Category: Well-Meaning Bumbler
Term in Office: 39th president, 1977-1981
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: Georgia
When I published my first presidential ranking in 2005 on my old xanga blog, I encouraged others who read my work regularly (about 4-5 people, which is roughly double that of the Northumbrian Countdown today) to come up with their own rankings. One guy who was part of our study-abroad term in London obliged, giving a hyper-partisan ranking with Reagan and George W. Bush in the top ten, and Carter, Clinton, FDR, and LBJ rounding out the bottom four. I was gobsmacked at what a stupid, stupid, unbelievably stupid response this was. I said a few things I shouldn’t have, and it ultimately ended our friendship. Just a few years afterward, conservative newsmagazine National Review attempted a poll determining the worst Americans of all time. The trust-fund babies over at National Review’s readership gave the top prize to Carter, who edged out, say, Benedict Arnold, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Timothy McVeigh, and so on. For the last 30+ years Carter has been unfairly maligned by one faction of American politics just to make his successor, Ronald Reagan, look all the better in comparison.
Fortunately, I’m here to set the record straight. I’m going to try and argue that Carter had the right ideas and was the single greatest human rights president of the 20th century, and possibly any century. What he lacked was the political acumen to get much of his agenda accomplished, despite enjoying a super-majority for his party in Congress. Worse still, as a Southerner without an incriminating record on segregation, he could have bridged his party’s post-civil rights Dixie wing and its liberal wing like few others.
It is hard to imagine a candidate like Jimmy Carter winning the presidency under any circumstances aside from those that transpired in 1976. With the simple introduction, “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president,” Carter followed the McGovern playbook for winning the primaries: declare your candidacy early, don’t worry about endorsements, and build a grassroots organization of young volunteers. Carter ran as a moderate, carefully distancing himself from the McGovernite left whose strategy he borrowed, and the Confederate “Id” of George Wallace, in order to appeal to heartland states. To further help him along, so many liberals jumped into the open field (Fred Harris, Mo Udall, Sargent Shriver, Hubert Humphrey) that they effectively cancelled one another out. Remembering the heightened cynicism that thrived after Watergate, Carter was the first person to run for president as a “Washington outsider” promising to sweep into national office the kind of level-headed thinking and homespun virtue that thrived in the provinces. Douglas Brinkley put it, “it was the closest America has come to picking a president out of the phone book.” Wearing his born-again faith on his sleeve, Carter ran partly on his record as governor of Georgia, but mostly on his small-business background and his penchant for honesty and plain dealing. This was an effective tactic- nearly every subsequent president has copied it- but it had some serious flaws.
Once Carter was elected, he took his outsider’s mentality with him, stocking his cabinet and administrative offices largely with other Washington outsiders, leaving the administration unable to understand the folkways and habits of the capital. Often, they unintentionally gave offense and made unnecessary enemies. Important phone calls would go unreturned, politically crucial invitations would not always be accepted. Jimmy Carter fatally thought that standing by the right thing would bring Congress to his side. What he was slow to understand was the need to cajole Congress, play ball, and see it as a creature not entirely susceptible to moral suasion or reason. Most famously, Carter vetoed a pork-barrel project early in his presidency. While some of its provisions were, indeed, wasteful, Carter alienated many of the congressional leaders whose help he would need during his administration. Most presidents realize these sorts of things instinctually; Carter never did. His vice-president, Walter Mondale, once said that the worst thing you could do was try and convince Carter that a particular course of action was politically expedient. His sense of outrage would kick in; he would dig in his heels against it.
Carter’s management style was also haphazard. He could be curt with subordinates, surprise them unpleasantly without warning (as he did when he fired half his cabinet in 1979), and micro-managed ferociously. Even if the story about Carter keeping track of when the White House tennis court schedule is apocryphal, it is in keeping with the tenor of his presidency. While he worked hard and strove for efficiency, he did not always inspire compliance or devotion, two things necessary to run an unwieldy executive branch. For those keeping track, the other two businessman-presidents, Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, didn’t do too well either. Those who think that the White House should be run with a businessman’s mentality would do well to consider how this has not worked in the past.
Nevertheless, Carter deserves an immense amount of credit for something he could sometimes do, unilaterally, as president- support a human rights paradigm to foreign policy. He cut against nearly a century of American imperialism in Latin America by securing a treaty giving the Panama Canal to its rightful owner of Panama, a nation that only existed in the first place because of U.S. meddling in the region during the Teddy Roosevelt days. He cut out the dangerous practice in place since the Cold War of looking the other way when our allies took part in human rights abuses. Instead, he called out undemocratic-yet-anticommunist regimes in Nicaragua, Chile, and South Korea, refusing to see the world situation as an us-vs.-them Manichean conflict, as virtually every other Cold War leader had done. Even more substantively, he played a crucial role in the Camp David Accords, often physically keeping Sadat and Begin from leaving the room and walking off. In a triumph of willpower, Carter managed to get the hostile Middle East powers of Egypt and Israel to come to an agreement.
Ultimately, Carter’s presidency was sunk by failing to address to the public’s satisfaction two major crises: a bad economy and the Iran hostage crisis. First the economy: the late 70s economy was an unqualified disaster. America’s postwar advantage in manufacturing eroded as Europe fully recovered and Asian markets industrialized. Due to the baby boom, America’s energy needs outweighed what it could produce, making the nation susceptible to Middle East and OPEC politics. When Nixon cut off the dollar from the gold standard, the economy struggled to adjust. At times, the economic situation seemed dire: a “misery index” was created to gauge how bad it was using two factors that should, by all rights, never occur in tandem: a high inflation rate, and a high unemployment rate. At its worst, the “Misery Index” hovered around 20% during the Carter presidency. Carter helped alleviate the economic crisis of the 1970s by appointing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Fed. While the whole story is complicated, the simple version is this: to combat the tepid lending and borrowing, the federal funds rate was raised, and with it, the inflation rate. The inflation was a very great inconvenience to those working (and saving money) at the time, but in the fullness of time, it appears that this was a necessary step to reset the economic cycle from the onslaught of mid-70s shocks to its system. While Reagan presided over the economic recovery, the seeds were sown during Carter’s administration, as his people lobbied for reform that caused pain in the short term but ultimately set a recovery in place.
The Iran Hostage Crisis became just as serious a dilemma. After Carter offered asylum and medical aid to the deposed Shah of Iran, the new Islamist government took over the U.S. embassy, creating a hostage crisis that extended for over a year. Although a rescue attempt was devised, it ended in a poorly timed crash while refueling. While Carter spared no effort in trying to negotiate for the hostages’ freedom, he was unable to broker a deal, so hated was he in Iran. As a result, America looked weak and ineffectual, stoking America’s foreign policy anxieties that were already heightened from the war in Vietnam. This anxiety was compounded by a feckless policy toward the Soviets that lurched between moral condemnation and arms control outreach. Ultimately, Carter failed at both, with bizarre symbolic actions (boycotting the Olympics in Russia, reinstating the Selective Service) carrying the day.
All of these crises were compounded by a poor media presence. Carter’s moralism was a breath of fresh air two years after Watergate, but grew tiresome as his presidency wore on. He lacked a sense of humor, he could not convey confidence, and he didn’t really have a capacity to cajole, persuade, or teach the public. His eccentric and often huckster-ish family, particularly his brother Billy who started a line of beer and accepted money from Libyan agents, proved to be costly distractions. In the age of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live, Carter’s attempt to keep a feral rabbit out of his canoe while on vacation, caught on video, seemed to highlight his inability to solve greater problems.
When Michael Beschloss’s Presidential Courage came out several years ago, it included some great moments, from Jackson’s bank veto to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclaimation. One glaring omission was Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, still derisively called “The Malaise Speech” in some circles today. Delivered in 1979 as oil prices shot ever higher, Carter laid out a policy for a sustainable energy system ahead of its time that involved cultivating a more diverse set of domestic resources. But he went beyond that, explaining that the core of the crisis was America’s need to have everything they wanted in unlimited qualities; greed, not Middle-East oil politics, was at the crux of the crisis. This call to use less energy- one Carter reinforced personally by wearing sweaters in the White House and lowering the thermostat- was roundly mocked in the months to come. It was the Carter presidency in a nutshell- the right idea ineptly and ineffectually expressed. Rather than accept a world of limitations, the American public instead voted for Reagan, who smiled a lot, and essentially told Americans they could have everything they desired; such was the genius of free enterprise.
When he ran for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter said that the American people deserved a government as good as they were. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what they got in 1980. Americans accepted Reagan’s promise of sacrifice-free prosperity, and in return got a slashed social safety net, massive income inequality, and horrendous debt. Nevertheless, it is hard to blame the public for ousting the president, considering the high unemployment, high inflation, and the loss of prestige in world affairs. How great can Carter be when even most Democrats I know who were around in that era roll their eyes and shake their heads when I bring up his term in office?
Ultimately, it is frustrating to see four years of Jimmy Carter partly because there were so many Democrats from his era who could have done a better job than he did. Off the top of my head, I could name 35 who were still active in 1976. Don’t believe me? Fine: Hubert Humphrey, Sarge Shriver, Morris Udall, Ed Muskie, Gaylord Nelson, William Proxmire, Pat Lucey, Claiborne Pell, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Inouye, Ralph Yarborough, Dale Bumpers, Reuben Askew, Fred Harris, Mike Mansfield, Abraham Ribicoff, Joe Biden, Frank Church, John Glenn Jr., Birch Bayh, Adlai Stevenson III, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern (I’m not kidding), Claude Pepper, Samuel Stratton, Paul Simon, John Brademas, Shirley Chisholm, Peter Rodino, Robert Drinan, Thurgood Marshall, Ramsey Clark, Stuart Udall, Arthur Goldberg. Seriously. An embarrassment of riches. On the balance, any of them could have handled the everyday duties of the presidency better than Carter, while attaining most, if not all, of his moral vision. Worse still, only two of these talents- Mondale and Muskie- were invited to play a major role in his administration. If you go back and read my assessment of Ulysses Grant’s presidency, I talk about my value-over-replacement-player theory. In a nutshell, it means that you should take into consideration how many contemporaries of a given president could have realistically done better. On these grounds, Carter does not look very good at all; he had the misfortune of serving during the single greatest stretch of Democratic talent in the party’s history, in my opinion.
My final take on Carter: a guy who had a lot of the correct ideas, and through his singular faith was able to approach the great geopolitical problems of his era in a fundamentally different way; he could challenge conventional wisdom more than any other president of the postwar era. He combined a humanitarian mindset with an eagerness for sacrifice and a hatred of government waste, a stance that commends itself in hindsight. For all of this, he could have been a very successful president, even in trying times and a bad economy. Yet, his political tone-deafness, and his inability to publicly project confidence, undermined his time in office, making him a one-term president.