By Tony Pederson
When the Carter Center in Atlanta announced that former President Jimmy Carter would begin hospice treatment at home, tributes poured in from the United States and around the world. The duality of his public life was refreshed for a new generation. The man who served one difficult and contentious term as president and who lost reelection in a landslide also became what many consider the most successful ex-president in U.S. history. As the tributes poured in, so, too, did at least some rethinking of his presidency.
The reflections on his life involve memories of how his election in 1976 had been filled with such promise. He was the quintessential outsider–a man who had served without special distinction in the Georgia Senate and one term as that state’s governor. And yet he had come along at exactly the right moment in history.
“He was the antidote to Richard Nixon,” said Carolyn Barta, who covered national affairs and politics for 35 years for The Dallas Morning News. “Jimmy Carter said many times, ‘I will never lie to you,’ marking a sharp contrast with Nixon and Watergate.”
Nixon had resigned in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. Gerald Ford had become president and promptly pardoned Nixon, a controversial move that haunted Ford’s candidacy for president.
Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a frequently quoted expert on presidential politics, said: “Carter’s squeaky clean technocrat image played very well in the first post-Watergate election.”
Southern Democrats had for generations been resistant to changes in civil rights. Carter, born in 1924, had grown up in an era in which he witnessed Southern racism and Jim Crow laws that remained in effect, and painfully effective, until the 1960s. As governor he had appointed Blacks to state positions and promoted opportunities for Blacks in education, housing, and jobs. Carter was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, identified himself as a peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., and was a white politician from a traditionally segregationist state who spoke forcefully in favor of civil rights. The first president from the Deep South since 1848, Carter had historically significant support from Black voters and, also, because of a deep Christian faith about which he spoke openly, white Southern Baptists. Yet well before his first term ended, he became unpopular even among leaders in his Democratic Party as well as many Southern Baptists. His administration was plagued by high inflation, high energy costs that included long lines at gasoline stations, high interest rates, and high unemployment. In the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan won 44 states.
“It just seemed to add up that his administration was hapless and feeble,” said Barta, who retired recently as a professor of practice in journalism at SMU. “His accomplishments, and there were some, were always overshadowed by his problems. The appearance was that he just wasn’t a strong leader.”
After losing, Carter established the Carter Center as an international nongovernmental entity engaging in conflict resolution, promotion of democracy, and medical advances in Third World countries. The easy analysis is that Carter was an exceptional ex-president and, at best, a mediocre or even poor president. Yet he was a man of uncommon grace and integrity, and it may well be that the ongoing reflections of his long life will change some of the historical perspective of his presidency.
Even “the malaise speech” reconsidered
Carter’s term as president became identified, some say defined, by the hostage crisis in Iran. In late 1979, 52 Americans became hostages when Iranian militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They were held for 444 days. ABC News launched a Monday-through-Thursday program, The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage, which became a nightly reminder of what many considered an increasingly impotent country. Adding to the tragedy was the spectacular failure of a military rescue mission in which three of the eight helicopters being used failed. One crashed, killing eight service members. Carter took full responsibility for the failure.
Especially curious has always been the fact that despite being a liberal, Carter was in effect abandoned by the Kennedy-era liberals of his party. Columnist Edward Luce of the Financial Times has detailed some of the reasons for Carter’s problems among the traditional liberals, including the primary challenge by Sen. Ted Kennedy when Carter was seeking reelection. Luce concludes that Carter became “an orphan of partisan historiography.”
Kai Bird, author of The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, expressed a similar sense in The New York Times. “His presidency is remembered, simplistically, as a failure, yet it was more consequential than most recall,” Bird wrote. Bird notes the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, the Salt II arms control agreement, diplomatic and trade relations with China, and immigration reform. Bird writes that Carter is “the most misunderstood president of the last century.”
Both Luce and Bird reference what seems to be strong evidence, not proven, of Reagan campaign manager Bill Casey making a secret trip to Europe in the summer of 1980 to meet Iranian officials and strike a deal that prolonged the hostage crisis until after the election. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981, the day Carter left office.
Perhaps the most famous speech Carter gave during his presidency was what came to be called “the malaise speech,” even though the word “malaise” wasn’t used by Carter. The speech was given in the summer of 1979, when problems seemed to be mounting and little was being done. Carter said that the United States was suffering from a crisis of confidence and that “all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.” The perceived pessimism seemed to set the tone for the remainder of his term and his campaign for reelection. Yet the speech has been a key part of some of the rethinking of Carter’s presidency.
Peggy Noonan, a speech writer for Reagan when he was president and who knows a thing or two about good speech writing, called it “a good speech–brave, original and pertinent to the moment,” in her Declarations column in The Wall Street Journal. Other analysts have said it was an excellent speech, just given years too soon. What Americans were losing confidence in, as Noonan and others have pointed out, was not necessarily the country or what it represented. Americans were losing confidence in the president. Soon after the speech, the hostages were taken in Iran, and matters only got worse.
Carter and civil rights
Carter’s commitment to civil rights will certainly be a major part of his place in history. He came from a conservative state that, even as he was elected governor in 1970, had strong segregationist sentiment. Many were shocked at his inaugural address as governor on January 12, 1971.
“I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over,” Carter said. “Our people have already made this major and difficult decision, but we cannot underestimate the challenge of hundreds of minor decisions yet to be made. Our inherent human charity and our religious beliefs will be taxed to the limit. No poor, rural, weak, or Black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or simple justice. We Georgians are fully capable of making our judgments and managing our own affairs. We who are strong or in positions of leadership must realize that the responsibility for making correct decisions in the future is ours. As governor, I will never shirk this responsibility.”
When Carter announced his campaign for president in late 1974, he had virtually no name recognition nationally, and many in the national media considered his attempt quixotic. He had served as governor 1971-1975, succeeding Lester Maddox. (Maddox had defeated Carter in 1966 in the Democratic primary for governor.) Maddox was elected as a staunch segregationist after refusing to serve Blacks in his Atlanta restaurant, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Maddox was prohibited by Georgia law from seeking a second consecutive term, and Carter won election as governor in 1970. In his term, Carter established a record of support for civil rights, and huge numbers of Blacks supported his candidacy.
“You can argue that Carter’s contributions were important and symbolic, but not transformative. In that regard, Carter’s appointment of Andrew Young as ambassador to the UN was important. Carter appointed Clifford Alexander as first Black Secretary of the Army,” Marvin P. King, associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi, wrote in an email. “Prior to his time in the presidency, Carter campaigned and lost to Lester Maddox, an arch segregationist. In that sense, Carter’s importance was serving as a symbolic representative of the future of the racially liberal Democratic Party. He also served as a symbolic representative of the New South ethos corporate Atlanta promoted to distance the region from its segregationist past.”
Barta noted that Carter consistently talked about civil rights and creating opportunities for Blacks, yet he was caught in a Democratic Party where, at least in the South, sentiment was shifting rapidly and the Republican Party was gaining power. “Carter was a liberal in an area that was increasingly conservative,” Barta said. “Reagan changed everything of course, and the South became solidly Republican.”
In the 1980 campaign, Reagan gave a major speech at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 that proved to be one of the galvanizing moments in civil rights history. The theme of the speech was Reagan’s belief in states’ rights. The Reagan campaign understood clearly the shifting ground among Democrats and the need to win Southern states. He knew that states’ rights was a historic term that still had meaning in the South.
Roger House, associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College in Boston, recently published in The Hill an excellent summary of Carter’s record on Civil Rights, “Why Jimmy Carter deserved my vote–and that of other Black Americans.” House wrote: “His vision of racial democracy in the South belied his upbringing in the culture of white supremacy; the state’s history bridged slavery, expulsion of Indian nations, Confederate rebellion, Jim Crow politics, and violent resistance to civil rights.”
The support for civil rights has also been noted by Otis Sanford, holder of the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Economic and Managerial Journalism at the University of Memphis. “It was clear that over the years Carter was interested in promoting civil rights,” Sanford said.
Sanford graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi in 1975 and immediately began work for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Sanford would later be managing editor and opinion editor and columnist for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
King notes, correctly, that Carter had few legislative successes in civil rights, and will be ranked behind President Lyndon Johnson in that regard. But, “Carter’s work in this regard was genuine,” King wrote. “Carter also supported affirmative action. In the 1970s, this was still a new concept, so it was an abrupt departure from the Nixon-era antagonisms seen on issues such as busing.”
It was not a legislative action, but in 1980 Carter signed an executive order to create the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a federal program within the Department of Education. The program distributes resources and funding to help the public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Carter was “born again”
Carter created a special fascination, and some skepticism, as a presidential candidate because of his deep faith as a Southern Baptist. O.S. Hawkins, a retired Baptist leader who as senior pastor held the historic pulpit at First Baptist Church in Dallas in the 1990s, met Carter in 1975. Carter was making an extended train trip to introduce himself to voters. He especially wanted to meet Baptist preachers. Hawkins was pastor of First Baptist Church in Ada, Okla., where Carter stopped.
“We talked for 15 or 20 minutes, and I was very impressed with him,” Hawkins recalled. “As a candidate and as president, he brought the words ‘born again’ into popular American vernacular. Nobody had ever heard it unless they had read John 3. But Carter’s use of it was a great help to evangelists like Billy Graham, because people became curious about what it meant.” (The third chapter of the Gospel of John concerns Nicodemus, a Pharisee, visiting Jesus at night. Jesus told Nicodemus that to see the kingdom of God, one must be born again. Nicodemus asks how a person can be born a second time. Jesus replies that one must be born again of water and of the spirit.)
Hawkins remembered that Carter’s first book, Why Not the Best?, was written to try to present himself to the American people as his campaign was beginning. And yet, Carter had difficulty getting it published. It was finally published by Broadman Press, the Christian publisher in Nashville.
Jack Graham is senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, a megachurch with satellite locations in North Texas. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2001-2002. He said there is little doubt that Carter had a strong and positive influence on the national conversation about faith in 1975-76.
“I voted for him as did I think most Southern Baptists because he was so public about his faith,” Graham said. “He was a righteous man and a good husband.”
Carter’s decades of teaching Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist church in his hometown of Plains ended only during the beginning of the Covid pandemic in 2020. He continued teaching even after his diagnosis for brain cancer and radiation treatments in 2015. Yet Graham said growing disagreement with Carter and government policy, especially on abortion, helped fuel the conservative resurgence among Baptists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Southern Baptist support shifted strongly to Ronald Reagan and remained so during his two terms. “We had other disagreements with Carter, including on economic policy, but it was mainly our pro-life position that was the basis of the division,” Graham said. In an op-ed piece published in The Dallas Morning News in January of 2020, Graham explained the reasons he and other evangelicals supported Donald Trump. The main reason was Trump’s position on abortion.
In 1979, conservatives took control as Southern Baptist Convention messengers met in Houston. Conservatives believed that liberal theology was influencing the denomination’s seminaries and agencies in a negative way. Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., was elected SBC president, would serve three terms, and led a major realignment of theology among Southern Baptists. It was no accident that Southern Baptists and other evangelical groups supported Ronald Reagan and forged a deep, politically powerful bond.
Carter also created confusion and even anger at times regarding his faith. The famous interview before the election in 1976 with Playboy magazine created one of the many headaches for Carter and his supporters. In the interview, Carter said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” The comment made Time magazine’s Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-liners as No. 5. At the top of the list was Richard Nixon’s infamous one-liner, “I am not a crook.”
Yet Graham said Carter’s record after his presidency had earned respect and admiration across the political spectrum. “Even with policy disagreements, I have complete respect for him as a man of faith and for what he did after leaving the presidency,” Graham said.
The Nobel Peace Prize
Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, becoming the only U.S. president to win the award after leaving office. The Nobel citation noted “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
Obituary writers for generations have faced the conflict of emphasizing the good about a person and yet being able to write accurately about that person’s shortcomings. Jimmy Carter certainly was not among our greatest presidents. In rankings of presidents by historians and political scientists, Carter is generally in the bottom half, sometimes bottom third. History has a way of evening scores, and that ranking may change over time. But he was, by any measure, extraordinarily successful as a former president.
Sanford of the University of Memphis said he has referred to Carter as “the greatest ex-president we ever had.” That judgment seems sound. Jimmy Carter consistently demonstrated that he was a good man, a very decent human being, in every sense. He was exceptional in demonstrating what a man of Christian faith can do in taking stock of a world he can change for the better. And then doing everything possible to change it.
Tony Pederson is professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He formerly held The Belo Foundation Endowed Distinguished Chair in Journalism at SMU. Before that, he was executive editor and senior vice president of the Houston Chronicle.