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After 13,000 Days in Retirement, It’s Time To Reassess Jimmy Carter’s Presidency

Historians/History
tags: Jimmy Carter



Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is coming in March 2017.


Former President Jimmy Carter has surpassed the amazing total of 13,000 days in retirement from the Presidency, as of August 25, 2016, and has been in retirement four years longer than the former record holder, Herbert Hoover, as of September 9, 2016. He is also the fourth President to reach the age of 92 by his birthday, October 1.

For a former President to have been in retirement for 36 years (as of January 20, 2017, the next Inauguration Day), and to have seen six different Presidents succeed him, is in itself, quite stunning. Carter has been recognized as an outstanding former President in his activities promoting free and fair elections in many different countries, building housing for the poor through his active work in Habitat for Humanity, promoting health care and fighting various diseases worldwide, and advancing the cause of human rights through the Carter Center and the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta, Georgia.

But Jimmy Carter has also lived through the longest assault by his critics and enemies of any former President of the United States, having survived longer than Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover, who also suffered from constant and blistering attacks by opponents. The average American has heard and seen vicious depictions of Jimmy Carter as the worst President of modern times, although some right wing critics have made Barack Obama out to be even worse. The stereotype remains valid in the minds of conservative think tanks and spokesmen, right wing talk show hosts on radio, and Fox News Channel propaganda. One would think that Jimmy Carter was a total disaster with no redeeming qualities in his four years in the White House.

It is time to start reassessing Jimmy Carter even before he passes away, an event which, when it occurs, is sure to promote the rehabilitation of the 39th President, as it did at other times for Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon, all of whom suffered vicious condemnation while in office. Herbert Hoover never quite had that revival, as Truman did and Nixon has, to a limited extent. But this author would contend that while Carter’s record in office is not of the “great” or “near great” category, it properly deserves to be remembered as “above average.”

Assessments of his presidency have generally focused on the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Cuban Mariel Boatlift, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and the Second Arab Oil Embargo. These have condemned him to history as a failure. But when one looks at the facts and the reality on the ground, it’s apparent that any President facing these issues would have had a difficult time. Was America supposed to bomb Teheran and start a major war with Iran, and if so, would we have gained our hostages back, or instead seen them slaughtered? Should the US government have shot down and killed 125,000 Cuban refugees or invaded Cuba to resolve the issue of the boat lift? Was there any way that our government could have prevented the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and can any government realistically stop an invasion that is planned by a foreign power? Should we have declared war on the Soviet Union over it? And when one examines what happened in Afghanistan, the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, does that change our perception of that event after almost four decades? Finally, the second oil embargo by the Arabs, as the first one under Richard Nixon, was an event that could not be prevented simply by a tough talking President, as fans of Ronald Reagan falsely assert. In other words, what was Jimmy Carter supposed to do about these crises that would, realistically, have changed the ultimate situations at that time?

Instead of constant focus on situations that had no real ability to be resolved differently, why not focus on the successes, the triumphs, the accomplishments, of the 39th President of the United States, and they abound, as follows.

The Camp David Accords – The idea that Jimmy Carter could bring together the leader of Egypt, Anwar El Sadat, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, to Camp David, Maryland, and manage to convince both of them, in very tense and difficult negotiations, to recognize each other’s government and establish diplomatic relations which survive after almost four decades, is really miraculous and has been good for both nations. It is one of the most significant and lasting diplomatic accomplishments of any President in American history.

The Panama Canal Treaty – For Jimmy Carter to resolve an issue that was festering for the entire century, and had not been accomplished by negotiations under Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Gerald R. Ford, is quite amazing. Carter suffered politically for it, and it helped the rise of the modern Right in the Republican Party, fueled further by the Religious Right of Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s alliance with the Republican Party, despite Carter’s deep felt religious faith. Turning over the Canal in the midst of the fear that Fidel Castro’s Cuba would end up controlling it, a totally reprehensible fear tactic used by the Right, took courage, and the time frame of waiting to the end of the 20th century to accomplish the goal was a mark of genius.

Diplomatic Recognition of Mainland China – Carter showed courage and wisdom in completing what Richard Nixon had started in 1972, facing bitter attacks when he took this action in 1979. But in so doing, he followed the lead of Franklin D. Roosevelt in recognizing the Soviet Union in 1933, later also pursued by Bill Clinton in recognizing Vietnam in 1995, and Barack Obama agreeing to start diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015. The effect of all of these diplomatic actions by Democratic Presidents over eight decades made sense, but caused grief for all of the Presidents involved.

Advocacy of Human Rights in Foreign Policy – Carter transformed American foreign policy values, albeit briefly, by holding military dictatorships accountable for human rights, and cutting foreign assistance when it was not promoted. Many nations, including the Philippines, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Liberia, and South Africa were rebuked by Carter, although he overlooked such violations in Iran, a major contradiction which may have worsened the situation when Iran underwent revolution.

Establishment of Three Cabinet Agencies – Carter reorganized the Health, Education and Welfare cabinet agency begun under Dwight D. Eisenhower, with the Health and Human Services Department and the Education Department replacing that gigantic agency. Also, the Department of Energy was created in reaction to the oil crises under Nixon and Carter, and emphasis was placed on pursuing alternative sources of energy, including solar and wind. Carter made America start to think about the long term need for alternative sources of energy.

Environmental Advancements – Carter became the President to accomplish the most in only one term in office on environmental reforms, and has been rated as the third most successful President in that area of policy making, trailing only Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon in the judgment of environmental activists. He added greatly to the National Park System, US Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. His Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, stands out as one of the very best in that cabinet position in all of American history, responsible for promoting a great expansion of Alaskan wilderness under National Park regulations to prevent industrial development.

Selection of Walter Mondale as Vice President – The best appointment Jimmy Carter ever made, even more than Cecil Andrus, was Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale to be his Vice President. Mondale became as close to a co-President as any Vice President has, and he set a standard for the further growth in influence and impact of that office, as occurred particularly with Al Gore under Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney under George W. Bush, and Joe Biden under Barack Obama. And here we are, nearly 36 years after the Carter Presidency, and Mondale will be 89 shortly before Inauguration Day in 2017, therefore marking the longest retirement of a President-Vice President team in American history.

There is certainly a case that can be made that Jimmy Carter had many areas of policy that were major negatives, but every President, when carefully evaluated, has failures. But it is time to acknowledge that Jimmy Carter also had major accomplishments that need to be known far and wide as part of painting a complete picture of the Carter record in the Presidency.



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