring elections, and going on to win a Noble Peace Prize in 2002. He’s one of the very few presidents in US history I believe who refused the easy short cuts and was willing to make the hardest decisions, because they were right and not out of political motivation.