A Soft Spot for Jimmy Carter

April 26th, 2011

By Tom Carter

President Jimmy Carter, 1978My friend Dan Miller had some fun with Jimmy Carter in the article just below, and with good reason.  In recent years, anyway, President Carter has behaved in questionable ways, particularly on issues involving Israel and the Palestinians.  When he launches off to places like North Korea, explicitly criticizing sanctions and implicitly criticizing U.S. policy, one has to wonder what motivates him.

Despite his flawed presidency and his somewhat erratic behavior, I’ve always had a soft spot for Jimmy Carter.  (It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that he bears a distinguished family name….)  Beyond that, former U.S. presidents have always been and should be considered national treasures.  It doesn’t matter whether one considers them to have been good presidents or not-so-good; they did the job, one of the toughest in the world, and they deserve our respect.

I followed Jimmy Carter’s political career from the early days.  In 1966, I lived in Columbus, Georgia for about six months.  As I had been doing since high school days, I read political news and commentary to a probably unhealthy extent.  The election for governor of Georgia was in full swing, with the Democratic primary winner being virtually guaranteed to become governor.  The eventual winner of the primary was Lester Maddox, a racist, segregationist, conservative buffoon.  Carter, then a state senator, was one of the other candidates.

Although I didn’t vote in Georgia, I paid close attention to that Democratic primary.  It was pretty clear that Carter was the best-qualified and by far the most intelligent of the candidates.  It was also clear that a Maddox victory would be a smear on the state’s reputation.  Not being able to restrain myself, even at that early age, I had a letter published in the Atlanta Journal (or was it the Constitution; they were published separately at that time).  In the letter I opined that the best choice for Georgia was Jimmy Carter and that electing Lester Maddox would make Georgia “a pimple on the backside of America.”  Maddox won the primary and became governor, and subsequent events proved the wisdom of my prediction.

Carter went on to win the governor’s race in 1970 and served four years.  Then, of course, he became one of the darkest horses to win a presidential race in 1976.  I voted for him that year with enthusiasm and again in 1980.  What was not to like about him?

He’s a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a nuclear engineer, and he was a member of the Navy’s elite nuclear submarine service.  In order to achieve that status, he had to pass muster under the steely scrutiny of Admiral Hyman Rickover, whose infamously high standards for nuclear submariners meant that few could earn his approval.  That Rickover approved of him was clear and objective proof of his rare intelligence and overall excellence as a leader and a technician.  After he left the Navy, Carter proved to be a successful businessman-farmer, state legislator, and governor.

Compare his accomplishments and qualifications to those of our current president, if you care to.  If ever a man should have made a good president, it was Jimmy Carter.  But he didn’t.

There were several reasons why the Carter presidency wasn’t fully successful and resulted in his not being re-elected:

  • His notorious attention to detail, normally a positive trait but taken too far it results in a president sticking his nose into too many minor things, such as (the story goes) becoming involved in scheduling the White House tennis court.
  • His sometimes prickly nature; he didn’t tolerate fools well and could be difficult to work with.  This trait hurt him during the 1980 presidential debate, in particular.
  • The religious beliefs that he wore on his sleeve, leading him to be justifiably ridiculed for silly statements like “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”
  • Just plain bad luck, on economic issues in particular.  Worst of all was the Iranian hostage crisis, during which he had the courage to order a rescue attempt and then had the bad luck to see it turn into a disaster.

Looking at the whole man, in Jimmy Carter it’s impossible not to see someone of extraordinary intelligence and high moral standards who sincerely cares for other people.  In addition, no one could credibly question his patriotism and love of country.  Those characteristics have made him one of the most admired of our former presidents, and deservedly so.  He’s made mistakes, true, and he’s taken positions that are regrettable.  But no one, aside from me and you, is perfect.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Jimmy Carter no matter what.  And looking at our current president and his two predecessors reinforces my respect for President Carter.

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4 Responses to “A Soft Spot for Jimmy Carter”

  1. Dan Miller |

    Admiral Rickover was born in Poland and therefore would not have been constitutionally qualified to become President. Still, I wonder how he might have fared in comparison with President Carter, with our current president and with some others. Did he have an apparent perception that all with whom he dealt were as bright, noble, fair, humane and just as many considered him? Could he have accomplished as much as he did for the Naval Establishment, achieved the rank of full admiral and been retained on active duty for sixty-four years — until he was eighty-two — if he had?

    We will never know, but it would nevertheless be interesting to speculate.

  2. Brian |

    Tom, just as one instance where he muffed it badly – if he hadn’t done to Shah Pahlavi what he did (that Khomeini came in and did what he did wasn’t a surprise to anyone, except, apparently, Carter), it is unlikely that there ever would have been a hostage crisis in 1979. And now, 32 years later, we’re STILL paying the price for Carter’s screw-up with the Shah and Iran. I’ve met a few Persians in my travels both domestically and abroad. To a man, they all lament that mistake.

    As another – stagflation. Carter is in the Keynes camp. His just desserts were the reaping of the whirlwind that he and his fellow-travelers were apologists for.

    Attention to detail? Where I come from, when the boss gets THAT involved, he’s a micro-manager. It generally comes from an inflated sense of self that believes that without that self, the job won’t get done properly, and displays a deplorable lack of trust in one’s subordinates. If the subordinates are that untrustworthy, then fire them and hire some that can be trusted.

    Carter seems to trust people he shouldn’t, and to not trust people he should.

    That leadership style is in stark contrast to Reagan’s. I’m sure you’re familiar with what transpired between Reagan and Colin Powell. Reagan let Powell run with Powell’s own idea. It failed, and Reagan took the heat over it. He could have fed Powell to the wolves over it, but he didn’t. Powell himself said that after that, he would have eaten glass for Reagan.

    We can only guess, but I don’t think Carter would have ever let Powell even attempt it.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Admiral Rickover would have been a terrible president, for some of the reasons Carter had problems. I doubt that a human being ever lived who had less tolerance for fools than Rickover. One of the interesting things about him was his great concern about nuclear power and weapons. Lots of good quotes, like this one: “Optimism and stupidity are nearly synonymous.”

    Brian, the fate of the Shah was far, far more complex than just personal decisions or policies of Jimmy Carter. As much as anyone else, the Shah himself was responsible for much of what happened to him, and the military (his and ours) bobbled some things that were pretty critical. Books could be (and have been) written about this; I won’t go any further with it.

    Stagflation — OK, he was president, he gets at least some of the blame; that goes with the job. But I think this, too, is a bit more complicated than that.

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to in regard to Reagan and Powell.

  4. Dan Miller |

    “Optimism and stupidity are nearly synonymous.”

    I have come to think that’s about right.

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