“The sad duty of politics,” noted the great 20th Century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “is to establish justice in a sinful world.” It is a sentiment most certainly shared by James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, the former Governor of Georgia and peanut farmer from Plains who became the 39th President of the United States. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition of his native Georgia, Carter was a man of deep religious conviction who talked openly of his “personal relationship to Jesus Christ” and believed, as he wrote years later in Faith: A Journey for All (Simon & Shuster, 2018), that “Christians are called to plunge into the life of the world and to inject the moral and ethical values of our faith into the processes of governing.” Although he opposed the rightward shift of most Evangelical Christian leaders of the time, and respected the separation of church and state, Carter’s faith was often misunderstood and made some of his supporters uncomfortable. Partly because of his faith, he remained an enigma as president and never fully connected to the American people, at least until later in life.
Carter was eight months into the presidency when I left for college in the fall of 1977. He had been elected president in November 1976 as a refreshingly honest, reform-minded response to Watergate, corruption, and growing public cynicism. The United States had recently ended its disastrous involvement in Vietnam, Nixon had been pardoned for his criminal cover-ups and dirty tricks, the country was facing increasingly militant demands for social and political equality on the basis of race and sex, and volatile oil markets were driving home the reality of limited resources and an interdependent world. Carter seemed an unlikely candidate for president when he ran in 1976, but there was something oddly reassuring in his southern charm and toothy grin that juxtaposed his obvious intellect and seriousness of purpose.
As an undergrad still trying to find his way in the world, I did not personally consider Carter an exciting or inspirational leader. By the summer of my sophomore year, I had finished reading Robert Kennedy and His Times (Ballantine Books, 1978) by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and was moved by Kennedy’s passion and idealism. I believed the times called for a president who could reconcile racial and class divisions, bring the country together, and make the United States a leading force of world peace, environmental protection, social justice and economic prosperity for all. I wanted a national leader who combined an appeal to the common good with Kennedy’s charisma, youthfulness, and other intangible traits that Carter lacked.
First impressions are difficult to overcome, and I remained ambivalent about the 39th President for most of his four-year term. When in 1980, at the age of 21, I voted in my first presidential election, I cast my ballot for the highly articulate John Anderson, a liberal Republican from Illinois running as an independent. It was not that I disliked or disapproved of Carter, and I was fully aware that he had experienced a trifecta of bad luck with the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, an unprecedented level of stagflation (high inflation combined with high unemployment), and a world energy crisis, none of which was the result of anything he did as president. But Anderson proposed bold energy and environmental policies that I believed better addressed the pressing issues of the day.
After he lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter was dismissed as a one-termer, his presidency deemed a failure. The pundits claimed that Carter never embraced the ways of Washington; he disdained politics and the political deal making that greased the wheels of Congress. He could be aloof and socially awkward, possessed an off-putting moral pietism, and micro-managed the minutia of governing, once drafting a detailed memo to staff on use of the White House tennis courts. He did not effectively communicate to the American people and – as with his “crisis of confidence” speech after the 1979 oil shock – lectured when he needed to inspire. Although the country acknowledged his fundamental decency as a human being, the sincerity of his religious faith, and his good intentions, and although his post-presidential life is widely respected and admired, he is generally remembered as an indecisive and ineffectual president.
Fortunately, the passage of time allows us to reflect on the past with a more expansive historical perspective. In President Carter: The White House Years (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), Stuart Eizenstat, who served as Carter’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor during all four years of his presidency, persuasively argues that it is time to fundamentally re-assess Carter’s legacy as president. Eizenstat’s well-written and thoroughly documented 900-page account of the Carter presidency contends that Carter’s White House years are underrated and underappreciated. Despite inheriting a troubled economy and contending with the competing demands of labor unions, civil rights groups, the women’s movement, northeastern liberals and southern conservatives, Carter left office with significant achievements in foreign and domestic policy that materially improved the lives of Americans and our standing in the world.
Energy and the Environment. Carter was the first president to actively champion energy conservation and environmental protection. He enacted national fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and created federal subsidies for wind and solar power to promote research and development in clean energy sources. He lifted price controls for domestic oil and gas, which substantially reduced our energy consumption and reliance on foreign oil supplies. He protected more than 100 million acres of land from development through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which Eizenstat notes is “one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in the nation’s history,” and he greatly expanded the national park system.
Consumer Protection. Carter was also the “most consumer-friendly president in the nation’s history,” according to Eizenstat. By deregulating the trucking and airline industries, President Carter enhanced economic efficiencies that placed downward pressures on prices and democratized air travel, making it accessible to nearly everyone. He appointed disciples of Ralph Nader to head key regulatory agencies who implemented significant improvements to consumer product safety and occupational health and safety, mandated automobile airbags, placed limits on child advertising, and reformed the banking industry’s lending practices, all of which we take for granted today.
Women’s Equality. Carter was the first president to truly embrace and materially advance women’s equality. When Carter took office in 1977, only one of 97 federal appellate judges and five of 399 federal district court judges were women. By the time he left office in 1981, he had appointed 40 women to the federal bench, five times more than all the presidents in U.S. history combined. He issued a presidential executive order prohibiting sex discrimination in the federal workplace and appointed women to top positions in the White House, regulatory agencies, and executive branch departments, including the Department of Defense.
While all these accomplishments have had lasting effects on the everyday lives of Americans, it was in the realm of foreign policy where Carter achieved his most historically significant successes: peace between Israel and Egypt, the elevation of human rights as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty.
Middle East Peace. Eizenstat skillfully writes a detailed account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers and negotiations that occurred at Camp David between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Both of those men had deep-seated distrust of the other, and both were stubborn and tough negotiators. Begin particularly refused to budge on several key issues, to the point that negotiations seemed hopeless and destined for defeat until the final minutes of the very last day. It was only Carter’s perseverance, his grit and determination, and his willingness to endure extreme domestic political heat – straining relations with the American Jewish community, which constituted a key base of his support in the 1976 election – that created the successful conditions for a binding agreement.
Carter was so personally invested in peace, so knowledgeable and entrenched in the details of the negotiations, that it is difficult to imagine any other American president, past or present, who could have accomplished the cold but firm peace that was agreed to at Camp David in 1979 and which remains embedded in history. “This was Jimmy Carter at his best,” writes Eizenstat, “his attention to detail, his recognition of the limits to which he could push Begin and Sadat, and his appreciation of their starkly different personalities.” Carter’s achievement was “without precedent in American diplomatic history . . . a peace between two former enemies that has lasted into the next century – and without a single violation.” The Camp David Accords will remain indelibly linked to the history of the Middle East and the security of Israel for decades to come, and it remains a model for future peace deals in that region. Camp David opened the way to the 1993 Oslo Accords that resulted in mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, and the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.
Human Rights. Carter was also the first president to genuinely promote and permanently institute human rights as a formal aspect of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, his human rights policy provided inspiration to the leaders of liberation movements in what were then Communist Bloc countries, including Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa in Poland. He successfully pressured the Kremlin to greatly increase the number of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate to Israel and the United States. In Latin America, Carter’s emphasis on human rights greatly improved our relations with Latin American democracies and pressured military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes to lessen human rights abuses.
The Panama Canal Treaty. On September 7, 1977, Carter reduced the perception of American hegemony over Latin America by ending U.S. ownership of the Panama Canal, which had been a sore spot in the region for decades. The Panama Canal Treaty opened a new chapter in U.S. – Latin American relations and gave the United States a leg up in its Cold War competition with the Soviets for allies and friends. “Americans want a more humane and stable world,” Carter said on that historic day. “We believe in good will and fairness as well as strength.” Carter understood the intense feelings of many Americans who opposed the treaty and believed that, because American engineering and ingenuity had built the canal 75 years earlier, we had a right to permanently control that strategic passageway. But Carter’s strength as president was that he did what he believed was right even if it hurt him politically. “This agreement with Panama is something we want because we know it is right,” he said. The agreement was “not merely the surest way to protect and save the canal; it's a strong, positive act of people who are still confident, still creative, still great.”
Carter the Ex-President. Of course, Carter will forever be lauded for his singular devotion to the betterment of humankind during the last forty years of his life. Since Carter left the White House in January 1981, he has easily been the most accomplished and substantial ex-president in American history. Through his work at The Carter Center, which he founded in 1982, he has helped eradicate diseases in Africa and established village-based health care delivery systems in thousands of African communities, monitored 105 elections in 39 countries, and mediated peaceful solutions to some of the world’s most intractable foreign conflicts. Through his work with Habitat for Humanity, he and Rosalyn, one of the most graceful First Ladies in American history, have devoted thousands of hours to building houses for impoverished families. A prolific author, Carter has written over three dozen books on peace, human rights, women’s equality, democracy, and world affairs. A man of deep and abiding faith, he continues to teach Sunday school at his church in Plains, Georgia, while accomplishing more in his post-presidential life than most presidents accomplished while in office. And he has done it all with a quiet and sincere humility that is difficult to fully comprehend in the Age of Trump.
There is, admittedly, something unrelatable to me about Carter, his unwavering seriousness, or aloofness, or maybe his distinct southern mannerisms, that prevent me from being personally drawn to him in the ways I have been to Obama and the Kennedys. But the current state of affairs in the United States, the meanness and selfish individualism that so dominates our political life today, has appropriately, if belatedly, elevated Jimmy Carter’s standing in history. He is a statesman, peacemaker, model of human generosity; a sincere person of faith who lives out his convictions through his actions. He’s a mensch, a genuinely decent human being. And throughout his life he has done his Niebuhrian-inspired best to “establish justice in a sinful world.”