Jimmy Carter: The 39th President

Jimmy Carter: The 39th President

The oldest living former president recently turned 99

He had campaigned against Washington, its wicked ways.

James Schlesinger, Secretary of Energy, Carter Oral History Project

President Jimmy Carter, whose office announced in February, 2023 that he had entered hospice care after several recent hospital stays, is much more highly regarded today than when he lost his bid for reelection in 1980. He 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 30 months after a president had left the entire federal government in a shambles. He faced epic challenges—an 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 who was 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.

President Carter holding hands with Rosalyn Carter and waving
January 20, 1977: President and Rosalyn Carter walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo: National Archives

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.


Read more about the 39th president through the Miller Center's Oral History Project, the first of which began in 1981 with the Center's ground-breaking work on the Jimmy Carter White House. Carter was the first president elected in the post-Watergate era—meaning that there would be no Oval Office recordings for historians to mine in examining this administration. Under the direction of Bancroft Prize-winning Professor James Sterling Young, the Miller Center moved to fill this crucial historical deficiency. From 1981 to 1985, more than 50 members of the Carter administration—including President Carter himself—recorded oral history interviews, creating an important archive of primary source materials for students of Carter and his time.

—Excerpted from an article by Robert Strong

Excerpts from the Jimmy Carter Oral History Project

President Jimmy Carter

After the election, of course, my primary responsibility was to put together a Cabinet and further to define a specific agenda for the initial weeks of the administration. I also had to try to get acquainted with the members of the Congress with whom I would be working. I turned over to Jack Watson and to my son Chip and a few others the responsibility for the transition period and the actual arrangement for the taking over of the government, and they did a good job of that.

In those processes, we began to learn more about the agenda that ought to be mine when I became President. As I interviewed these people—on an average I interviewed from three to six candidates for a Cabinet post personally—I would ask for their ideas. When I talked to Harold Brown or Charlie Duncan, for instance, I would ask them what they thought ought to be done in the Department of Defense to make it more efficient, to eliminate waste and to have a more orderly and methodical procedure for establishing defense priorities and so forth. It was the same thing with HEW, same thing with Transportation, so as I interviewed people who might be Cabinet officers, I extracted from them their ideas on the top priorities in their mind in their own departments.

At the same time, I was meeting with congressional leaders, who were fairly deferential to my ideas during the transition phase. They came down to Plains; we met at Herman Talmadge’s farm; I went to Washington. I met with every chairman of every major committee in the House or Senate. I had an all-day session at the Smithsonian with both Democratic and Republican leaders and all my Cabinet officers who were involved in important defense matters, just to talk about the agenda for defense and foreign policy.

I was experienced as a Governor. I think I did a good job as Governor. I did a lot of innovative things, all of which have stood the test of time. So I took that experience to Washington, but there were at least two remarkable differences. One was just that the Washington environment was much more of a major factor than was the Atlanta environment on a comparative basis. I could ignore the people in Atlanta who were the social, business, and media leaders, if I so chose, with relative impunity and deal primarily with the members of the legislature. There was a much more isolated relationship between the legislative and executive branch on the one hand, and the general public and the news media on the other, than was the case in Washington where the lobbyists and the law firms and the news media leaders, in particular the columnists and others, were such an important element of government in Washington. And I underestimated that. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.

It didn’t take us long to realize that the underestimation existed, but by that time, we were not able to repair that mistake. I’m not trying to rationalize too much, but in retrospect, as I wrote the book and thought about it a lot and got probed on every side from Steve and from my editors and Jody and Hamilton and Zbig and others who read it over before it was published, I’m just not sure that there was not an inherent incompatibility there. Whether I could have overcome it by having a series of private luncheons or suppers at the White House for the news media in the first few weeks, I have my doubts. But I’m willing to grant that that’s a possibility.

I think that this was the first realization that our relationship with the press was not going to be harmonious, even though we thought our motives were pure. We thought our agenda was proper. We thought we were all honest and serving in a pleasant attitude, but in a self-sacrificial way in that we were dedicated to what we were doing. We were idealistic, maybe to a fault. Some have said pious and so forth to a fault. But the fact that we were distrusted was revealed in the Bert Lance episode. I think it was an attitude of the press, maybe in the aftermath of Watergate and so forth, and because I was an alien in Washington, it was inevitable.

Obviously, we had seen the problems that [Richard] Nixon and Ford had had with Congress, but it was a Democratic Congress. I expected when I went into the White House to have a much more harmonious relationship with the Democratic Congress than did occur. There’s no question about that. The basic agenda that we presented to the Congress at that time was carried out. It was supported and evolved between me, Bob Byrd, Tip O’Neill and the other Democratic leaders. There was a similar economic circumstance then to what we have now: high unemployment, a long period of stable oil prices, the inflation rate being fairly low, extraordinary deficits for those times—sixty-six billion dollars, I think, was Ford’s last deficit that I inherited—and the main program that we had was to stimulate the economy and to create jobs. There was no incompatibility between me and the Democratic leaders on those basic issues.