Very little about modern politics bothers me more than the ubiquitous phrase, “Jimmy Carter has been a great ex-president.”
Not that it isn’t true. He has been. It’s possible that no one will ever accomplish as much after leaving the White House as President Carter.
But you and I hear very well the intended but unspoken dig: “… but he sure was feckless as president!”
Let’s set some records straight, shall we?
James Earl Carter, Jr. was as much of an “outsider” as we’re ever likely to see in the Oval Office. Following Watergate, Vietnam and the Arab Oil Embargo (yes, that happened under Nixon, not Carter) America was ready for a different kind of leader. Or so we told ourselves.
The Beltway Media, never kind to outsiders, branded Carter’s team of non-beltway staff the “Georgia Mafia” almost immediately. I’m not sure I saw a single editorial cartoon for four years that didn’t go out of its way to depict the President – a Naval Academy graduate, successful businessman and former governor – as an ignorant hick. It was clear before he ever took the oath of office that whatever he accomplished would be diminished at every turn by the national press.
The day after his inauguration President Carter (again, a former Naval officer) issued a blanket pardon to all those who had “dodged” the military draft during the Vietnam era. He freed at least 200,000 Americans from the specter of prosection.
He established a national energy policy – focused on conservation and alternative energy sources – that his successors dust-binned. Nearly every day I wonder how much better-off America and all of humanity would be right now if we had kept the solar panels on the White House and our foot off the gas pedal. Of course, having the unmitigated gall to ask Americans to conserve energy never ends well.
Remember when Israel and Egypt used to be at war all the time? Not if you were born after the Carter administration you don’t. Because President Carter brought Begin and Sadat to Camp David and ended that. It was kind of a big deal.
He began, ever so slowly, to dismantle creeping American imperialism by turning over the Panama Canal to … Panama. And in response to growing Soviet imperialism following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (remember when invading Afghanistan was bad?), Carter made the principled choice to keep America out of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.
Have you heard of superfund sites? The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) was a Carter intiative to help communities clean up the environmental messes left behind by corporate ineptitude. My community is still using superfund money for that purpose thirty-five years later.
It’s true that the national debt did increase under Carter – by 43%. Which was less than the 47% his predecessor (Ford) increased it by in a term of fewer than three years. And his successor? The “fiscally responsible” Ronald Reagan? Yeah, he increased the national debt by 186%. But it did take him two terms to do it.
It’s true that President Carter inherited a dismal financial situation in 1977. What you won’t often read about Carter is that in the four years before he took office, US GDP grew at an average rate of 9.84%. In the four years following his term it grew at 8.53%. During the Carter administration US GDP grew at 11.49%. No president since has managed that kind of growth.
Jimmy Carter wasn’t a perfect president. A number of America’s prior mistakes came home to roost during his term, and he didn’t handle them all well. Compare his actual record to that of other modern presidents and draw your own conclusions.
Perhaps the most important thing you should remember about the Carter administration is this: “We kept our country at peace. We never went to war. We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet. But still we achieved our international goals. We brought peace to other people …”
That may not mean a thing to you. If that’s the case, you may walk away from this blog post thinking nothing more than, “Jimmy Carter has been a great ex-president.”
But it means something to me. I hope the next time someone starts to tell you about what a great ex-president Jimmy Carter has been you’ll correct them in-kind.
For further reading on the same topic, please reference this piece from the New York Times.