It wasn’t exactly Jimmy Carter’s finest hour. He was lost, searching for answers, and had called a number of political advisors to the White House to offer suggestions. Washington insider Clark Clifford, watching as President Carter sat on the floor and scribbled down notes as people spoke to him, couldn't help thinking that it would have been inconceivable to imagine “Lyndon Johnson sitting on the floor and saying, ‘Tell me what I am doing wrong.’” The image many of us have of Jimmy Carter—39th President of the United States—is of a micromanager who couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
There is another side of Carter often overlooked: the political leader whose enduring legacy is the establishment of human rights as the central objective of American diplomacy.
Both of these sides of the Carter presidency are discussed in detail in Julian E. Zelizer’s relatively short (150 pages) and engagingly written account of Carter’s rise to power, his four years as president, and his surprisingly active years after leaving the White Office.
Jimmy Carter was among the fresh faces to emerge from the New South, a bright young politician remarkably free of racial prejudice. He was elected to state office by a combination of moderate whites and newly-enfranchised African Americans. Carter served with distinction in the Georgia legislature and as governor before running for president. In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Carter presented a renewed sense of idealism to the American electorate. With an engaging manner and infectious grin, he surprised the pundits with his victory in the Iowa caucus, after which there was no stopping his run for his party’s nomination. Against incumbent president Gerald R. Ford in the fall election, it was a case of two Nice Guys competing for the same job, with Carter perceived as the wiser and sharper of the two, giving him a slight edge that carried him to the White House.
While he was an excellent campaigner, Carter was not a mixer, which became evident once he became president. He had ideals aplenty but none of the Washington know-how to carry them out. On top of that, he entered office acting as if he didn’t need help from Capitol Hill. His first mistake was not appointing a chief of staff, which complicated and prolonged the White House decision-making process. His second mistake was offending his very own party in Congress—the Democrats. According to one aid, as far as Carter was concerned, “anyone who disagreed with him was simply wrong.” There followed a number of embarrassing blunders. Adding insult to injury, the Senate overturned most of Carter’s decisions.
What Carter did get right was his decision to make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He made a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement a prime object, and achieved it with the Camp David Accords between Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, and Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Of equal historical significance was his negotiation of an agreement to return the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. On the other hand, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of American hostages by radical Islamic students in Iran were a decided setback that proved beyond his ability to manage.
What hurt him politically was the state of the national economy. While Carter pursued his ambitions for energy and human rights policies, the Democratic Congress was far more interested in alleviating the impact of stagnation on their constituents. High rates of unemployment and inflation were hitting voters from both ends, and representatives were feeling their anger. A gasoline shortage, a scandal involving one of his aids, the nuclear meltdown at the Three-Mile Island energy plant, and Ted Kennedy’s decision to seek the Democratic nomination in 1980, further hurt him.
Carter not only began to question himself, but to question the nation, which he did in a televised address. He told Americans that they faced a crisis of confidence and urged them to recognize—and to accept—that their families lived in an age of limits. The speech drew mixed responses. Many felt that Carter blamed the nation for the problems they were struggling with rather than offering solutions and leadership.
In 1980, when Reagan emerged as the Republican Party’s candidate for president, a testy Carter implied that his opponent was an outright racist and willing to launch a nuclear war if elected. Carter later apologized for his remarks. A bigger blow to Carter occurred during the presidential debate, when Reagan asked Americans to consider whether they were better off in 1980 than four years earlier. Despite the economy, despite Reagan’s unexpected savvy as a debater, the election remained close until the final weekend. On Sunday night, two days before the election, Carter went before the nation and announced that a deal to release the hostages being held in Iran would not reached before the election. Two days later, Reagan won in a landslide.
After losing to Reagan, Carter did a great deal to resurrect his reputation. He traveled widely, met with a number of world leaders, and back at home lent his name, his time and his energy, in support of Habitat for Humanity. As I write this review, Carter is 95 years old and still active.
“For all of Carter’s equivocations and inconsistencies,” writes one historian, “the mere fact that an American president had used his bully pulpit to raise a cry about human rights had profoundly affected the rest of the world and the American public.” How's that for an epitaph?