A Reference Resource
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.
James Earl Carter's ancestors had lived in America since the 1630s. They were residents of Georgia since just after the Revolution. "Jimmy" Carter's parents, Earl and Lillian Carter, owned a peanut farm and warehouse and a store outside the small town of Plains, Georgia. Earl was bright, hardworking, and a very good businessman. "Miz" Lillian had been trained as a nurse, but abandoned her career when she became pregnant soon after marriage. She named the first of her four children James Earl, for his father. Jimmy's mother, well read and curious about the world around her, crossed the then-strict lines of segregation in 1920s Georgia by counseling poor African American women on matters of health care.
The family became moderately prosperous, but when Jimmy was born in 1924, the first American president to be born in a hospital, he was taken back to a house that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. By the time he was ten, the boy stacked produce from the family farm onto a wagon, hauled it into town, and sold it. He saved his money, and by the age of thirteen, he bought five houses around Plains that the Great Depression had put on the market at rock-bottom prices. These homes were rented to families in the area. His father was stern but proud of Jimmy. His mother, Lillian, while also demanding, nurtured and encouraged his reading.
Entertainment was hard to come by in the rural Georgia of the 1930s, and for Jimmy his mother's brother offered a glimpse of the outside world. Uncle Tom Gordy had joined the United States Navy, and sent postcards to the Carters from around the globe. His nephew was fascinated with all the exotic places depicted in the cards and began to tell his parents that someday he'd be in the Navy, too. Before he even entered high school he had written the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to ask for a catalogue. In 1941, he graduated as class valedictorian of his tiny high school.
Navy Career and Marriage
The events of World War II (1939-45) motivated many American patriots like Jimmy to enter the military service. There was stiff competition for admission into Annapolis and thus, Carter flung himself into his coursework, studying for a year at Georgia Institute of Technology in 1942. Carter was admitted to Annapolis in 1943 and graduated in the top ten percent of his class in August 1946, just after the end of the war.
Prior to his last year at Annapolis, while on leave, Midshipman Carter met Rosalynn Smith, a friend of his sister's. She was only seventeen-years-old, three years Jimmy's junior. When Carter first proposed marriage, she refused him. Early the following year, however, she visited him at Annapolis, and when he proposed a second time she accepted. The two were married in July of 1946.
For Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, the next eight years were typical of a young postwar, American couple. Their first son was born within a year of their marriage, and there would eventually be two more sons and a daughter. Carter worked long hours while his wife worked at home raising the children. Lieutenant Carter selected the submarine service, the Navy's most hazardous duty. One incident during this time clearly illustrated Carter's values and beliefs. While his submarine was moored in Bermuda, British officials there extended a party invitation to white crewmembers only. Partly at Carter's urgings, everyone on the submarine refused to attend.
About this time, the Navy was attempting to construct its first nuclear-powered submarines. The program was headed by the brilliant, tough Captain Hyman Rickover. Today regarded as "the father of the nuclear Navy," Rickover was slight, intense and a demanding taskmaster. Carter was assigned to Rickover's research team, and the young lieutenant was pushed mercilessly by the uncompromising captain. "I think, second to my own father, Rickover had more effect on my life than any other man," Carter would later say. One of the two new submarines being built was the Seawolf, and Carter taught nuclear engineering to its handpicked crew.
Then came bad news from Plains. Carter's father Earl had cancer, and in July 1953, he died. The farm had declined in his last years, and there was real danger that it would now be lost, a crushing prospect to Lillian Carter. After some hard thought, Carter decided to resign from the Navy, return to Plains, and help his family.
Southern Winds of Change
Carter threw himself into farming the way he had his naval duties. But the return to Plains became the greatest crisis of the Carter marriage. Rosalynn, deeply opposed to giving up the travel and financial security of military life, found it a difficult adjustment. The year 1954, saw a terrible drought in Georgia, and net profits from the farm totaled just $187.
The South was changing. The Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), had declared school segregation unconstitutional. Later in neighboring Alabama, an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white person, and she was jailed for it. Black citizens boycotted the bus system and challenged the segregation in court. They were taking a stand against centuries of oppression, and the attitudes of many whites hardened. An organization called the White Citizens Council was formed to maintain the segregated status quo in the South, and its membership blossomed across the region-including Plains, Georgia. Carter was heavily pressured to join the organization in 1958, and was the only white male in Plains to refuse. The council's members boycotted Carter's business, but he stubbornly held out and over time, the boycott fizzled out.
Community Involvement and Political Aspirations
Hard work and effective management made the Carter farm prosperous by 1959. Jimmy Carter's involvement in his local community increased as he began to serve on local boards for civic entities like hospitals and libraries. He also became a church deacon and Sunday school teacher at the Plains Baptist Church. In 1955 he successfully ran for office for the first time-a seat on Sumter County Board of Education, eventually becoming its chairman. When a new seat in the Georgia State Senate opened up because of federally ordered reapportionment in 1962, Carter entered that race. Initially defeated in the Democratic primary, he was able to prove that his opponent's victory was based on widespread vote fraud. He appealed the result and a judge threw out the fraudulent votes, and Carter was handed the election.
During his two terms in the state senate, Carter earned a reputation as a tough, independent operator. He attacked wasteful government practices and helped repeal laws designed to discourage African Americans from voting. Consistent with his past practice and his deeply held principles, when a vote was held in his church to decide on whether to admit blacks to worship there, the vote was nearly unanimous against integration. Of the three dissenting votes, two were cast by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.
In 1966, Carter planned to run for United States Congress. However, a Republican rival announced his candidacy for governor of Georgia, and Carter decided to challenge him. This attempt was a mistake. The civil rights movement had created a conservative backlash in the South ending the solidly Democratic stranglehold on the South. Liberal Democrats like Carter were especially vulnerable. Although he campaigned hard, he finished a poor third in the 1966 Democratic primary. The eventual winner was Lester Maddox, an ultraconservative who proudly refused to allow blacks to enter a restaurant he owned, and who distributed ax handles to white patrons as a symbol of resistance to desegregation required under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Carter was bitterly disappointed by the defeat and was saddled with a substantial debt from it. He began to position himself for the 1970 gubernatorial election almost immediately. In the late 1960s Carter campaigned tirelessly up and down the state.
He campaigned on a platform calling for an end to busing as a means to overcome segregation in public schools. Carter thought that in order to win he would have to capture white voters who were uneasy about integration. Consequently, he minimized appearances before African American groups, and sought the endorsement of several avowed segregationists, including Lester Maddox. The leading newspaper in the state, the Atlanta Constitution, refused to endorse him, and described him as an "ignorant, racist, backward, ultra-conservative, red-necked South Georgia peanut farmer." The strategy worked, however, and with the support of rural farmers, born-again Christians, and segregationist voters, Carter forced a runoff election and won with 49 percent of the vote.
Delivering Change to Georgia
The new governor's inaugural address surprised many Georgians by calling for an end to segregation, and received national attention for it. By and large, Carter governed as a progressive and reformer. During Carter's term as governor of Georgia, he increased the number of African American staff members in Georgia's government by 25 percent. But his primary concern was the state's outdated, wasteful government bureaucracy. Three hundred state agencies were channeled into two dozen "superagencies." He promoted environmental protection and greater funding for the schools. However, he worked poorly with traditional Democratic politicians in the state legislature, and gained a deserved reputation as an arrogant governor, with a "holier than thou" attitude that isolated him from politicians who might otherwise have become his political allies.
While Carter was serving as governor, he was taking careful measure of the national political landscape. The Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 was George McGovern, a liberal who steadfastly opposed the war in Vietnam. Carter watched McGovern run an impracticable campaign, in which he was portrayed by his opponents as a radical extremist, and that ended with an overwhelming defeat at the hands of Republican incumbent, Richard Nixon. Governor Carter reasoned that the next election would require a different type of Democrat, and he quietly began laying the groundwork for a run for the White House in 1976.
The Campaign and Election of 1976
Jimmy Carter took his first step on the road to the White House in 1972 by becoming chair of the Democratic Governor's Campaign Committee, and then his second step in 1974 by getting himself named as the campaign chairman of the Democratic National Committee. This position gave Carter access to key Democrats nationwide, and the major Democratic gains in the first post-Watergate election added to his reputation. Just before the end of the year, Jimmy Carter announced his candidacy for president. Public reaction to his candidacy revealed that exposure to his party was not enough to gain him wide recognition. He was all but ignored and his national profile was almost non-existent. In fact, the leading newspaper in his home state ran a headline the day after his announcement that proclaimed, "Jimmy Who Is Running For What!?"
Just a few years before, Governor Carter had appeared on a television game show in which the object was to guess the occupation of a "mystery guest," and Carter stumped the panel. However, Carter's anonymity turned out to give him an advantage in the 1976 election. In response to the twin nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate that had shattered public confidence in government (see Nixon biography, Domestic and Foreign Affairs sections, for details), Americans gravitated toward leaders who were outside the Washington sphere. Answering the nation's need, Carter's slogan was "A Leader, For A Change."
Nine other Democrats were seeking the nomination in 1976, most of them better known than Carter. But he approached the race like so many challenges before-with grim determination. Portraying himself as an outsider who could "clean up the mess in Washington," Carter simply out-hustled his competition. He won the first skirmishes, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and kept rolling, winning more than half the primaries. Instead of entering selected primaries, Carter recognized that under new Democratic rules, he could gather some delegates even in states where he would not come in first. And so he campaigned everywhere. One by one, the other Democrats dropped out, leaving Carter the front-runner, even though he had not won a majority of delegates in the primaries.
At the party convention that summer, he won the nomination on the first ballot. For his vice presidential running mate he chose Walter Mondale, a United States Senator from Minnesota. Mondale offered a "Northern presence" on the ticket to give it geographic balance, and his liberal record on labor issues helped calm the fears of labor unions that were uneasy about a president from the traditionally anti-organized labor south.
Carter vs. Ford
The incumbent president, Gerald Ford, was the first "unelected" president in the United States. A political insider, he was appointed to the vice presidency by Richard Nixon and consented to by the Congress under provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, after a scandal forced elected Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to resign. Ford assumed the presidency after Nixon resigned.
As a presidential candidate, Ford had a lot of liabilities. He had given Nixon a full pardon shortly after assuming office, and many people believed that the pardon had been the price Ford had to pay to gain the presidency. His popularity had plummeted immediately thereafter. Even though he had been a football player in college and was a skilled athlete, mass media portrayals of the president made him out as weak and clumsy. In Lyndon Johnson's gibe, Ford was a man who "couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time." For example, he was often depicted as physically and socially awkward because the president had an uncanny ability to be photographed while stumbling, with photos showing him doing so when boarding Air Force One. Additionally, every weekend, the popular new television show called Saturday Night Live featured a skit lampooning his missteps. All of this made it difficult for Ford to command respect from pundits and voters alike. Meanwhile, economic inflation was high, at nearly eight percent. One of Ford's responses had been to distribute buttons that said "WIN" (for "Whip Inflation Now"), a poor choice of words that did not elicit positive public reaction. In one public opinion poll, only 5 percent of voters considered Ford "experienced." Moreover, obtaining the Republican nomination was not an easy task for the incumbent Ford.
Fair or not, the campaign turned on the bitter legacy of Richard Nixon. Not surprisingly, as Ford tried to move away from the former president, Carter subtly tried to pin Ford to the failures and disgrace of the Nixon administration. He called for "a government that is as honest and decent and fair and competent and truthful and idealistic as are the American people." As with most campaigns, both candidates sought to define the other as something the voters didn't want. Carter painted Ford as an extension of Nixon. Ford portrayed Carter as an inexperienced liberal who would create new government programs paid for by tax increases.
Carter had a double-digit lead going into the fall, but then made a serious error. He consented to an interview in Playboy magazine, and discussed a number of personal issues. For many voters, Carter's admission to having lusted "in his heart" was disconcerting, and Carter's lead slipped to nothing. Three nationally televised debates failed to have much effect on the polls, but Ford made a bad gaffe of his own, claiming, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Hounded mercilessly by the press in the days that followed, he stubbornly stood by what he had said, and the jokes about him intensified.
Carter's difficulties continued as well. Two days before the election, an African American minister was denied entry to the Plains Baptist Church, of which the candidate was a member. Carter's campaign handlers accused Ford's of engineering a publicity stunt to make Carter appear hypocritical about his stance on race.
The election was very close. Ford's strategy was to try to win five of eight elector-rich states-California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. He won four, but not five. Carter won with an interesting coalition of the entire Old South (excepting conservative Virginia) and northern industrial powers such as New York and Pennsylvania.
Carter's prospects seemed bright. People were eager for new leadership, and he enjoyed large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Pundits talked of a "one and a half" party system, with the Democrats so dominant and the Republicans seemingly doomed by Watergate to spend years in the political wilderness.
The Campaign and Election of 1980
Three days after the embassy takeover in Iran, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Incumbents rarely face a challenge from within their own party, but Kennedy was encouraged by Carter's weak poll ratings. When told of the Kennedy challenge, Carter snapped to reporters: "I'll whip his ass."
Kennedy came close to defeating Carter as the party split into two wings. The day after the president lost the New York primary, a tabloid headline brayed, "Big apple to Carter: Get Smarter!" The president limped into that summer's convention weakened by the troubles at home and abroad, but he did have more delegates than Kennedy, and if they stuck to their pledges to vote for him, he would win the nomination. Kennedy desperately tried to get the convention to repeal the system of pledged delegates, arguing that if delegates could vote freely, they would dump Carter. But the convention refused to change its rules and Carter won renomination. To get Kennedy's endorsement Carter was forced to make many policy concessions to the liberal senator. Much of the Democratic platform reflected Kennedy's views, and some of it was an outright repudiation of the Carter record.
The Gipper Wins It
Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, had cruised to the Republican nomination almost effortlessly. He swatted off a challenge from George Bush, then named his rival as his running mate. "The Gipper" (a nickname derived from a movie role Reagan had once played) wrapped iron accusations of the president in velvet cowboy charm. He criticized Carter daily for the ongoing hostage crisis. Reagan referred to a city in Alabama that had hosted a Carter rally as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, one of several falsehoods that never seemed to hurt the challenger.
Carter tried to respond by painting Reagan as an unstable warmonger, but nothing seemed to stick to the former movie actor. The Republican replied by accusing the president of mean-spiritedness, and that did stick. Meanwhile John Anderson, a former Republican member of Congress running as an independent candidate for the presidency, threatened to draw votes away from Carter in some key northern states.
A televised debate between the Carter and Reagan was set for a few days before the election, and it all but finished Carter. The president had prepared hard for the debate, recognizing it as the last card in his losing hand. But Reagan was an infinitely superior television candidate. Someone asked Carter a question about the arms race with the Soviets, and he claimed that he had helped decide policy towards it by discussing it with Amy, his eight-year-old daughter. When Carter acted querulous and sounded shrill, Reagan turned to him and said in a mock tone of exasperation, "There you go again." At the end of the debate, Reagan looked into the camera expertly and asked viewers, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The next day, Carter was stunned at the latest poll numbers-the very bottom had dropped out. The polls did not lie. When the election returns were released, the president had lost by nearly 10 percent of the popular vote and by 440 electoral college votes. Even had Anderson not been in the race (he drew votes equally from both major party candidates), Carter would have lost badly.
It was the first loss by an elected presidential incumbent since Hoover had been defeated in 1932. Although the United States was not in an economic depression, it could fairly be said that poor economic performance and problematic leadership by the president had caused his defeat. As the New York Times stated, "On Election Day, Mr. Carter was the issue."
Jimmy Carter sought to run the country the way he had run his farm—with unassuming austerity. This would be no "imperial presidency" like those of Johnson and Nixon. On inauguration day, Carter got out of the limousine and walked to the White House, delighting the crowd and horrifying the Secret Service who sought to protect him. His inauguration outfit was a business suit not formal wear, and the inaugural festivities were low key. When Carter addressed the nation, he wore a cardigan sweater and adopted an air of studied informality.
Carter came from an unusual Southern political culture. While most Democratic politicians were "good ole boys," happy to participate in corrupt county courthouse rings and city machines, adept at backslapping and deal making, Carter came from the Wilsonian southern tradition, which was far different. He was a reformer and progressive, who put his faith in science and technology to advance the human condition, even as he retained his moral values from his deep religious faith. He thought political leadership should function for the common good, not to please a set of organized constituencies. Like Woodrow Wilson, he intended to act with honesty and candor, leading people by setting an example, and by asking them to reach a higher moral plane. He promised he would never lie to the American people.
Relations with Congress
The country desperately wanted the president to succeed. Carter began with a series of bold strokes. He pardoned Vietnam-era draft resisters, killed funding for the B-1 bomber airplane, and pushed for a comprehensive consumer-protection bill. His opposition to a traditional rivers and harbors "pork barrel" bill early in his term was fiercely resisted by his own congressional leaders. He had to back down, but his charges that these bills were wasteful and corrupt left a bad taste in the mouths of the legislators with whom he would have to deal.
As when he was governor, Carter had an abiding dislike for the backroom dealing that is so pervasive in Washington. Congress which found the new president hard to deal with, quickly sensed his shallow public support. With this knowledge, Congress asserted its power over the president by shooting down the consumer-protection bill and the labor reform package. Carter responded by vetoing a public works package in 1978 on the grounds that it was inflationary. A pattern of mutual distrust and contempt had been set. When Congress transformed his tax plan into new favors for special interests, Carter called the taxing committees "a pack of ravenous wolves."
Carter did have some successes with Congress, but often because he backed existing Democratic programs, such as raising the minimum wage. The president did have success with his own program to deregulate the airline, trucking, and railroad industries, which eventually resulted in lower transportation costs for industry and consumers. He also got Congress to establish a "superfund" to clean up toxic waste sites.
Energy Policy Success
Carter's main achievement involved energy policy, though he would receive little credit for it during his term. Despite the lip service paid by American presidents to reducing energy dependence, U.S. oil imports had shot up 65 percent annually since 1973. In 1976 the nation was consuming one-quarter of all Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production. The U.S. remained wasteful in energy use, with consumption per capita 2.3 times the average for nations in the European Economic Community and 2.6 times Japan's. Carter set out to reduce this dependence.
The president got Congress to pass the Emergency Natural Gas Act, which would authorize the national government to allocate interstate natural gas. He created a Department of Energy to regulate existing energy suppliers and fund research on new sources of energy, particularly sustainable (wind and solar power) and ecologically sound sources. His Energy Security Act created the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which would provide $20 billion in joint ventures with private industry. Carter signed his first energy package into law on November 9, 1978. The deregulation of oil and natural gas prices that resulted would lead to a vast increase in the supply of energy in the 1980s, and consequently a lowering of prices.
During Carter's term, however, the actions of the OPEC oil cartel (foreign oil producers) resulted in an increase in oil prices, from $13 a barrel to over $34. With America so dependent on oil, this huge price increase resulted in a run-up in inflation. Carter asked Congress to accelerate stockpiling 500 million barrels of crude oil in a national security reserve, setting target date by end of 1980 instead of 1982 (the deadline set by the Ford administration). The administration also developed new conservation measures that would sharply reduce industry's use of fuels, as well as automobile mileage standards. Strip mining would now be regulated by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, a victory for environmentalists.
Carter had other successes in energy policy, particularly in nuclear energy policy, in which he was an expert. He got Congress to abolish the powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, a step that would make it easier to block breeder reactors and move toward light-water reactors of the kind favored by the administration. Carter won his route for a soon to be constructed oil pipeline in Alaska. He killed funding for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, because the plutonium reactor technology would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation if adopted elsewhere in the world. Instead, Congress authorized and funded a shutdown of the reactor.
By April 1980, he had gotten much of his second energy package through, including a Crude Oil Windfall Profits Tax (with revenues designated for the general Treasury but not for specific energy projects), which would expire in 1993 or before, if the full amount of $227 billion had been collected. But there were two major defeats: Congress overrode a presidential veto of a bill that Congress had passed repealing a $4.62 per barrel oil import fee—the first time in twenty-eight years that a Congress had overridden a veto by a president from the majority party. It also defeated the Energy Mobilization Board that Carter had proposed to cut through "red tape" in developing new sources of energy.
While Americans had to endure long gas lines during the summer of 1979 and higher prices at the pump—effects of the Iranian revolution of that same year— Carter's program by and large worked. Consumption of foreign oil did go down, from 48 percent when Carter took office to 40 percent in 1980, with a reduction of 1.8 million barrels a day. When Carter left office there were high inventories of oil and a surplus of natural gas, delivered by a more rational distribution system. There was greater oil exploration than before, leading eventually to an oil glut and a drop in prices-which Carter's Department of Energy had not predicted. Between 1980 and 1985, domestic production would increased by almost 1 million barrels a day, while imports of crude oil and petroleum products declined from 8.2 to 4.5 million barrels a day. His goal of reducing U.S. dependency on foreign sources succeeded, at least temporarily.
Poor Media Image
But Carter was given little credit for these accomplishments. The energy program was complex, and no one could understand what was happening. But energy prices and taxes were going up, and that was easily understandable. Carter worsened his image problem by giving the so-called "malaise" (a French word meaning illness) speech, in which he described a lack of confidence in America's purpose and its future. In addition to admitting that people lacked confidence in his leadership, Carter blamed the crisis of America's spirit on the American people themselves. He then compounded his difficulties by firing four cabinet secretaries, transferring several others, and asking for resignations of dozens of lower level officials. Media commentators wondered if Carter was losing his grip. He went down sharply in the polls and never recovered from the "malaise" speech.
Carter gained a reputation for political ineptitude, even though his actual record in dealing with Congress belied that image. His success rate in getting presidential initiatives through Congress was much higher than that of his predecessors Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and successors Reagan and Bush. One might expect a president with a majority in Congress to do better than presidents facing the opposition party majorities. But Carter was also close to Johnson's success rates. Carter did not like to bargain and appeared arrogant and aloof, but at the end of the day, he usually wound up with much of what he sought from Congress. His major problem was that the perception of his leadership did not correspond with the reality of his performance.
Scandal and Personal Embarrassments
Again and again during the campaign, Carter had presented himself as a man of honesty. Americans for the most part believed in their president, but the trust did not extend to some key members of his administration. His budget director had to be fired a year into the administration when he was connected to unsavory banking practices in Georgia. Later Lance was exonerated. There were allegations that Carter's treasury secretary had allowed a company he chaired to conduct illegal payoffs in doing business. Moreover, the president's chief of staff was accused of using cocaine in the White House. Eventually these charges too were shown to be false, but the damage to Carter's own reputation for honesty remained.
The president's negative press coverage also touched Carter's family. His sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, appeared in public holding hands with a notorious pornographer, claiming she had converted him to Christianity. Billy Carter, the president's younger brother, quickly became nightly fodder for talk-show comedians with his country-boy image. He marketed his own brand of beer ("Billy Beer") and booked public appearances at bottom-barrel events. Then something not so harmless came to light about him. Libya-a nation that had sponsored terrorism for years-had given Billy Carter nearly $250,000 for an undisclosed reason. The Senate began an investigation of the matter, and the president's embarrassments dragged on.
Even without the scandals, Carter would not have had good press relations. He seemed aloof and condescending, stiff and impersonal with reporters. They chafed at his moralistic, "eat your peas" attitudes, and portrayed him either as either a cynical and manipulative politician or an amateurish incompetent. Carter was not physically clumsy like Ford, but his media images always came out wrong. On one vacation trip, photographers were asked to tag along to get some good photos of Carter relaxing. What they shot (and what networks covered that evening) was Carter trying to beat off a pesky rabbit from a canoeing expedition-and almost tipping over his boat in the process. If any president can be said to have had plain bad luck in dealing with the media, it was Carter.
Before assuming the presidency, Jimmy Carter had been a one-term governor of a southern state with no national or international experience. He did, however, have his own foreign policy goals. Carter believed in the rule of law in international affairs and in the principle of self-determination for all people. Moreover, he wanted the United States to take the lead in promoting universal human rights. Carter believed that American power should be exercised sparingly and that the United States should avoid military interventions as much as possible. Finally, he hoped that American relations with the Soviet Union would continue to improve and that the two nations could come to economic and arms control agreements that would relax Cold War tensions.
During his campaign, Carter's aides claimed he would govern in a different way, specifically, that he would not appoint Washington insiders to top foreign policy positions. Once elected, however, Carter recognized that he needed experts around him to conduct his foreign policy. He named Columbia University professor Zbigniew Brzezinski as his national security adviser and former Defense Department official and Johnson administration diplomatic troubleshooter Cyrus Vance as secretary of state. While Brzezinski and Vance both were experienced foreign policy hands, they had different strengths and worldviews. Brzezinski, a vigoursly anti-communist Polish émigré who consistently advised a tough line towards the Soviet Union, served as the administration's foreign policy "idea man." Vance, on the other hand, had strong managerial skills and was known for his cautious and patient diplomacy. Brzezinksi and Vance clashed throughout the Carter presidency over the tactics, strategies, and goals of the administration's foreign policy.
Carter came to the White House determined to make human rights considerations integral to U.S. foreign policy. In part, this desire stemmed from practical politics: Carter's promises during the 1976 campaign that his administration would highlight human rights proved popular with the voting public. Just as important, Carter's emphasis on human rights was consistent with his own beliefs on the necessity of living one's life in a moral way.
What did Carter mean when he claimed that he would make human rights a key part of American foreign policy? Early in his presidency, Carter explained that U.S. support for human rights involved promoting "human freedom" worldwide and protecting "the individual from the arbitrary power of the state." These principles grew out of the United Nation's 1948 "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," which established the foundation of the modern human rights movement. Carter believed in holding accountable America's allies as well as its adversaries for their human rights failings, an approach that risked straining relations with friends and widening existing rifts with foes. These were risks Carter was willing to take.
The Carter administration's human rights record was mixed. The President and his advisers denounced human rights violations by the Soviet Union and its East European allies. In addition, American allies like South Korea also came under tough criticism for repressing democratic dissent. Moreover, the United States took tangible actions—including the suspension of military or economic aid—to protest the human rights practices of the governments of Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Uganda. On the other hand, the Carter administration toned down its human-rights based criticisms of the Soviet Union after the Brezhnev government threatened to end arms control talks. Moreover, Carter refused to halt the sale of military supplies to Iran, whose government violently repressed its opponents, even though some of his advisers urged him to do so.
The legacies of Carter's human rights gambits were just as mixed as their practice. Carter, more than any previous President, injected human rights considerations into American foreign policy, legitimizing these concerns in the process. But conservative Republicans like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who would become U.S. representative to the United Nations in the Reagan administration, skillfully and successfully attacked Carter for supposedly undercutting American allies by criticizing their human rights' shortcomings. These attacks proved harmful to Carter during the 1980 election.
The Panama Canal
One of Carter's first challenges involved the U.S. role in Panama. A 1904 treaty negotiated by President Theodore Roosevelt permitted the U.S. to use and occupy the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land adjacent to the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914. In 1936 President Franklin Roosevelt, as part of the "good neighbor policy" had dropped the U.S. claim to have the right to protect American lives and property in Panamanian cities. In 1964, after anti-American riots by Panamanian students, the U.S. and Panama agreed to negotiate on the future status of the zone. These negotiations were based on "eight principles" agreed to by Henry Kissinger in 1974, providing for Panamanian operation of the canal by 1999, and an end to U.S. occupation of the zone, thereby establishing Panamanian sovereignty. Carter did not prove an adept negotiator. His delegation did not include any U.S. senators, and he did not keep them well informed until August 1977 when an "Agreement in Principle" was signed with Panama.
Conservatives organized grassroots opposition to the treaty, which Carter tried to counter by enlisting support from former presidents and giving a "fireside chat" to the American people. In Senate hearings Secretary of State Vance claimed that the U.S. could unilaterally defend the canal, but Panama's chief treaty negotiator, Romulo Escobar, denied that the U.S. would have any right to intervene after the treaty was ratified. Senators Robert Byrd and Howard Baker then sponsored a bipartisan "leadership amendment" defining U.S. rights to defend the canal. Eventually the agreement passed the Senate, but only after amendments granting the U.S. the right to intervene had been introduced by Senator Dennis DeConcini and accepted reluctantly by Panamanian president Omar Torrijos. It was a humiliating moment for Carter and Vance, even though they had won treaty approval.
Thereafter Republicans would attack Carter for being "weak" and for "giving away" the Panama Canal, a theme that would play particularly well in the southern states in the midterm elections in 1978 and the presidential elections in 1980. Carter had demonstrated great courage in concluding the negotiations: public opinion polls showed three-quarters of the American people were opposed to it.
Camp David Accords
The greatest foreign policy success of the Carter presidency involved the Middle East. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and its Arab enemies, Egypt and Syria, the Israelis had gradually disengaged their forces and moved a distance back in the Sinai Peninsula. They were still occupying Egyptian territory, however, and there was no peace between these adversaries. In the fall of 1978, Carter invited Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt's President Anwar Sadat to sit down with Carter at Camp David, a rural presidential retreat outside Washington. Between September 5 and September 17, 1978, Carter shuttled between Israeli and Egyptian delegations, hammering out the terms of peace. Consequently, Begin and Sadat reached a historic agreement: Israel would withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula; the U.S. would establish monitoring posts to ensure that neither side attacked the other; Israel and Egypt would recognize each other's governments and sign a peace treaty; and Israel pledged to negotiate with the Palestinians for peace.
Not since Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 had a president so effectively mediated a dispute between two other nations. Begin made several concessions to Carter, including agreeing to the principle of Egyptian sovereignty over the entire Sinai, and complete Israeli withdrawal from all military facilities and settlements. In return, Carter agreed to provide Israel with funds to rebuild Israeli military bases in the Negev Desert. Because Sadat and Carter had positions that were quite close, the two men became good friends as the conference progressed. Sadat also made some concessions to Carter, which alienated some of his own delegation. His prime minister resigned at the end, believing that Sadat had been outmaneuvered by the Americans and Israelis.
The Camp David Accords, initialed on September 17, 1978 and formally signed in Washington on March 26, 1979, were the most significant foreign policy achievement of the Carter administration, and supporters hoped it would revive his struggling presidency. Although Begin and Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for this action, Carter received no significant political benefit from this achievement.
Relations with the Soviet Union
Carter hoped to continue the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, but his appointment to the National Security Council (NSC) post of Brzezinski gave him an adviser who was profoundly suspicious of Soviet motives, and led Carter into several major confrontations with the Russians. Carter ordered a massive five-year defense buildup that the Soviets found provocative. In turn, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to quash a Muslim-based rebellion outraged the United States. The guerrilla war that ensued put a crimp in arms control talks between Moscow and Washington. The two sides had signed SALT II, a treaty limiting the deployment of nuclear missiles, and the treaty had been sent to the Senate. After the invasion it was clear that the Senate would take no action. Carter withdrew the treaty, but Moscow and Washington agreed to abide by its terms, even though neither side ratified it.
In retaliation for the USSR invading Afghanistan, Carter cut off grain sales to the Soviet Union and ordered a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games by U.S. athletes. Because much of the public considered this to be more punitive towards American swimmers and runners than Soviet leaders, Carter's response only reinforced his weak image.
Recognition of China
Carter continued to expand American contacts with communist China, granting the communist regime formal diplomatic recognition on January 1, 1979. To do so required the severing of diplomatic ties and withdrawal of recognition of non-communist Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China). Moreover, Carter unilaterally revoked the 1955 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of China, effective January 1, 1980. Carter's treaty abrogation was challenged in the federal courts by conservative Republicans. In the federal district court his opponent's won. However, in an appeals court the government's position that Carter had the power to abrogate the treaty without Senate consent prevailed. The Supreme Court then threw the entire case out without rendering any decision (on a technicality involving the standing to sue of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater), thus leaving the constitutional victory with the president by default. Carter's recognition of China significantly reduced tensions in East Asia. Hard-liners in China were replaced by communists who were more interested in economic growth than in military confrontations. Beneficial trade relations were established between China and the U.S., leading to huge imports of finished consumer goods from China, in return for U.S. lumber and foodstuffs.
To substitute for diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. It provided for the creation of an American Institute on Taiwan, which bought the old American embassy. Institute staffers consisted of newly retired American foreign service officers experienced in Far Eastern Affairs. Taiwan established a corresponding institute in Washington, D.C., staffed with its retired diplomats. Thus each side continued with quasi-diplomatic relations, even though the pretense was that they had cut off the relationship. The U.S. continued to supply arms to Taiwan to defend itself from the mainland, a step that kept some friction in U.S.-Chinese relations.
The Iran Hostage Crisis
Iran had become important to the 20th century chessboard for two reasons. Oil had been discovered there in 1909, and it was considered the geographic cork that kept Russia in the Asian bottle and out of the Middle East. The British, through Anglo-Dutch Shell Oil, had reaped Iranian oil for almost nothing through mid-century, but in 1951 a volatile new prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, threw them out. The American government became concerned that Iran was now ripe for a Soviet takeover. The Central Intelligence Agency staged a coup that toppled the prime minister and restored power to the Pahlavi ruling dynasty, whose monarch at the time had been reduced to a figurehead under Mossadeq. This leader, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlava, ("Shah" meaning "ruler") was allowed to govern once rights to 80 percent of the oil were ceded (transferred) to American and British interests. This made the Shah a Western puppet in the eyes of many Iranians.
But the Shah, emboldened by American support over the years, became increasingly tyrannical towards his people. He outlawed rival political factions and deployed one of the world's most feared secret police agencies. This resulted in countless human rights violations. By the time of the Carter presidency, discontent with the Shah was widespread in Iran, and so was civil disorder. The Shah's most virulent opposition was led by a radical Islamic group that wanted to create a government adhering more strictly to their faith's teachings. Their supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had been in exile in Paris for fifteen years. But by early 1979 the conservative Islamic movement had become so strong that the Shah was forced to flee Iran and turn over power to a new group of Western oriented technocrats. The Ayatollah returned to his homeland soon afterward and was instantly installed by a million Iranians marching on the capital as the nation's undisputed leader.
The Shah was now in exile in Mexico, dying from cancer, and President Carter allowed him to come to the United States for refuge and medical treatment. This enraged Muslim fundamentalists in Iran. In November 1979, Islamic student militants loyal to the Ayatollah overran the American embassy in Teheran, Iran's capital. They seized sixty-six Americans and held them hostage, demanding the Shah's return to stand trial. In addition they demanded money and property that the Shah had stashed outside Iran, and an apology from America, who they considered "The Great Satan."
Carter took immediate action. He froze billions of dollars of Iranian assets in the United States, then began secret negotiations, but nothing worked. The manner in which television network news reported on the crisis served to build up America's frustration. Mobs burned the American flag and shouted "Marg bar Amerika" ("Death to America") on nightly television news broadcasts in Iran. These film clips were rebroadcast in the United States, creating feelings of apprehension for the hostages and anger at Iran. By counting the number of days that the hostages had been held in capacity, nightly announcements such as "America Held Hostage, Day Eighty-nine" focused on the prolonged aspect of the situation. Americans grew impatient with the seemingly ineffective president who could not win the hostages' release. The Iranians heightened this political tension by making bright promises and then going back on them almost daily.
Finally, Carter approved a secret military mission to attempt to free the hostages. Unfortunately, three of the eight helicopters carrying the assault force developed mechanical problems. One crashed into a transport aircraft in a remote desert in Iran, killing eight soldiers. After the failure, Iran dispersed the hostages to hideouts throughout the country, making rescue impossible. The failure of the rescue mission doomed Carter politically. It seemed to reinforce the widespread notion that he could not get things done, and that America had lost its edge. His approval rating dropped badly and he was up for reelection within a year, when Republicans would make a major issue of his performance in the crisis. Near the end of his administration Carter concluded an agreement that led to the release of the hostages. His executive agreement with Iran specified that the U.S. would unblock all Iranian funds, and the U.S. and Iran would utilize a tribunal at the Hague, Netherlands, to settle their financial claims. The U.S. also promised not to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran. In return, Iran agreed to release the hostages. The U.S. embassy subsequently became a training camp for the Revolutionary Guards, the most militant and most anti-American wing of the groups backing the Islamic regime.
To many people, Jimmy Carter has provided Americans with an ideal model of post-presidential life. In fact, some consider him to be the nation's greatest former President. He has emerged as a champion of human rights and worked for several charitable causes. To that end, Carter founded the Carter Presidential Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The center, began in 1982, is devoted to issues relating to democracy and human rights. Additionally, Carter worked with Habitat for Humanity International, an organization that works worldwide to provide housing for underprivileged people. Through such projects, Carter has maintained a high profile; he is often seen on television, helping with Habitat home construction or providing his opinions on the issues of the day.
As a President who was deeply embroiled in foreign crises during his term in office, Carter has taken opportunities to apply his experiences and knowledge on the world stage. Carter has served as a freelance ambassador for a variety of international missions, including soothing disputes between countries, observing elections in nations with histories of fraudulent voting processes, and advising presidents on Middle East issues. He has been involved in mediating disputes between the U.S. State Department and the most volatile of foreign leaders, including Kim Il Sung of North Korea and Muammar Qaddaffi of Libya. In 1994, the former president assisted the U.S. government settle a tension-filled nuclear weapons dispute with North Korea.
In his post-presidential life, Carter has also written several books, including Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (1983), Turning Point (1992), and An Hour Before Daylight (2001).
Of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's four children, three were grown by the time he became president. His daughter Amy lived with her parents at the White House and attended public schools in Washington. She was later admitted to Brown University.
The Carters were, by and large, unpretentious people. Much of the pomp and circumstance that had been a feature of previous administrations was frowned upon. Richard Nixon's huge presidential limousine was retired and replaced by a smaller one. The presidential yacht Sequoia was retired from service. Rosalynn Carter never bothered to commission her own china pattern for the executive mansion—a usual custom for First Ladies. And the Carters did not spend the full allowance an incoming President and his wife are given to refit the White House living quarters to their liking. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were also workaholics. They enjoyed weekends at Camp David, although even there, they tended to bring along "homework" and engage in policy and political discussions with key aides.
Although Jimmy Carter helped to restore faith in government after the Nixon Watergate debacle and the Ford pardon, during his presidency the authority of government declined. More Americans than ever before believed that government was being run for large interests not the common good, that America was on the wrong track, and that leaders in Washington were not interested in their problems. Carter himself was the major part of the problem.
Public Cynicism and Small Gains
Pollster Pat Caddell's own surveys for Carter showed that public cynicism about the government was at an all-time high. Half of the American people were pessimistic about the future, compared with only 30 percent in 1975. Those optimistic had declined from 47 to 21 percent. Many Americans thought it made no difference who got elected to office. Most felt that the government was not paying attention to them. Yet Carter's political position was precarious. Cadell told Carter that in polling samples, "More people believe you to be ineffective than effective, wishy washy than decisive, not in control than in control." Cadell further reported, "Concern for people has declined, as has the belief that you take on tough issues, even if they are unpopular. The half leg of competence is gone entirely." The news got worse: "By two to one margins, the electorate believes you unable to take charge of the government and unable to reorganize the government."
The voter turnout in 1976 was distressingly low, just 54 percent of registered voters. Many people, still disgusted with government's missteps in the era, stayed home. In 1978 midterm elections turnout was also down from its historical patterns.
The only real sign of change was that in 1980, more women voted than men for the first time. By 1976, there were 4,300 African American elected officials in America—a fourfold increase from a decade before. In its time, the Carter administration featured an unprecedented inclusion of women and minorities, including four cabinet posts and the United Nations ambassador.
Negative Socio-economic Trends
The Carter years saw a continuation of a number of negative trends for quality of life in America. The marriage rate declined, the illegitimate birth rate and the abortion rate increased, the crime rate skyrocketed, and drug use increased markedly among the young. These negative social trends were associated with growing income inequality. The Carter years mark the beginning of the "deindustrialization" of America, which for the next fifteen years, would see downsizing of the skilled workforces in American factories, as jobs moved to lower-wage nations in Latin America and Asia. There was a sharp increase in income inequality: the top fifth of American families, headed by managerial and professional breadwinners, increased their incomes. The bottom fifth saw incomes decline. Especially hard hit would be young people, who in the late 1970s found it increasingly difficult to get good entry level jobs, or indeed any jobs at all.
With inflation moving into double-digit range, interest rates on consumer goods and mortgages moving in the same range, and productivity and growth of the gross national product declining, America was entering into an era of "stagflation." This was the worst of all possible worlds (barring depression), in which low growth was combined with high inflation. The poor and elderly were hardest hit of all. It seemed by the end of the Carter presidency that for the first time since the Great Depression, the American Dream was foreclosed for the rural and urban poor (now referred to as the "underclass"). Young working and middle class families would never be able to live as well as their parents.
Jimmy Carter is much more highly regarded today than when he lost his bid for reelection in 1980. He has produced an exemplary post-presidency, and today there is an increased appreciation for the enormity of the task he took on in 1977, if not for the measures he took to deal with the crises that he faced. Carter took office just thirty months after a President had left the entire federal government in a shambles. He faced epic challenges—the energy crisis, Soviet aggression, Iran, and above all, a deep mistrust of leadership by his citizens. He was hard working and conscientious. But he often seemed like a player out of position, a man more suited to be secretary of energy than president. Carter became President by narrowly defeating an uninspiring, unelected chief executive heir to the worst presidential scandal in history. The nomination was his largely because in the decade before 1976, Democratic leadership in the nation had been decimated by scandal, Vietnam, and an assassination.
Jimmy Carter was the second death knell for the old liberal politics of the 1960s. The first had been the Democratic candidate preceding him, George McGovern. Carter was successful largely because he was one of the first to discern the public's overall disaffection with liberalism that endures to this day. At every turn he sought to portray himself as a new type of Democrat.
As President, Carter revived a long-dormant practice of presidential mediation in disputes between other nations, something every succeeding chief executive has emulated to varying degrees. His insistence on American leadership in the protection of human rights around the world helped to subvert the power of communist and other dictatorial regimes, and eventually led to the human rights initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s. His stubborn independence, a great asset while climbing to the presidency, was in many ways his downfall once he attained the office. His refusal to engage in a give and take with Congress; the ill-conceived boycott of the Olympic Games; his inability to use force effectively to resolve the crisis in Iran; his inability to build coalitions and to be flexible in dealings with friends and foes. These varied characteristics combined to brand him as ineffectual.
There was always, it seemed, something unlucky about him: massive public disaffection with government, the fires of crisis breaking out at home and abroad, the hostile post-Watergate press, and, by the end of his term, a challenge by a smooth, consummately telegenic challenger with an engaging new conservative message.