The first U.S. president to be elected from the deep South in 132 years, James Earl (Jimmy) Carter (born 1924) served one term (1977-1981). In 1980 he lost his bid for re-election to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan but went on to be a much admired worker for peace and human rights at home and abroad.
James Earl Carter was born in the small southern town of Plains, Georgia, on October 1, 1924. He was the first child of farmer and small businessman James Earl Carter and former nurse, Lillian Gordy Carter. When Carter was four, the family moved to a farm in Archery, a rural community a few miles west of Plains. At five, Jimmy was already demonstrating his independence and his talents for business: he began to sell peanuts on the streets of Plains. At the age of nine, Carter invested his earnings in five bales of cotton which he stored for several years, then sold at a profit large enough to enable him to purchase five old houses in Plains.
Following his graduation from high school in 1941, Carter enrolled in Georgia Southwestern College, but in 1942 he received word that a much desired appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis had been approved. Carter entered the academy in 1943, and showed a special talent for electronics and naval tactics, eventually going on to work on the nation's first nuclear powered submarines. During his time in the Navy he also met Rosalynn Smith who he married on July 7, 1947 and had four children with: John, James Earl III, Jeffrey, and a daughter born much later, Amy.
Carter had ambitions to become an admiral, but in 1953, following his father's death from cancer, he returned to Plains to manage the family businesses. He took over both the farm and the peanut warehouses his father had established, enlarged the business and, in order to keep up with modern farming techniques, studied at the Agricultural Experimental Station in Tifton, Georgia.
During these years in Plains, Carter began to play an active role in local civic affairs. From 1955 to 1962 he was active in a number of local functions and served on the boards of several civic organizations. In this civic life, Jimmy Carter distinguished himself by his liberal views on racial issues which could be traced back to his mother's disregard for many of the deep South's racist traditions.
As far as Carter's interest in politics goes, this may have come from his father, who had served for a year in the Georgia legislature. In 1962 Carter ran for a seat in the Georgia Senate and defeated his Republican opponent by about 1,000 votes. As a state senator, Carter promised to read every single bill that came up and when it looked as if he wouldn't be able to keep this promise due to the great volume of bills, he took a speed reading course to solve the problem. In government he earned a reputation as one of the most effective legislators and an outspoken moderate liberal. Carter was reelected to the state Senate in 1964.
In 1966, after first declaring himself as a candidate for the U.S. Congress, Carter decided to run for the office of governor of Georgia. He was beaten by Lester Maddox in the Democratic primary election though. Disappointed and spiritually bankrupt, Carter then became "born again" and pushed forward. Between 1966 and 1970 he traveled widely through the state, making close to 1,800 speeches, studying the problems of Georgia, and campaigning hard. In the 1970 gubernatorial election, Carter's hard work paid off and he won Georgia's top position.
In his inaugural address Carter announced his intentions to aid all poor and needy Georgians, regardless of race. This speech won Carter his first national attention, for in it he called for an end to racial discrimination and the extension of a right to an education, to a job, and to "simple justice" for the poor. As governor, Carter worked for, and signed into law, a bill which stipulated that the poor and wealthy areas of Georgia would have equal state aid for education. Carter also worked to cut waste in the government, merging 300 state agencies into only 30. The number of African-American appointees on major state boards and agencies increased from three to 53 and the number of African-American state employees rose by 40 percent. During his term, laws were passed to protect historical sites, conserve the environment, and to encourage openness in government.
While governor, Carter became increasingly involved in national Democratic Party politics. In 1972 he headed the Democratic Governors Campaign Committee, and in 1974 was chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee. That same year Carter officially declared his intention to run for president in the 1976 race. When Carter announced his intentions to seek the presidency, he was still little known outside the state of Georgia. As late as October 1975 a public opinion poll on possible Democratic candidates did not even list his name. Then, in January 1976, Carter's whirlwind rise to national prominence began and by March 1976 he was the top choice among Democrats for the presidential nomination.
Carter's success against ten other candidates began with a victory in the New Hampshire primary in February. He was successful in making himself a symbol of a leader without ties to the entrenched interest groups of the nation's capital. Carter convinced voters that without these ties he would be able to act independently and effectively. In his campaign he also vowed to restore moral leadership to the presidency which had been badly shaken in the wake of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Carter easily won 17 of 30 primary contests and was elected on the first ballot at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
With his running mate, Minnesota liberal Democrat Walter Mondale, Carter made unemployment a central issue of his campaign, urging the creation of jobs through increased federal spending and the expansion of business. Carter also campaigned on promises of pardon for the draft evaders of the Vietnam War period, the reorganization of the federal government bureaucracy, and the development of a national energy policy.
When Carter defeated the incumbent, Gerald Ford, by 1,678,069 popular votes, winning 297 electoral college votes to Ford's 240, he became the first president from the Deep South since Zachary Taylor in 1844. Carter's victory was definitely regional and was definitely based on social and economic class as his winning margin came from African-Americans, those with low incomes, and others who thought that they were being hurt by the policies of the Ford administration. Four out of five African-Americans voted for Carter and he also did well among white southerners, receiving the highest number of votes for a Democratic candidate since Roosevelt, but lost over one-half of Catholic voters and 55 percent of the Italian vote. One of the challenges to Carter was to ease the regional and ethnic splits evident in the election and to create a unified support for his presidency.
The year 1977 began well for the new president with a series of quick victories for Carter-backed programs. These included congressional approval of his plans to eliminate or consolidate federal agencies which duplicated services and of legislation aimed at lowering federal income taxes. In August of 1977 Congress adopted Carter's proposal to establish the Department of Energy as a new executive department. At the same time, Carter used his executive powers to make good on campaign pledges, including the pardoning of Vietnam War draft evaders and ending production of the B-1 bomber, which he felt was wasteful.
The Carter Administration was not without its problems though. In 1977 economic conditions had improved somewhat and unemployment had fallen, but by 1978 inflation had, despite a variety of approaches to stabilize it, continued to rise, reaching 15 percent by mid-1980. Due largely to these economic problems, Carter's approval rating in a July 1980 poll measured only 21 percent, the lowest recorded for any American president.
Carter's term was also marked by mixed success in foreign affairs. In 1977 Carter attracted worldwide attention and praise for his strong support of human rights wherein he limited or banned entirely any United States aid to nations believed to be human rights violators, but mixed reviews came for two 1977 treaties dealing with the Panama Canal. The first of these gave control of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999 and the second gave the United States the right to defend the neutrality of the canal. Carter was influential in the Camp David Accords as well as in the creation of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and in the negotiation of SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) II with the Soviet Union, although these negotiations were ultimately delayed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Carter's most dramatic moments in foreign policy affairs began in November 1979 when Iranian student militants seized the United States embassy in Teheran and took 52 U.S. citizens hostage. The hostages were to be held, their captors said, until the deposed Shah, who was in the United States for medical treatment, was handed over. Carter responded first by cutting diplomatic relations with Iran and stopping all imports from that country. When these measures failed he, in April 1980, ordered an attempt at armed rescue, which failed and led to the death of eight marines and the resignation of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. In the end the crisis lasted for a total of 444 days with the hostages finally being released on January 20, 1981, the last day that Carter held office.
The hostage crisis overseas and economic difficulties at home left Carter vulnerable but still vying for the top spot in the 1980 presidential elections. Running again with Vice President Walter Mondale, Carter was defeated by former California governor and actor Ronald Reagan by a wide margin. He received only 35 million votes to Reagan's 44 million and lost the electoral college vote 489 to 44.
While seen as a somewhat lame-duck immediately following his departure as president in 1981, recent historical revisionism has cast him in a more favorable light, especially in lieu of his successor's later improprieties during the Iran-Contra scandal. Viewed as a basically honest man, not a small commodity in this age of popular mistrust of government, Carter has devoted his post presidential career to an array of peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts.
In 1981 Carter established the Carter Center which, with its sizable budget, has sponsored programs from promoting human rights in third world countries to maintaining databases of immunization for local Atlanta children. The Carter Center has also monitored elections in newly democratized countries, fought such diseases as polio and river blindness, and helped eradicate the harmful African Guinea worm in Pakistan. In addition to these humanitarian efforts, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have volunteered their summers building low-income housing through the Habitat For Humanity organization.
The international relations front has also been no stranger to Carter since his defeat to Ronald Reagan. In 1990 he persuaded Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to step down and let an elected president, Violeta Chamorro, step in, something that without the relative neutrality of Carter's position probably would not have been possible. Carter has also served as somewhat of a mediator between President Bill Clinton and various leaders of non-democratic nations. In the early 1990s Carter brought messages from Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid to President Clinton which helped avoid a military confrontation and in June 1994 Carter negotiated with North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung to freeze his country's nuclear program and allow inspection of their nuclear facilities. Interestingly enough, sometimes Carter's efforts haven't been completely appreciated. President Clinton was reportedly incensed at Carter going over his head in foreign matters and making statements that he wasn't authorized to make.
One further mixed victory from Carter came when in September 1994, he, with the help of former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, negotiated an agreement with Haitian revolutionary leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cédras. Haiti, since the ouster of their first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991, had been a cesspool of violence and poverty since the revolution. Boatloads of Haitians seeking an escape from the myriad human rights abuses were arriving on U.S. shores daily and the situation was pointing towards a military invasion. President Clinton called on Carter to help, which he did with an agreement wherein military leaders relinquished power and handed it over to American forces until democracy could be restored. The downside of the agreement being Cédras and his cronies being given permission to stay in Haiti instead of being exiled which drew much criticism.
Whatever flak Carter has received for his methods of handling foreign affairs they fade from view when compared to the tireless work he has done for humanity since the end of his presidency. No other former president has worked so hard in the public arena while still maintaining personal pursuits which in Carter's case involve hunting, fishing, teaching adult Sunday school, and writing several books including one of his own poetry. As Carter's former speech writer, James Fallows, put it in 1990, "…what becomes … admirable is precisely the idealism of (Carter's) vision, the energy and intelligence and morality he has put into figuring out what is the right thing to accomplish."
There are several books that tell Jimmy Carter's story. Carter himself has written a number of books which include: Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (1982), The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East (1985), An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections (1988), Turning Point: A Candidate, A State, and a Nation Come of Age (1993), and his volume of poetry Always a Reckoning (1995). Edna Langford and Linda Cox have done a biography of Carter's wife, Rosalynn, entitled Rosalynn, Friend and First Lady (1980) and Rosalynn tells her own story in First Lady From Plains (1985). Hamilton Jordan's book, Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency (1982) deals largely with the Iranian hostage crisis, while Jack Germond and Jules Witcover's Blue Smoke and Mirrors: How Reagan Won and Why Carter Lost the Election of 1980 (1981) analyzes Carter's defeat in his bid for reelection. Carter's greatest diplomatic success—the 1978-1979 agreement between Israel and Egypt—is detailed in Camp David (1986) by William Quandt, a member of the Carter administration. Other accounts of Carter's life can be found in Peter G. Bourne's Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography (1997) and Rod Troester's Jimmy Carter as Peacemaker: A Post Presidential Biography (1996). For those inclined to go online, the Carter Center's Web site address is <http://www.emory.edu/CARTER_CENTER>. □
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