Jimmy Carter

39th president - 1977-1981

 

The main political beneficiary of the Watergate scandal, Carter is widely considered a better man than he was a president. A sincere, well-meaning Southerner – a born-again Christian who had spent much of his life running the family peanut farm in Plains, Georgia – he was already struggling with his public image when he arrived at the White House. Ahead in the polls by 33 points when he received the Democratic nomination, he contrived to be almost neck-and-neck with Gerald Ford by the time of the election. This was attributed to his having alienated conservatives and evangelicals by, for example, admitting to Playboy magazine that "I've committed adultery in my heart many times", or by promising a blanket pardon to Vietnam draft-dodgers.

Anti-Republican feeling left over from Watergate, combined with Ford's own propensity for gaffe-making, allowed Carter to scrape through, but the tone of his presidency had been set. Other presidents could recover from their mistakes (think of Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs debacle); with Carter, everything stuck.

His domestic achievements were modest. (The Republicans later pointed to several hundred campaign promises that, they said, he had not kept.) He pushed through civil service reform to encourage government efficiency, deregulated the trucking and airline industries, and expanded the national park system to protect 103 million acres of Alaskan lands. He also created the Department of Education, bolstered the Social Security system, and appointed record numbers of women, blacks, and Hispanics to Government jobs.

By the end of his administration, he could claim an increase of nearly eight million jobs and a decrease in the budget deficit as a percentage of the GNP. But he failed to prevent inflation and interest rates from reaching near record highs – and, indeed, caused a short recession when he tried to reduce them.

He also addressed the growing energy crisis, both short-term and long-term. He passed an Energy Bill and created a Department of Energy. But his direct appeal to the American people to reduce their profligate energy consumption fell on deaf ears.

Internationally, Carter angered conservatives by concluding the Panama Canal Treaty – handing control of the canal back to Panama – and in 1978 helped push through the Camp David Accords, which would ultimately lead to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. He also stood up for human rights in many places, denouncing the trials of Soviet dissidents such as Anatoly Shcharansky, calling for majority rule in Rhodesia, suspending aid to repressive regimes in Argentina, Uruguay and Ethiopia and condemning tyrants such as Fidel Castro and Idi Amin. But the world was left with an impression of well-meaning words that could not be supported by action. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with impunity; the US could do little beyond tearing up the Salt II arms limitation treaty that Carter had just signed and organising an ill-supported boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

In 1980, he enunciated what became half-heartedly known as the Carter Doctrine, warning the Soviet Union that any attempt "to gain control of the Persian Gulf region" would be repelled with military force. Such words might have sounded more convincing had the US not been so obviously impotent in the face of the Iranian hostage crisis. Fifty-two US embassy staff had been held hostage in Tehran since 4 November 1979, and neither negotiations nor a disastrous attempt at military rescue in April 1980 had brought their release any nearer.

Ronald Reagan had no difficulty in portraying Carter as an ineffectual leader, and Carter was overwhelmingly defeated in the 1980 election – the first president since 1932 to fail in a bid for re-election. In fact, negotiations for the hostages' release did ultimately succeed. As a final humiliation, however, the Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, did not let them go until the day that Carter left office.

In his retirement Carter devoted himself to restoring the fortunes of his peanut farm and, increasingly, to charitable works. He established, and took an active role in, the Carter Presidential Centre in Atlanta, which promotes democracy and human rights around the world, as well as working for the eradication of a wide range of diseases, including Guinea worm disease, river blindness, malaria and trachoma. (Thanks to this work, Guinea worm disease – which blighted more than 3.5 million lives in 1986 – has been all but eradicated.)

Carter has also helped with the building of homes in New York slums through Habitat for Humanity, as well as writing and speaking extensively and lucidly on causes relating to global peace and justice. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Few ex-presidents have contributed so much to the world; it was a pity that he was unable to achieve comparable greatness as president.

In his words

"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns."

"Our American values are not luxuries, but necessities— not the salt in our bread, but the bread itself."

"Let us create together a new national spirit of unity and trust. Your strength can compensate for my weakness."

"We have the heaviest concentration of lawyers on Earth... We have more litigation, but I am not sure that we have more justice."

"War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children."

"I've looked on many women with lust."

"The Republican party is a party with a narrow vision, a party that is afraid of the future."

In others' words

"The Carter administration has managed the extraordinary feat of having, at one and the same time, the worst relations with our allies, the worst relations with our adversaries, and the most serious upheavals in the developing world since the Second World War." Henry Kissinger

"President Carter has simply failed to lead the nation in the direction it must go, and, as a result, America is in dire jeopardy." Gerald Ford

"When it came to understanding the issues of the day, Jimmy Carter was the smartest public official I've ever known." Thomas P O'Neill

Minutiae

Although his full name is James Earl Carter, "Jimmy" is the name under which he was sworn into the presidency.

When his mother was told that Carter was running for president, her first response was "president of what?"

He once claimed to have seen a UFO – in 1969, in Georgia – and reported the sighting to the International UFO Bureau.

One of his fingers was permanently bent as a result of a peanut-farming accident when he was young.

When he was a student at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis he was often punished by being beaten on the bottom with a serving spoon. His most frequent offence was failing to "wipe that smile off your face", but he was also punished once for refusing to sing "Marching through Georgia" – the anti-Confederate Civil War song.

He is exceptionally good at speed-reading, and can allegedly read 2,000 words per minute.

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