Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Jimmy Carter's one-term presidency is remembered for the events that overwhelmed it—inflation, energy crisis, war in Afghanistan, and hostages in Iran. After one term in office, voters strongly rejected Jimmy Carter's honest but gloomy outlook in favor of Ronald Reagan's telegenic optimism. In the past two decades, however, there has been wider recognition that Carter, despite a lack of experience, confronted several huge problems with steadiness, courage, and idealism. Along with his predecessor Gerald Ford, Carter must be given credit for restoring the balance to the constitutional system after the excesses of the Johnson and Nixon "imperial presidency."

Carter was the first American President born in a hospital, and he was raised on his family's farm outside the small town of Plains, Georgia, where the family home lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Jimmy was named after his father, a businessman who kept a farm and store in Plains. Carter's mother, "Miz" Lillian, a nurse by training, set a moral example for her son by crossing the strict lines of segregation in 1920s Georgia to counsel poor African American women on matters of health care.

Jimmy graduated valedictorian of the class at Plains High School. Captivated by the stories of exotic lands that his uncle visited in the U.S. Navy, Carter enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated in 1946 in the top tenth of his class and signed on as an officer under the tough but inspirational Captain Hyman Rickover in the Navy's first experimental nuclear submarine. (Rickover was later to become an admiral and build America's nuclear submarine force.)

Sowing Seeds of Change

In 1953, Carter and his new wife Rosalynn faced a difficult decision. His father, Earl, had died of cancer, and the family peanut farm and his mother's livelihood were in danger. Resigning from the Navy, Carter and his wife returned to Georgia to save the farm. After a difficult first few years, the farm began to prosper. He became a deacon and Sunday school teacher in the Plains Baptist Church and began serving on local civic boards before being elected to two terms in the Georgia state senate. There he earned a reputation as a tough, independent operator who attacked wasteful government practices and helped repeal laws designed to discourage African Americans from voting.

Though he had always stood up for civil rights and inclusion, and was able to win reelection to the state senate against a segregationist opponent, Carter was stung by a humiliating defeat in a run for governor of Georgia in 1966. He attributed this loss to a lack of support from segregationist whites, who had turned out in large numbers to vote for his opponent, a nationally known segregationist named Lester Maddox. In a bid to win their vote in the 1970 governor's race, Carter minimized appearances before African American groups, and even sought the endorsements of avowed segregationists, a move that some critics call deeply hypocritical. Yet after he became governor of Georgia in 1971, he surprised many Georgians by declaring that the era of segregation was over!

Presidential Politics: Scandal, Conflict, and Crisis

As Carter watched the defeat of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, he knew he would have to market himself as a different type of Democrat to have a shot at the White House in 1976. He was completely unknown on the national stage. In the aftermath of Nixon's Watergate scandal, however, this became an advantage. It also helped Carter that the disgraced Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew were replaced on the republican ticket by Gerald Ford, a political insider with no charisma and an uncanny knack for falling down stairs on camera. Despite an ill-advised interview in Playboy magazine, which plummeted his rating in the polls, Carter squeaked out a narrow victory.

Carter's newcomer status soon showed itself in his inability to make deals with Congress. Sensing his shallow public support, Congress shot down key portions of his consumer protection bill. Carter was determined to free the nation from dependency on foreign oil by encouraging alternate energy sources and deregulating domestic oil pricing. But the creation of a pricing cartel by OPEC, the oil producing countries organization, sent oil prices soaring, caused rampant inflation, and a serious recession. Carter was also deeply troubled by public scandals involving his family, including a mysterious $250,000 payment by the government of Libya to Carter's brother Billy.

Foreign affairs during the Carter administration were equally troublesome. Critics thrashed both Carter's plans to relinquish control of the Panama Canal and his response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan by pulling out of the Olympics and ending the sale of wheat to the Russians. His recognition of communist China, which expanded on Nixon's China policy, and his negotiation of new arms control agreements with the Soviets, were both criticized by conservatives in the Republican Party. But the most serious crisis of Carter's presidency involved Iran. When the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power there, the U.S. offered sanctuary to the ailing Shah, angering the new Iranian government, which then encouraged student militants to storm the American embassy and take over fifty Americans hostage. Carter's ineffectual handling of the much-televised hostage crisis, and the disastrous failed attempt to rescue them in 1980, doomed his presidency, even though he negotiated their release shortly before leaving office.

Carter is positively remembered, however, for the historic 1978 Camp David Accords, where he mediated a historic peace agreement between Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat. This vital summit revived a long-dormant practice of presidential peacemaking, something every succeeding chief executive has emulated to varying degrees. Nevertheless, because of perceived weaknesses as a domestic and foreign policy leader, and because of the poor performance of the economy, Carter was easily defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Since leaving office, Carter has remained active, serving as a freelance ambassador for a variety of international missions and advising presidents on Middle East and human rights issues.