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Flashback Friday – Jimmy Carter

So far, I have authored nineteen Flashback Friday posts, and have yet to cover the one person who I originally wanted to make the very first Flashback Friday recipient (almost sounds like it’s some sort of award). Jimmy Carter is without a doubt my favourite American President. No, your eyes don’t deceive you, I said Jimmy Carter. For some odd, quirky reason, I find him to be an extremely interesting person. Perhaps it’s because I tend to have a thing for the underdogs, he is fascinating because while being incredibly brilliant, he is also incredibly dumb. One of the reasons I started the Flashback Friday posts was to educate readers on individuals that history often seems to forget about. Biographies about presidents like Carter do not fly off the shelves (in fact, I might be the only one who has a wishlist filled with Jimmy Carter books on Amazon).

With this post, I am going to do something different. Normally I spend some time researching each person, in order to get the facts of their life correct (and even then I sometimes get it wrong). But today, I am going to write this post strictly from memory, as I feel I know Jimmy Carter pretty darn well. I am currently reading his latest book White House Diary and as such, he is on my brain more than usual.

Born and raised in Georgia, Carter served in the Navy after high school. He met and married Rosalynn Smith, with whom he later had four children. His political career began in the 1960’s when he was elected to the Senate in Georgia. He then left the Senate with loftier dreams of becoming Governor of Georgia. This was a bit of a stretch, as he was hardly the most qualified candidate. He was simply a small town farmer, who had a little bit of political experience. His first attempt at becoming Governor failed, but he tried again and was elected in 1970.

His approach to governing is quite interesting. As I said earlier, he is an extremely bright, but stubborn man. He was very down to earth, and simple in his interactions with the people of Georgia. He was not affiliated with big business, and he often let his moral compass guide his decisions. This was refreshing to many. However, it often came at his own political expense. The best decision morally, is rarely the best decision politically. Unfortunately for Carter, when he made up his mind, it rarely changed, even if it would have benefited him.

After emerging from the shadows to become Governor of Georgia, Carter then set an even bigger goal for himself. He decided to run for president. Even his wife Rosalynn was shocked and dumbfounded at his decision. The Carter family had been a big reason why Jimmy was elected as Governor. He called upon them once again to aid his bid for the Democratic nomination. One of Carter’s most famous political ads showed people on the street asking “Jimmy who?” Most people had never heard of him before, and had little idea what he stood for. But there was one thing that helped Carter more than anything else… Watergate. Richard Nixon’s resignation had tainted Washington politicians, and nobody could accuse this small town Governor of being a Washington politician. Carter knew this was the case, and he milked it for all it was worth. He campaigned feverishly, and slowly but surely, worked his way up to becoming the Democratic nominee for President in 1976.

The fact that Carter went from almost total anonymity to being the Democratic nominee for President in just over a year is astounding. Many individuals work for years to build up the credentials for such a run, yet Carter was skilled enough to do it in twelve months. I am not sure it is something that can be duplicated ever again.

Carter faced Republican President Gerald Ford in the election of 1976. At the beginning of the campaign, Carter had an enormous lead. He was still riding the Watergate wave of disapproval towards the Nixon (and now Ford) administrations. Carter did make a few mistakes, which nearly cost him the election. He gave an interview to Playboy magazine where he said he had committed “adultery in his heart.” The only thing that truly saved Carter was a gaffe made by President Ford in the debates, where Ford stated “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Needless to say during the Cold War this was a huge blunder. Carter went on to win the 1976 election, with a convincing, but not overwhelming victory.

On Inauguration Day, there was a feeling of optimism. The era of Watergate appeared to be over, and Carter acknowledged that with the first lines of his inaugural address. He thanked Gerald Ford saying “for myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” Then later, he and Rosalynn walked along the inaugural parade route (tradition had been to ride in a car), as a sign of confidence in the American people. He was advised against it by the Secret Service, but did so anyways. Many presidents since then have done the same thing (although most only walk for a short distance).

Once in the White House, Carter brought in a staff that was mostly friends and trusted advisers from his time as Governor in Georgia. This was good because he had enormous trust in these people, but also bad because none of them had much Washington experience. He is arguably the most detail oriented president in history. He would spend hours, even days, studying the facts on a particular topic. This meant he was very knowledgeable, but also that he was often bogged down in the most irrelevant of details. Carter and his team had a long wish list of items they wished to accomplish. Energy, Healthcare, peace in the Middle East, a new SALT agreement, relations with China, battling inflation. They quickly moved to tackle all of these issues. While this looked good at the outset, it often meant the American people were bombarded with lots of policies, and few successes. For every success they had, there were two failures, because they attempted so much.

Another downfall of Carter was his lack of effective communication skills. He was not a stirring orator, and he often spoke the truth about a situation. That may be the honest thing to do, but it doesn’t win you any political points. Carter once addressed the nation in a passionate speech where he essentially blamed all of America’s problems on its citizens. An honest speech, and he wasn’t wrong. However, the American people do not appreciate their President, the person they elected to fix all their problems, blaming them for the current malaise, and telling them to get it together.

That being said, Carter did accomplish some very important things as President. Arguably the biggest, is the Camp David Accords which dealt with peace between Israel and Egypt. Carter masterfully orchestrated the negotiations which were held at Camp David. On numerous occasions, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin threatened to leave, but Carter was able to convince them to stay. After thirteen days of intense, near 24 hour negotiations, each side agreed to a common arrangement. Carter had pulled off what many thought was absolutely impossible. This section of White House Diary is particularly interesting. Carter nearly killed himself working so hard to get this completed, and he was very candid about how difficult the two sides were being during the negotiations. It was a tremendous accomplishment.

Carter, Sadat & Begin

By 1980, Carter was up for reelection, and things did not look good. He and his team kept making poor decisions which made the President look terrible. He was considered to be weak, ineffective, and ill-equipped to deal with many problems. He faced a suave, charismatic Republican opponent, who danced circles around Carter at the one debate they had. A previous debate had been held between Ronald Reagan and Independent candidate Jack Anderson. Carter refused to debate Anderson, and it made him look bad. Carter knew he was no match for Reagan, but thought if he could demonstrate a mastery of the issues (which he had, as he spent hours pouring over every detail) he could upstage Reagan. Unfortunately in one debate, he was unable to do so.

The final nail in Carter’s coffin perhaps occurred one year earlier when Americans were taken hostage in Iran. This was partly due to Carter’s support of the Shah. In the end, the hostages were held for over a year. Every attempt that the Carter administration made at freeing the hostages failed. It only perpetuated the viewpoint that they were not capable, weak and ineffective. The hostages were eventually released one minute after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President, as not to be released during Carter’s time in office. Although he doesn’t admit it in White House Diary, I can only imagine it was one of the most painful failures of his political life.

After he was defeated in 1980, Jimmy and Rosalynn returned home to Plains Georgia. Since leaving office, Carter has been one of the most active former presidents in recent memory. He has authored dozens of books, built the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, founded the Carter Center, won a Nobel Peace Prize and volunteered with numerous organizations. Many people agree that Jimmy Carter is a very good man, with strong values, but that he was just not prepared to be President. It is easy to look back and see where he often failed.

The first half of White House Diary is very optimistic. It reads as though Carter is easily going to win a second term. And in the early days of his administration, it very much looked like he could. But the tone begins to shift, and I can only imagine what it will be like by the end of the book.

What are your thoughts on Jimmy Carter? Failed president, or a good man that was in over his head? Do you see parallels between Carter and Barack Obama (young, inexperienced Democrats who followed unpopular Republicans, renewing optimism in tough economic times)? Is Obama doomed to the same fate?

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library
The Carter Center