The Case for Carter
Is it time for a reassessment of the Carter presidency?
I was nine when I learned the word debacle. The word appeared on the May 5, 1980 cover of Time magazine with a watercolor portrait of President Jimmy Carter, despairing and deflated. “Debacle in the Desert,” the cover headline, reported the tragic story of the failed helicopter rescue attempt Carter ordered to free the 52 Americans taken hostage the previous November by Iranian students, radicalized by the new revolutionary government of Iran.
The plan called for eight helicopters to fly low over the Iranian desert toward a rendezvous point called Desert One where they were to pick up 120 Delta Force commandos dropped there by C-130 cargo planes flown in from the Gulf of Oman. The helicopters would shuttle the commandos to waiting trucks just outside of Tehran. Once boarded, they would be driven to the American embassy where the hostages were being held. The commandos would then breach the embassy walls, kill Iranians inside, extract the hostages and take them to a nearby stadium and the waiting American helicopters. The helicopters would spirit commandos and hostages to an airfield where C-141 transport planes would fly them to safety. As Jonathan Alter writes in his new biography of Carter, “What could possibly go wrong?” (p. 564)
Two of the helicopters never made it to Desert One. A third experienced a system failure when the desert sand crippled its hydraulics. Carter called off the mission. As they prepared to evacuate, one of the chopper pilots lost visibility in the swirling desert sand and crashed into a C-130 plane, killing eight men. Time magazine was right. The rescue mission was a debacle.
This tragic rescue attempt probably sealed Carter’s fate, leading to Ronald Reagan’s epic landslide election six months later. The tanking economy did not help. Economist Arthur Okun’s “misery index” (an economic indicator combining the nation’s unemployment and inflation rates) confirmed what many Americans were feeling: America was in trouble. In the late summer, Carter’s approval rating bottomed out in the low twenties. Even Nixon polled higher at the end of his presidency.
Then, and in the years following his presidency, a conventional wisdom settled in:
‘Carter was a good man, but a poor leader. Smart but not a savvy politician. Someone not up to the job.’
Scholars and the public generally talked about his “failed presidency.” Like Nixon, Carter was persona non grata within his party. He played no significant role in the party’s nominating conventions, and his Democratic successors rarely sought his counsel.
Carter used the years after his presidency as a period of rehabilitation. The Carter Center enabled him and Rosalyn to focus their energies on humanitarian, health, and peace work, sustaining their White House priorities into the 1980s and beyond. The Carters traveled the world, observing elections, promoting global health initiatives and brokering peace. His efforts nearly eradicated Guinea worm in Ghana, and his talks with Kim Il-Sung prepared the way for a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear program and bilateral talks between it and South Korea. In 2002, the Nobel Committee awarded Carter the Peace Prize, citing 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.”
By the time Douglas Brinkley published The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House in 1998, a new conventional wisdom had formed: Carter was a failed president, but a terrific ex-president.
Alter’s biography, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life seeks to push a new conventional wisdom. Carter was, he concludes, “a surprisingly consequential president — a political and stylistic failure but a substantive and far-sighted success.” (p. x)
Alter is unsparing in his criticism. Carter’s silence during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and early 1970s may have been politically pragmatic, but it was hardly heroic. His peevishness, stubbornness, and sanctimony alienated many supporters. His (over)confidence wearied those attempting to advance his agenda. In Alter’s telling, Carter was more admired than loved or liked; but he was also despised, including by some who might have been his political allies. Too often, among Carter’s crowd of enemies, stood himself.
Despite these personal limitations and a confluence of challenging events here and abroad, Carter scored successes that were more than fleeting wins. Alter concludes that Carter’s Camp David negotiations with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin resulted in the “most important and durable peace treaty anywhere in the world since the end of World War II.” (p. 388)
“This is the first time that an Arab and an Israeli leader have signed a comprehensive framework for peace. It contains the seeds of a time when the Middle East, with all its vast potential, may be a land of human richness and fulfillment, rather than a land of bitterness and continued conflict.”
-President Jimmy Carter, September 18, 1978
Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin at the Camp David Accords Signing Ceremony, September 17, 1978
He ranks the Camp David Accords with Carter’s successful treaty giving the Panama Canal to Panama as “two of the greatest triumphs of American foreign policy in the last quarter of the twentieth century.” (p. 387) Carter did not shrink from intractable problems. “If there is a gene for duty, responsibility, and the will to tackle messy problems with little or no potential for political gain,” Alter writes, “Jimmy Carter was born with it.” (p. 372)
Carter also normalized relations with China, a process begun with Nixon’s opening in 1972. Alter credits Carter, not Ronald Reagan, for initiating the policies that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He centered human rights as a foreign policy priority, giving hope to dissidents resisting totalitarianism across the globe. His policies quickened the fall of dictatorships. On the domestic front, Carter made gender and racial diversity within the federal judiciary a priority, for example by appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the appellate court. By Alter’s count, Carter appointed “more women and blacks for the federal bench than all of his predecessors combined, times five.” (p. 5)
“People often ask me, ‘Well, did you always want to be a judge?’ My answer is that it just wasn’t in the realm of the possible until Jimmy Carter became president and was determined to draw on the talent of all of the people, not just some of them.”
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg
He took global climate change seriously, crafted a national energy policy, and advanced a strong and progressive environmental agenda. The National Park Service doubled on his watch. When Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska tried to slip some pro-development loopholes into the Alaska Lands bill, claiming they would not adversely affect the environmental protections the legislation was designed to ensure, Carter called his bluff. The president had studied the Alaskan maps and knew Stevens was wrong. “That son of a bitch knew as much about my state as I did,” Stevens complained to an aide following his defeat. (p. 599)
Alter’s appreciative biography is a timely assessment of a misunderstood president and presidency. As we witness the convulsive death pangs of a much smaller president, it is a balm to read the story of another “outsider” who pledged to come to Washington to buck conventions, to drain the swamp, and to restore America. Carter and Trump positioned themselves as “outside the beltway” populists with anti-establishment appeal. Both were intent on shaking things up in Washington. Both freely broke the conventional rules of the Washington game. Both had a complicated and fraught relationship with their own party. And both failed to win re-election.
But as Alter’s biography makes clear, Carter was a moral man who governed with integrity. He took his oath and responsibilities seriously. He did the hard work. Trump’s biographers will not be able to say the same thing.
After the events of January 6, the reputations of all the presidents elected before 2016 are glowing a bit more brightly. Alter’s biography, to say nothing of the comparison with Trump, helps Carter’s reputation glow brighter still.