Jimmy Carter’s Legacy
In 2015, at the age of 90, former president Jimmy Carter released a statement saying that he had metastatic melanoma and that the cancer had spread to his brain. “It’s in the hands of God,” he calmly explained, “whom I worship.” News organizations dusted off obituaries and tributes poured in, including from George H. W. Bush, who tweeted “I spoke with President Carter to wish him well, and he sounded strong. Bar and I are wishing him the very best as he fights the good fight.”
The words melanoma, metastatic, and brain are never comforting. But then something unexpected happened. Carter was treated and improved. Six months later he held a press conference to announce that he was cancer free. That is one tough hombre.
Now, at 98, Carter has elected to cease traditional medical intervention and receive hospice care at his home. People assume he is dying. I wouldn’t bet on it.
It’s a bit ironic to notice Carter’s physical and spiritual strength now because during his term in office and for a long time thereafter, he was plagued by the image of weakness. Some of that was his fault, and some of it was not.
The late 1970s were challenging. The United States had just lost the longest war in our history to that point—a war that tore our domestic fabric to shreds. We had endured a presidential scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Inflation was raging (Nixon and Ford had both failed to tame it), and yet the economy fell into recession. Economists had not thought that was possible and coined a new phrase for it: “stagflation.” The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 led to rationing and long lines at gas stations. Some people installed locks on their gas caps to prevent theft by siphoning. Carter was not at fault for these troubles, but seemed out of his depth. He donned a sweater and urged people to turn down their thermostats. In a speech later recalled as the “malaise speech”—though that word was never used—he warned of a crisis of confidence in the country. He fired six members of his cabinet in one day.
If there was a crisis of confidence, it was in his leadership, not the country. Americans didn’t appreciate being told to economize and limit their expectations. They resented being instructed that they had entered a new era of limits. A mistake by the editors of the Boston Globe went viral (or that era’s equivalent) because it captured the frustration of so many. Atop an editorial about one of Carter’s latest speeches, the paper attached a mock headline: “Mush from the Wimp.” It was meant as an inside joke, but the first edition of the next day’s paper was printed with that headline and copies became collector’s items.
And then, on November 4, 1979, in retaliation for Carter’s decision to permit the deposed shah of Iran to travel to New York for cancer treatment, the Iranians overran the embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American diplomats hostage. They paraded them, blindfolded, through the streets and made them endure other indignities. The press coverage was savage. ABC launched a new show, Nightline, that provided daily updates and analysis. For 444 days, Carter was bombarded with demands that he do something. People put signs on their lawns: “Honk if you hate the Ayatollah.” Yellow ribbons (inspired by a pop song) became a symbol of solidarity with the hostages but also fury at the hapless president. Carter declined to stump actively for re-election, claiming that the hostage crisis required him to remain in Washington. Ted Kennedy challenged him in the primaries and won 12 states.
All of this contributed to the impression that Carter, elected as a breath of fresh air after the fetid Nixon years (with a cameo by placeholder Ford), was flailing. Editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly portrayed Carter as a smaller and smaller figure behind the Resolute desk. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Carter was obliged to acknowledge that he had misjudged the Soviet regime. The coup de grâce came in April 1980, when the military attempted a rescue operation in Iran. It was a botch. A helicopter crashed into a transport plane killing eight servicemen. The mission was aborted and Carter’s presidency was doomed.
How does he look in retrospect?
Some of the knocks on Carter were unfair. It became a Republican legend that the Tehran hostages were released on the day Reagan was inaugurated because the clerical regime was terrified of Reagan. In fact, the Iranian government had been under increased stress after Iraq invaded in September 1980. They were ready to parlay. The United States agreed to unblock Iranian funds, settle future disputes at the Hague, and refrain from interference in Iran’s internal affairs. In exchange, Iran released the hostages. The Ayatollah may have been nervous about Reagan, but it’s more likely that he delayed releasing the hostages until inauguration day in 1981 as a final insult to Carter.
Carter bore the brunt of public anger over inflation, but deserves credit for appointing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1979. Volcker was a renowned inflation hawk and Carter must have known that he would raise interest rates, with the attendant risk of recession. That’s exactly what happened. (Reagan too deserved credit for sticking with Volcker during the painful downturn in 1981/82.)
Carter showed imagination and good judgment by deregulating the airline and trucking industries, saving consumers millions of dollars over time, and also for ending the legal prohibitions against brewing beer at home. When Carter took office, there were fewer than 50 breweries in the United States. In 2022, there were more than 9,500. And he did, belatedly, recognize the threat from the Soviet Union and undertake a military buildup that Reagan would continue.
The Camp David Accords, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, were Carter’s signature achievement. The chief author of that breakthrough was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who made the brave choice to travel to Jerusalem and open negotiations—a decision that cost him his life. But most figures with knowledge of the events give Carter credit for his personal diplomacy at Camp David. The peace, however chilly, has held for 45 years and arguably represents a crucial pillar of security in the region.
In his long post-presidency, Carter has earned plaudits for his charitable work with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his human rights advocacy, public health work, and diplomacy. His religious commitment seems sincere and profound. He taught Sunday school through thick and thin until illness made it impossible. But while he has earned his reputation for rectitude, the word righteous is always in danger of being undermined by the prefix “self-.”
While it’s admirable that Carter so clearly wants to do good work in the world (and often succeeds), it is also undeniable that he has demonstrated a do-gooder naïveté that does not reflect well on him. In 1994, before traveling to North Korea on Bill Clinton’s behalf, he rebuked his briefers. “You haven’t told me what Kim Il-sung wants. What he wants is my respect. And I am going to give it to him.” How did that work out? He later opposed leveling sanctions on North Korea on the grounds that it risked war, adding that North Korean people “could not accept the branding . . . of their revered, almost worshiped, president as a criminal.” Did he really imagine that the North Korean people would have any say in the matter? Similarly, he recounted a conversation with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko in which Gromyko had boasted about the USSR’s free healthcare, zero unemployment, and zero homelessness. Carter responded ingenuously, “I couldn’t argue. . . . We each had a convenient definition” of human rights, and “differences like these must be recognized and understood.” Foolish. Gromyko didn’t have a different definition. He was lying.
There were other liars who took advantage of Carter’s naïveté. Among them was Yasser Arafat. In his ahistorical and tendentious 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Carter asserted that Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization had never advocated the annihilation of Israel when that goal was included in the founding charter of the organization. Recounting the history of the Six Day War, Carter claimed that Israel moved first against Egypt and Syria (which is true because they were poised to strike), but then attacked Jordan. That is false. Israel called upon Jordan to remain aloof from the fighting, but King Hussein, trusting Egyptian claims of success, elected to shell Israel.
Carter received well-merited criticism for that book (and similar advocacy), including from fourteen board members of the Carter Center who resigned. For the most part, he handled it poorly. Regarding the title, he disclaimed any intention to compare Israel with South Africa while claiming courage for taking on the powerful Jewish lobby. At other points, he whined that it was “almost politically suicidal” to “espouse a balanced position” regarding the Middle East. There were disturbing antisemitic overtones in that book, as for example, this snippet: “It was especially interesting to visit with some of the few surviving Samaritans, who complained to us that their holy sites and culture were not being respected by Israeli authorities—the same complaint heard by Jesus and his disciples almost two thousand years earlier.” Apparently those Jews never change. On another occasion, Carter recounted his conversation with Golda Meir in the 1970s:
With some hesitation, I said that I had long taught lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures and that a common historical pattern was that Israel was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of God. I asked if she was concerned about the secular nature of her Labor government.
Jimmy Carter’s personal life appears to have been a model. He and Rosalynn have been married for 77 years. He has been blessed with four children and twenty-two grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His achievements in global health and peace cannot be gainsaid. But when he passes, and it may not be soon, God (if there is a God) may want a word about his pattern of letting self-righteousness blind him.