JAMES EARL “JIMMY” CARTER JR.
Our 39th president of the United States (1977-1981), Jimmy Carter (as he was known and signed official documents) may be largely regarded as a better ex-president than POTUS. Serving only one term, he was soundly outvoted by Ronald Reagan in 1980 after his administration suffered several political crises. Yet, in the past 40 years he has gained wide respect for his post-presidency, which has included hands-on homebuilding with Habitat for Humanity and supervising elections around the globe.
There is a great deal more to Jimmy Carter than his biographical details. He lives his principles. For example, he just celebrated 75 years of marriage to Rosalynn, the longest married presidential couple in American history. “It’s a full partnership,” said Carter, adding, “My wife is much more political.” Said Rosalynn, “I love it. I love campaigning.” Carter also has continued teaching weekly Sunday School, even at 96. His public character demonstrates moral leadership, showing caring and fairness in all he does. In a fascinating new book that takes an updated look at Carter, author Kai Bird in The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, says,
As president, Carter was not merely an outsider; he was an outlier. He was the only president in a century to grow up in the heart of the Deep South, and his born-again Christianity made him the most openly religious president in memory. This outlier brought to the White House a rare mix of humility, candor, and unnerving self-confidence that neither Washington nor America was ready to embrace. Decades before today’s public reckoning with the vast gulf between America’s ethos and its actions, Carter looked out on a nation torn by race and demoralized by Watergate and Vietnam and prescribed a radical self-examination from which voters recoiled.
This description conforms to media reports about Carter the man, and may pinpoint reasons his presidency hit roadblocks. He was frequently ahead of the electorate in making moral judgments that affected US policy. In 1980, Carter refused to allow American athletes to compete in the Olympic Games in Moscow following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
After his election in 1976 (beating brief incumbent Jerry Ford) on a platform of honesty (“I’ll never lie to you”) following the Watergate scandal, his administration faltered in the 1979–1981 Iran hostage crisis, the 1979 energy crisis, and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Carter tried unsuccessfully to gain release of the hostages in Iran after his attempt at a rescue failed. The Iranians deliberately stalled their release until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981. Carter also faced a primary election challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy (MA).
A major bright point of his presidency and perhaps his greatest achievement was the Camp David Accords–political agreements signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978 following 12 days of secret negotiations at Camp David. The agreements were signed at the White House. The second of these framework agreements led directly to the 1979 Egypt–Israel peace treaty. Due to the agreement, Sadat and Begin received the shared 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
Born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia, Carter attended the US Naval Academy from 1943 to 1946. In 1952 and 1953, he was associated with the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, headed by Adm. Hyman Rickover. But the death of Carter’s father in 1953 led him back to Plains, to take over the family’s peanut business.
Rosalynn Carter, with her husband’s support, expanded the role of the first lady, attending Cabinet meetings, working on mental health and other policy priorities, and formally creating the Office of the First Lady, in the East Wing, with its own chief of staff.
Carter’s political life began when he served as a state senator between 1963 and 1967. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1966 but won the office in 1970, serving until 1975. He then campaigned for the presidency in the election of 1976, beating Ford 50 to 48 percent. During his presidency he had to cope with the US energy crisis, which witnessed gas lines everywhere. He established two new cabinet departments, Energy and Education. Further, he oversaw deregulation of the airline industry. On a personal level, however, he–and his top aides–had difficulty interacting with Congress, which limited his success.
In his post-presidency, Carter established the Carter Center in Atlanta to promote human rights worldwide, wrote some 30 books ranging from politics to poetry, and has participated actively with Habitat for Humanity, which builds and donates houses for the poor. As noted, he also teaches Sunday School in Plains while facing serious health issues, including both liver and brain cancer. With a 40-year retirement stretch, he is both the oldest living president and the one enjoying the longest post-presidency.