People & Events: James Earl ("Jimmy") Carter Jr. (1924-)
In 1976 millions of Americans fell in love with Jimmy Carter. At the beginning of the year, few people had ever heard of the one-term governor from Georgia. But on November 2, enough people pulled the lever by his name to make him the thirty-ninth President of the United States. As historian Douglas Brinkley said, it was as close as the country had ever come to "picking a name out of the phone book." Who was this man, the soft-spoken, born-again peanut farmer and ex-governor with the brilliant smile?
Jimmy Carter grew up on a farm just outside of Plains, Georgia, population 600, give or take. Born October 1, 1924, he was raised during the Great Depression, though his family was relatively well off compared to most. His father, Earl Carter, was a successful farmer, and the unquestioned authority to his children and the sharecropping laborers who worked his land. "As a child my greatest ambition was to be valuable around the farm and to please my father," Carter wrote in a book about his childhood, An Hour Before Daylight. "He was the center of my life and the focus of my admiration." This striving personality earned him the nickname "Hot Shot" from his father, who demanded much from his first-born son.
Growing Up in a Segregated World
In addition to a strong work ethic and iron will, Jimmy inherited the legacy of racial segregation from Earl Carter, who believed wholeheartedly in the system. Carter's mother balanced this by offering a very different example to her children. A working nurse and outspoken iconoclast, Lillian Carter nursed her black neighbors even when they had no money, cheered for African American athletes -- boxer Joe Louis and baseball great Jackie Robinson -- and generally refused to abide by the social code of segregation. "That gave Carter this unique perspective," notes Brinkley. "He had the kind of new liberal South, that his mother represented. And the old South [of his father]." As a politician in the 1960s and 70s, Carter would be well served by his ability to understand both sides of the racial divide.
In the Navy
Though Jimmy idolized his father and worked hard around the farm, from an early age he dreamed of following his favorite uncle into the Navy. Hard work in school and his father's connections paid off with an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, where the eighteen year old arrived in 1943, with the country at war. Carter did well but hardly stood out at the naval academy, graduating in the top third of his class. A development in his personal life did stand out: while at home the summer before his final year, Carter began dating his younger sister Ruth's best friend, Rosalynn Smith. Within a few months they were engaged, then married in June 1946. Over the next few years Rosalynn would give birth to three sons: John William (Jack), James Earl III (Chip), and Donnel Jeffrey (Jeff).
The naval engineer's career progressed smoothly, and he gained a reputation as an intelligent, disciplined officer. Shipmates remember him as friendly and helpful, but not "one of the boys," more interested in work than play. After several years in the submarine service, Carter earned a place in Admiral Hyman Rickover's elite nuclear submarine program. In 1952 the Carters moved to Schenectady, New York, where lieutenant Carter would help build the reactor for the Navy's first nuclear submarine, the Seawolf. Jimmy Carter's dream of some day becoming Chief of Naval Operations seemed within reach.
Back to Plains
Less than a year into this assignment, however, he received some bad news: Earl Carter had cancer, and was not expected to live long. During a subsequent trip to see his ailing father, Jimmy was so impressed with the outpouring of affection from friends and neighbors that he decided to leave the Navy, return home and take over Earl's business and place in the community. Rosalynn, who had come to love the independence and excitement of Navy life, was furious. "She almost quit me," Carter later remarked of the argument that followed. But Jimmy had made up his mind, and in the fall of 1953 the family moved back to Plains. After a rough start, with Rosalynn's help Carter modernized and expanded Carter's peanut warehouse into a highly successful operation. By 1961 they had enough money to build a comfortable new home, enjoyed regular vacations, and had become involved in their community. "I had to admit I was enjoying this life," Rosalynn later wrote.
First Taste of Politics
But Carter's ambition soon surfaced again, and on his 38th birthday in 1962 he announced to a surprised Rosalynn that he planned to run for a seat in the state senate, a position Earl Carter had held briefly before his death. With the support of the whole family, Carter staged a whirlwind campaign, only to run up against blatant fraud in Quitman County, whose Democratic machine was run by political boss Joe Hurst. An indignant Carter challenged the result, appealing to newspapers and the courts until it was overturned. Carter went on to become a highly conscientious senator, reading every bill and taking on corruption wherever he saw it. As fellow senator Leroy Johnson observed, "he was not a leader of the senate -- he was quiet, he was effective, he was deliberate, and he made no waves." But as Rosalynn could see, this did not mean her husband's political ambitions had been satisfied: "I was standing in the back of the senate chamber with him, and the lieutenant governor was going on and on and on, and it was bedlam. And Jimmy said, 'If I were lieutenant governor, this wouldn't be happening.' And I thought, 'Uh-oh. He's really enjoying this.'"
The Road to the Governor's Mansion
Sure enough, Carter ran for governor in 1966. When his uphill campaign fell just short, he was so disappointed that he began a period of soul-searching that led to a deeper relationship with Christ: he had been "born-again." With renewed conviction, Carter immediately set his sights on the 1970 governor's race. Taking on a heavy favorite, former Governor Carl Sanders, Carter and his family relied on hard work to get his name out. Family, friends, and a group of political operatives that would stay with him through his White House years (including Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Bert Lance, Stuart Eizenstat and Gerald Rafshoon) joined the candidate in blanketing the state and getting his name out. Carter also ran a tough populist campaign against the liberal, urbane Sanders, whom he called "Cufflinks Carl." "He wanted to appeal to the large middle class, blue collar type, predominantly white, and most of these people are going to be segregationists," says historian E. Stanly Godbold. "Carter himself was not a segregationist in 1970. But he did say things that the segregationists wanted to hear."
A South Georgia Turtle
In his January 1971 inaugural address, however, Governor Carter earned the ire of segregationist and the attention of the country when he declared that "the time for racial discrimination is over." That spring he graced the cover of Time magazine, representing the political class of a "new South" putting racial turmoil behind it and joining the rest of the nation on an equal footing. Governor Carter made good on his inaugural promise by appointing more blacks and women to state office than any of his predecessors, and by hanging a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Georgia State House. But Carter also demonstrated a high-handed approach to working with other politicians, regularly going over the heads of the Assembly to get his programs passed. After clashing with the governor over his effort to reorganize state government, one prominent politician said Carter "reminds me of a south Georgia turtle who's been blocked by a log -- he just keeps pushing, pushing, pushing straight ahead, he doesn't go around here -- until he finally gets a soft spot in the log and right on through he goes."
Running as an "Outsider"
Carter was barely in office two years before he began to think seriously about running for president. Shortly after returning from the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, the governor and his team began to sketch the outlines of one of the more brilliant political campaigns in American history, encapsulated in a remarkable 72-page memo by Hamilton Jordan. While still governor Carter began forging national connections and building up a foreign policy resume by making trips abroad representing Georgia. After leaving office in January 1975, he and his family traveled around the country meeting voters and finding out what they cared about. Above all, it seemed, the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal made them yearn for honesty in government, and Jimmy Carter seemed like just the man to deliver it. Brandishing his "outsider" credentials, the born-again Christian and successful businessman downplayed the issues and focused on character, vowing never to tell a lie and to bring honesty and integrity back into government. Carter's intelligence, hard work, centrist message and a tactically brilliant campaign got him past a field of better-known Democrats to gain the party's nomination. Though he frittered away a big lead over incumbent Gerald Ford -- the infamous admission in Playboy that he had "lusted in [his] heart" after other women didn't help -- Carter hung on to win one of the closest presidential elections in American history.
An Austere Chief Executive
Beginning by rejecting a limo and walking down Pennsylvania Avenue on his cold Inauguration Day in January 1977, Carter waged a symbolic war to bring his own simple, austere style to Washington. Wearing a cardigan sweater, he asked Americans to turn their thermostats down; he turned the lights off around Washington's monuments; he sold the presidential yacht; and he bombarded Congress with legislation while trying to cut the pork barrel projects it loved. His actions quickly ended the honeymoon period Carter enjoyed with his fellow Democrats who controlled Congress, and his initial popularity with the public began to decline as his programs became mired on Capitol Hill. After a financial scandal in the summer of 1977 involving the president's friend and budget director Bert Lance, even Carter's high moral standards came into question.
Foreign Policy Successes
For all his troubles at home, Carter conducted a surprisingly active and successful foreign policy for a president with so little experience. He made good on a campaign pledge to make human rights a higher priority, even if it proved difficult to put into practice. He worked to accelerate the process of ending white colonial rule in Africa, and improved relations with Latin America by concluding a treaty with Panama to hand over control of the Panama Canal. But Carter's crowning achievement occurred at Camp David in September 1978, when he personally engineered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, bringing a measure of stability to the troubled Middle East. Carter followed that up in the next few months by normalizing relations with China and signing the SALT II arms control treaty with the Soviet Union.
Troubles at Home
But in the summer of 1979, a worsening economy and the energy crisis that had stalked Carter since the beginning of his term threatened to destroy him. With long gas lines pushing frustrations to the breaking point, Carter decided he needed to do something dramatic: he retreated to Camp David for ten days, where he received a parade of prominent visitors and conducted a major rethinking of his presidency. But his resulting speech on the "crisis of confidence" in America only made matters worse, forever associating Carter with the "malaise" that had settled over the nation. A few months later, the domestic crisis was overshadowed by a foreign disaster, when fifty-three Americans were taken hostage by students loyal to the revolutionary Islamic leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
A Nightmare Year
The last year of Carter's presidency played like a nightmare. Though freeing the hostages was always Carter's top priority, in December relations with the Soviet Union reached a crisis point when the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan. Long simmering differences over domestic spending reached the breaking point when Senator Edward Kennedy challenged the president for the Democratic nomination in 1980. And though he survived the Kennedy challenge, a weakened Carter faced an uphill battle against conservative Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. Though Carter managed to raise enough fears about Reagan to keep the race close, in the end the economy, the hostages, and Carter's weak image proved too much to overcome. Reagan won in a landslide, winning the popular vote by 10% and all but six states.
Return to Private Life
The Carters returned to Plains, facing what the president has called "an altogether new, unwanted, and potentially empty life." He taught classes at Emory University, wrote his presidential memoirs, spent many hours in his woodworking shop, and seemed poised to fade from view as quickly as he had risen in 1976. But even as President Reagan was re-elected in a landslide in 1984, Carter had begun to fashion his comeback. That year he began working with Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization based down the road in Americus, Georgia, building houses for the poor. The image of a hammer-wielding former president riding a Trailways bus to New York and laboring to rebuild a tenement contrasted sharply with Reagan, and reminded many why they had liked Carter in the first place.
The Carter Center
At the same time, Jimmy and Rosalynn were at work establishing the non-profit Carter Center next to his presidential library in Atlanta. It was the vehicle through which Carter would redefine the role of ex-president. Rather than sit on corporate boards and play golf, Carter dedicated himself to promoting peace and democracy, and fighting disease and hunger in the developing world. Though some have seen a self-serving desire to redeem a failed presidency, today even Carter's critics would not dispute the tremendous amount of good he has accomplished. More controversial have been his efforts to play world statesman, monitoring elections and brokering peace deals for Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Though sidelined for a time after an argument with President Clinton in 1994, Carter took a trip to Cuba in May 2002 that served as a reminder that he was still capable of making headlines around the world. Indeed, he made headlines in October 2002 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to peace, democracy and human rights throughout the world.
As former Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg has noted, British writer George Orwell's reflections on Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi shortly after his death capture the way many people now feel about Jimmy Carter near the end of his public career. "One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, [and] one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way)," wrote Orwell, who had no great love for the Indian leader when he was alive. "But regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"
return to people & events | next