This is one of an occasional series of articles Governing is publishing this year by Clay Jenkinson on some of the less well-known presidents of the United States.
In the tributes to Jimmy Carter that have flooded the news and social media in the wake of his announcement that he will live out the last days of his life at home under the care of the great hospice system, we are reminded again and again that he has perhaps had a greater post-presidency of any of his 45 fellow presidents. That may be true, but it should not crowd out his extraordinary achievements as the 39th president of the United States.
An Unlucky President
Few peacetime presidents have had to lead us through as many crises as the 39th, James Earl Carter Jr., who served from 1977 to 1981. When he came into office on Jan. 20, 1977, inflation was high (it would briefly top 14.8 percent in 1980). Unemployment was high.
Carter had to steer us through the second American energy crisis (1979), which disrupted the economy, brought on fuel rationing in a number of states and stalled Americans in hours-long lines at gas stations. There was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which among other things led President Carter to cancel American participation in the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow. And then there was the agonizing and endless hostage crisis in the second half of his single term. Small wonder that Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in November 1980.
Few who were alive then will forget Carter speaking to the nation from the White House in his cardigan sweater, urging us to turn our thermostats down to 65 degrees, calling for a 55 mph speed limit on America’s highways. This was a far cry from FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear … is fear itself.”
More than most presidents, Carter has been imprisoned in a few lingering public perceptions that don’t do justice to his presidential achievement. He is remembered for his toothy smile and his occasionally sanctimonious or smarmy manner. He is remembered for micromanaging … well, everything, including access to the White House tennis court.
He is remembered for the Iran hostage crisis in which 52 American citizens (mostly diplomats) were held for 444 days by Iranian revolutionaries, partly because Carter permitted the deposed Shah of Iran to seek medical treatment in the United States. To add insult to injury, the hostages were finally released on Jan. 20, 1981, the day his successor, Ronald Reagan, became the 40th president of the United States.
And he is remembered for the infamous “malaise” speech, Jan. 15, 1979, in which he addressed what he called a “crisis of confidence” among the American people. Although President Carter did not use the term “malaise,” his address was sufficiently pessimistic that it permanently damaged his standing. Carter learned the hard way that while it may be good leadership to tell the American people truths they don’t particularly want to hear, it is not good politics. (More on Carter’s malaise next week.) It is not surprising that Ronald Reagan’s political handlers responded with the campaign message, “It’s Morning Again in American.” Reagan carried 44 states in the 1980 election.
Much of this was beyond Carter’s or anyone’s control. Some of it represents what in sports are called “unforced errors.”
The Major Achievements
On his first full day in office, President Carter signed an executive order granting amnesty to men who had evaded the military draft during the Vietnam War. This was controversial. He returned the Panama Canal to the people of Panama. This was much more controversial. It led Hawaii Sen. S.I. Hayakawa to quip, “We should keep the Panama Canal. After all, we stole it fair and square,” though Hayakawa eventually supported ratification of the treaty in what has been called “the exceptionally contentious ratification fight in the Senate.”
Ending Big Dam Projects
Without calculating the political fallout, President Carter took on the Western water lobby. He attempted to cancel 19 federal water projects he regarded as pork barrel boondoggles or environmentally troubling and directed a review of more than 300 others. He mostly lost this battle with Congress, but his actions marked the end of the great dam-building era of American history and the hyper-industrialization of the American West.
On any list of conservation presidents, Theodore Roosevelt is the uncontested champion. During his just under two terms as president, Roosevelt added 230 million acres to the national forests, national monuments, national parks, national game preserves and the national wildlife refuges, the last of which he invented in 1903 by executive order. President Carter ranks second, FDR ranks third in conservation, LBJ fourth.
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 set aside more than 104 million acres of land: creating 10 national parks and preserves, two national monuments, nine national wildlife refuges, two national conservation areas and 25 wild and scenic rivers. The long-term impact of this legislation is essentially incalculable. It means that much of Alaska will be protected forever from adverse economic activity.
Fighting for Peace
Most important of all, President Carter managed to get Israel and Egypt to the negotiating table — at Camp David — in September 1978. After 13 days of dramatic and intense negotiation, held together by Carter’s iron determination to make peace in the Middle East, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed an accord that ended the 31-year state of war between their nations.
Thus, Egypt became the first of Israel’s neighbors to make peace with the Jewish state. In return, Israel returned control of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Much of the credit for this stunning breakthrough in international relations belongs to President Sadat, who broke the decades-old impasse when he flew to Jerusalem in 1977 and gave a peace speech before the Israeli Knesset. In his magnificent address Sadat said:
“I have chosen to come to you with an open heart and an open mind. I have chosen to give this great impetus to all international efforts exerted for peace. I have chosen to present to you in your own home, the realities, devoid of any scheme or whim. Not to maneuver, or win a round, but for us to win, together, the most dangerous of rounds in modern history, the battle of permanent peace based on justice.”
For this bold initiative, Anwar Sadat paid with his life. He was assassinated in Cairo on Oct. 6, 1981.
An Active Ex: The Longest Post-Presidency
Jimmy Carter was president for four years. That means that for more than 94 years of his life he has “not” been the president of the United States. He was just 56 when he left office. His post-presidency has lasted for 42 years. The small club of great former presidents includes Herbert Hoover; John Quincy Adams, who served in the House of Representatives for 17 years after his tenure as a one-term president and became the nation’s most principled abolitionist of his era; and even Richard Nixon, who regrouped after his disgrace, went on to write six books and served as an important (albeit behind the scenes) adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and even the Democrat Bill Clinton, who delivered a moving eulogy at Nixon’s funeral on April 27, 1994.
In the decades that followed his presidency, Carter traveled the world to monitor elections in troubled nations, went officially on behalf of other Democratic presidents to seek peace in North Korea, Haiti, Bosnia and elsewhere. He has been a lonely and controversial American champion of the Palestinians. In 1982, he and his wife, Rosalynn, created the Carter Center in Atlanta, a nonprofit institution that has monitored 113 elections in 39 countries, created a wide range of educational programs for Americans and pro-democracy individuals around the world and attempted to eliminate such deadly diseases as Guinea worm, polio, mumps, rubella, measles and yaws. For all of his unblinking efforts on behalf of peace throughout the world, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
And, of course, everyone knows of his decades-long work (including grunt work) with Habitat for Humanity. Carter’s personality is a sometimes-perplexing mix of ego and humility, righteousness and modesty, whimsy and high seriousness.
And he has written books. More than 40 of them, making him the writingest president of the United States, even more prolific than the runner-up, the irrepressible Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote between 35 and 40 books, depending on how you count.
Carter has written a range of memoirs; several books on the search for peace in a troubled world, particularly the Middle East; books on his Christian faith, from his more fundamentalist beginnings to a more unitarian outlook later in life; tributes to his wife, Rosalynn, and his mother, Lillian; books about women’s rights; poetry; a novel (the first by any president); books on aging; a children’s book (with his daughter Amy); books on outdoor life, particularly fly fishing; and, of course, his famous campaign autobiography, “Why Not the Best?“ (1975).
The Luckiest of Men
He has beaten back death on several occasions in the past decade. In 2019, when he learned that he had cancer that had already spread to his brain, Carter addressed a church audience with extraordinary words. He said he figured he was going to die soon.
“I obviously prayed about it. I didn’t ask God to let me live, but I asked God to give me a proper attitude toward death. And I found that I was absolutely and completely at ease with death. It didn’t really matter to me whether I died or lived. Except I was going to miss my family and miss the work at the Carter Center and miss teaching your Sunday school service sometimes, and so forth. All those delightful things.”
This is Jimmy Carter.
Probably no president has ever been as decent, honest and more passionately dedicated to peace and justice than Jimmy Carter. In fact, his integrity and craggy independence have sometimes irritated his fellow politicians. That, surely, for Carter has been a badge of honor. If ever there were a president nobody owned but the American people, it is the former nuclear scientist and peanut farmer from Plains, Ga. Political observer Jon Stewart recently said, “Jimmy Carter is one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever had the honor of meeting. He’s the best of us.”
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.