James Earl Carter Jr.
As the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter represented a historical change in national politics. He was the first modern president to be elected from the Deep South. Following a successful career in Georgia—where he was a peanut farmer, state senator, and then governor—Carter entered the White House in January 1977 as a political outsider at a time of distrust in elected officials. His Baptist upbringing guided him in his vision of the office as a post to be used for the nation's moral leadership. However, his presidency was one of only limited success in both its domestic and international endeavors, and voters rejected him for a second term in 1980 by electing RONALD REAGAN in a landslide that marked a new era of Republican control of the EXECUTIVE BRANCH. After leaving Washington, D.C., Carter began a revitalized public life as a prominent HUMAN RIGHTS activist and diplomat, addressing problems of war, famine, and repression around the globe.
The small farming town of Plains, Georgia, was Carter's birthplace on October 1, 1924. James Earl Carter Sr., a veteran of WORLD WAR I, farmed cotton and had a general store. He was conservative, strict, and a firm believer in his son, whom he nicknamed "Hot," for Hotshot—because, Carter said, "Daddy never assumed I would fail at anything." Lillian Gordy Carter was a registered nurse. As devout Baptists, the parents expected much from Carter and their three other children. Religion meant steadfastness and a call to charity, as Carter's mother demonstrated by caring for patients without charge. Archery, their community, was predominantly African American. The young Carter worked and played with his black neighbors and, like them, lived without household plumbing or electricity. The experience, along with the virtues of hard work, frugality, and aspiration taught by his parents, shaped the politician he later became. After graduating at the top of his high school class, Carter paid for college with money he had earned and invested by selling peanuts as a boy.
Carter's ambition was naval service. Preparing to enter the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, he studied mathematics at Georgia Southwestern College and then the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1943, he
entered Annapolis; he graduated in the top tenth of his class with a bachelor of sciences degree. Soon he married a long-time acquaintance, Rosalynn Smith, and began in earnest to pursue his career in the U.S. Navy. He worked as an instructor, saw battleship and submarine duty, and ultimately qualified as a sub commander. He served as senior officer aboard the Sea Wolf, the navy's second atomic submarine. He left the service in 1953 after attaining the rank of lieutenant.
The decision to walk away from a promising career came when Carter faced a personal crossroads. His father had died, leaving a powerful legacy: the one-time cotton farmer had become a successful warehouse operator, peanut seed seller, and, finally, member of the Georgia House of Representatives. Carter now followed his father's example in business and politics. In his first year as a peanut farmer, he scratched out an income of $200, yet soon the business flourished. Success in political life took longer. Carter quickly became active in civic affairs. He opposed SEGREGATION, scorned the local White Citizen's Council, and tried to integrate his church. In the 1950s South, such views spelled trouble. When he ran for the Democratic nomination for the state senate in 1962 his opponents stuffed ballot boxes to defeat him. Only after a long legal fight did a court invalidate the nomination because of FRAUD and turn it over to Carter. He won the election.
State politics established Carter nationally. In two terms as a state senator, from 1962 to 1966, his political philosophy was traditionally liberal yet also bore the mark of a technocrat: he advocated CIVIL RIGHTS, WELFARE, and open government, while insisting on careful budgeting to ensure fiscal responsibility. In 1966, his first run for the governor's office failed but he won the election in 1971. Representing broad political and social changes shaping the region, Carter's governorship helped shake Georgia out of its segregationist past; he appointed African Americans to state government and fostered biracial cooperation through citizens groups. As an administrator he specialized in micro-management, ordering frequent, strict review of all publicly funded programs. By 1974 Carter was rising within the national DEMOCRATIC PARTY. His exposure grew as he served as chairman of its campaign committee, and, fulfilling an ambition that began with his election as governor, announced his candidacy for president.
Carter's campaign message was integrity. The United States had just suffered through the VIETNAM WAR and the WATERGATE scandal, producing widespread cynicism concerning elected officials. Carter's opponent, GERALD R. FORD, had pardoned Nixon, the man behind Watergate. Carter positioned himself as an honest, openly religious man beyond the political intrigues of Washington. The peanut-farmer turned-governor seemed to promise a new voice in government and a new set of ideals. At the start of the campaign voters responded eagerly: Carter and his running mate, Walter F. Mondale, led the incumbent, Gerald Ford, and his running mate, BOB DOLE, by 30 percentage points. By election day, however, the race was a dead heat. Carter won by the smallest margin since the first World War—57 ELECTORAL COLLEGE votes. The new president walked along Pennsylvania Avenue in his inaugural parade, making a symbolic gesture that would be repeated in the thoroughly populist trappings of the Carter White House—fireside chats and radio call-in shows, simple furnishings, and fewer limousines. "We must adjust to changing times," he said in his inaugural speech, "and still hold to unchanging principles."
Carter's domestic policies focused on civil rights, welfare, tax reform, and budgetary control. Almost immediately, however, two major domestic concerns began to dictate his agenda. One was the nation's energy supply. In the late 1970s a severe energy crisis produced the worst fuel shortage in U.S. history coupled with rising international prices for oil. Congress cooperated with Carter's remedies by approving fuel conservation policies, deregulating natural gas prices, and passing a windfall tax on oil company profits. He did not get everything he wanted: a federal court blocked his attempt to decontrol domestic oil prices and Congress denied him authority for gasoline rationing. The second major problem was the economy, which worsened over the course of his term. His efforts to fight inflation—especially controls on consumer credit—produced a recession. Voters grew disgruntled. His approval rating fell and a July 1979 speech in which he blamed the nation's problems on a spiritual "malaise" was disastrous: afterward, a New York Times poll showed that for the first time ever, U.S. citizens, who traditionally had responded 2–1 that they were optimistic about the future, now said nearly 2–1 that they were pessimistic.
Foreign policy gave Carter triumphs and failures. He made human rights a top priority in the relationships between the United States and foreign nations, directing SECRETARY OF STATE Cyrus R. Vance to set a new standard: social and economic rights were to be as important as political and civil rights. Liberals praised the policy; conservatives attacked it as muddled and inconsistently applied. Critics were divided over a controversial treaty with Panama to relinquish control of the Panama Canal by 2000, a move the U.S. Senate barely approved. Carter's indisputable triumph was a peace treaty he secured between long-time enemies Israel and Egypt. But he took much of the blame for a seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants in November 1979. A military rescue mission in 1980 failed and the 52 U.S. hostages were released only after Carter left office.
Further weakening the presidency were scandals within the administration. Andrew Young, his ambassador to the UNITED NATIONS, resigned amid revelations that he had secretly met members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in violation of U.S. policy. Bert Lance, director of the OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET, also resigned in disgrace; he was charged with unethical conduct in his former banking career. And Carter's brother, Billy Carter, caused the president embarrassment. Often seen as a comical figure who had cashed in on Carter's fame by lending his name to a drink called "Billy Beer," Billy was revealed to have conducted business with Libya, an enemy nation. A Senate subcommittee report on the incident blamed Carter for not reining in his brother.
By late 1980, Carter had the lowest approval rating of any U.S. president in modern history. Even after an extensive cabinet shake-up, his administration was in disarray. Critics lambasted his policies and, particularly, his methods: he was considered to be too mired in details to execute bold decisions. Editorial cartoonists frequently lampooned him as either a country bumpkin or a hapless, childlike figure, echoing the prevailing sentiment that Carter was incapable of running the country. To make matters worse the Democratic Party effectively deserted him. Senator EDWARD M. KENNEDY (D-Mass.) nearly captured the party's presidential nomination and his supporters gained control of the party's platform over Carter's objections. Republicans sensed a bloodbath, and they got it in Ronald Reagan's landslide victory.
Typical of the post-Carter-era assessments was that of historian Burton I. Kaufman, whose 1993 book, The Presidency of James Earl Carter, scathingly judged Carter as "lacking in leadership, ineffective in dealing with Congress, incapable of defending America's honor abroad, and uncertain about its purpose, priorities and sense of direction." Carter's defenders have largely chosen to blame his 1980 loss on intractable national problems that he did not create as well as on the overwhelming popularity of his opponent." He didn't have the charisma of a Reagan," THOMAS P. "TIP" O'NEILL JR., former Democratic Speaker of the House, observed." He couldn't pull it off." Some inside observers saw Carter's presidency as less a failure than a poor match of his abilities. The author Hendrik Hertzberg, a former Carter speechwriter, argued, "He was, and is, more of a moral leader than a political leader."
Although Carter's return to Georgia after his 1980 defeat might have been ignominious, it proved otherwise. After his departure from Washington, Carter immersed himself in scholarly and humanitarian pursuits. He worked at Emory University as a professor and later as a visiting lecturer. In conjunction with Emory he established the Carter Center which is a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for human rights, conflict resolution, and the enhancement of democracy, along with the creation of initiatives to improve health.
Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, are particularly committed to providing housing for those who are in need, both in the United States and abroad. They work closely with the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity, and they established the Jimmy Carter Work Project, which has built homes in the United States as well as in the Philippines, South Korea, and South Africa. "This is the kind of thing I enjoy doing. The alternative is to loaf around the house and spend my time playing golf or fishing," Carter told a Canadian newsweekly.
Always the diplomat, Carter remained a force in world affairs with human rights as his focal point. He monitored elections in Central America; negotiated further peace in the Middle East; supervised inoculation programs for children in Africa and elsewhere; and traveled on diplomatic missions to North Korea, Bosnia, Haiti, and the Sudan. In 1999, President BILL CLINTON presented Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter with the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Traveling as a private citizen, Carter visited Cuba in May 2002 and met with President Fidel Castro. Carter, who had voiced his opposition to the continuing embargo of Cuba by the United States, expressed his interest in meeting with religious groups and human rights activists. His efforts to mend relations with Cuba did not prevent Carter from criticizing Cuba's communist system. He openly promoted the Valera Project, a reform movement proposed by Cuban dissidents calling for social change and such basic rights as free speech.
Carter also continues to be a prolific author. While teaching at Emory, he wrote several books whose topics ranged from politics to poetry. In 2001, Carter published a well-received autobiography titled An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. With the release of his historical novel The Hornet's Nest, in 2003, Carter became the first president to publish a work of fiction.
In December 2002, Carter was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. The selection committee noted Carter's tireless efforts to help bring about the 1979 Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt as well as his consistent attempts to mediate and ameliorate international problems. In his acceptance speech, Carter explained that he has come to see the concept of peace as one that embraces the need for shelter, food, HEALTH CARE, and the opportunity for economic development.
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