In the ranking of the Presidents of the United States from Worst to First- we are at #39 who happens to also be the 39th POTUS- Jimmy Carter. James Earl Carter was President of the United States from 1977-81.
Jimmy Carter was born in rural Plains, Georgia in 1924. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946, graduating 59th in a class of 820. His plan was to have a career in the U.S. Navy and he would spend 1946-53 in the Navy rising to the rank of Lieutenant Senior Grade. In 1953 his father died and he returned home to Plains to rebuild the struggling peanut business that his father had left behind. He would be very successful running the business, becoming a millionaire.
Carter would serve in the Georgia State Senate from 1963-67. He ran for the Democratic Parties nomination for Governor of Georgia in 1966 but finished third. In 1970 on his second try Carter was elected and served as Georgia’s governor for one term, 1971-75.
My first memory of Carter was while he was governor. In April 1974, on the night that Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs, the game was on national television. Before the game there was a ceremony and I remember thinking who is this man with the big smile and all those teeth? We would all soon find out.
Carter may have been the Governor of Georgia but nationally he was an obscure figure. His name recognition across the country was 2%. He was considered a long shot.When he sat down and told his family he was going to run for president his mother said ‘President of what?”
In December 1974 Carter became the first candidate to announce that he was running for president. 1974 was the year President Nixon resigned. President Ford would soon pardon Nixon. America was fed up with Washington, D.C. and looking for an outsider. As it turned out the lesser known you were the better. Kind of reminds me of James Buchanan in 1856, not that he was an unknown but as America was blowing up over slavery, Buchanan was in Britain for four years. They went for someone away from it all.
After announcing his run Carter hit the campaign trail. He had a shocking win in the Iowa Caucus and then went on to New Hampshire and won the all important primary there. He won the nomination fairly easily, winning on the first ballot at the Democratic Convention in New York City.
The incumbent President Gerald R. Ford had never won an election higher than his congressional district in Michigan. He became Vice President when Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew had to resign, and president when Nixon resigned. When the campaign began after the conventions were over Ford was down by 30 points in the polls. Carter was kind of evasive on his stand on many of the issues, his main message seemed to be “I will never lie to you.” After the JFK assassination, the presidencies of big liars LBJ and Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate, and Ford’s pardon of Nixon- America was ripe to someone who ‘would never lie to them.”
Carter would start to lose ground, he did an interview in Playboy where Carter, a religious man admitted to having ‘lusted in his heart.” Ford got the best of him in the first Presidential Debate. Ford flubbed up in the second debate by stating “Eastern Europe was free of Soviet domination.” The race went down to the wire. Ford was catching up the final weekend but would come up short. The final electoral vote was Carter 297 to Ford’s 240. Carter won 23 states to Ford’s 27. In the popular vote Carter had 50% to Ford’s 48%.
There is no way a relatively unknown Jimmy Carter could have won in 1976 had 1} the Watergate scandal which resulted in the resignation of President Richard Milhous Nixon in 1974 and 2] the pardon of Nixon by his successor Gerald R. Ford. History shows that Ford did the right thing but at the moment it didn’t go over well. Even with the pardon of Nixon the 1976 election was a close one. If Jerry Ford doesn’t pardon Nixon he wins with ease in my opinion. He was a decent man and he did the right thing. America wanted an outsider and Carter said he’d never lie to the American public and that was what America wanted. The American public overall has done a good job of electing president but this is one they got wrong.
By the time he took office on January 20, 1977 the American public who had elected him by a narrow margin was ready to give him a fresh start. His approval rating on Inauguration Day was in the mid-60% range and by March of 1977 he would peak at 75% approval. It was all downhill after that.
His first decision on his first day in office was to pardon 10,000 draft evaders from the Vietnam War. Maybe that was a good decision BUT was this really how you should start your presidency?
Carter brought many of his cronies from Georgia with him to D.C. in top advisory positions. The problem was they didn’t know how to get things done in Washington and Carter’s attitude towards congress didn’t help matters. He had a democratic House and Senate but immediately acted as though his narrow victory the previous November was a mandate from the people and they had no say in anything. He was aloof and disrespected them and it didn’t go down well on Capitol Hill.
Every president learns on the job. There is no manual but Carter seemed to be immediately overwhelmed and being a stubborn and sometimes arrogant man didn’t seem to ever overcome his stumbling start.
Bert Lance a close friend of Carters and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget was involved in a scandal from back when he ran a bank in Georgia. He would be forced to resign but would later be acquitted of all charges.
Carter wanted to be a man of the people. He wanted to get rid of the Imperial Presidency- and he started giving his version of FDR’s old “Fireside Chats’ where Carter would wear a cardigan sweater [due to his turning down the thermostats in the White House to save energy. Carter would carry his own luggage. I don’t think these moves which were meant to endear him with the public really worked, as Tip O’Neill remarked “most people prefer a little pomp in their presidents.”
Carter would add more government by creating the Departments of Energy and Education. Those departments are still there even though there has been constant talk every election cycle of getting rid of them.
OPEC raised it’s prices on a barrel of oil and the resulting energy crisis led to long lines waiting for gasoline and inflation. There really wasn’t much Carter could have done to prevent what OPEC in all fairness but it was typical of Carter’s four years. He seemed helpless even when there was actions he could take.
Rising oil prices caused ‘stagflation” the combination of high inflation rates and high unemployment rates. Inflation would reach 13.5 under Carter and unemployment was in double digits in some areas of the country.
In the summer of 1979 Carter would give his famous “Malaise Speech” or his ‘Crisis of Confidence” speech which was another low point of his presidency. For a couple weeks he had holed himself up at the presidential retreat Camp David and talked to many prominent Americans. He then gave this speech after the two weeks of presidential navel gazing. In the speech he seemed to blame the American people and not the real problem- his lack of leadership. The speech at first went down well with higher approval ratings but it soon boomeranged back on him. There was nothing wrong with the American people, there was something wrong with the man in the White House.
Historian Roger Wilkins comment sums it up-“When your leadership is demonstrably weaker than it should be, you don’t then point at the people and say, ‘It’s your problem.’ If you want the people to move, you move them the way Roosevelt moved them, or you exhort them the way Kennedy or Johnson exhorted them. You don’t say, ‘It’s your fault.'”
Human Rights was one of Carter’s big topics but he as much as he talked about Human Rights throughout the world he didn’t seem to have much of a plan to get it done. He would denounce human rights violations in the Soviet Union and their bloc of countries in eastern Europe. He would take measures against Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Uganda but there were countries who he chose to overlook like Saudi Arabia.
Another country who Carter overlooked was Iran and their leader the Shah. The Shah at the time was considered the worst violator of human rights in the world. Carter visited Tehran in January 1978 and called Iran ‘an island of stability in the middle east” Less than two years later that statement would comeback to bit him when the Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution. The Shah suffering from cancer was allowed by Carter into the U.S. to get treatment. This all led to the November 1979 hostage situation when the Iranians stormed the United States Embassy and held 52 hostages for 444 days.
The Hostages in Iran crisis is the one thing most people remember first about the Carter presidency. Carter seemed hopeless in solving this crisis. He tried a rescue mission which failed. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan was taking the oath of office in 1981 that the Iranians released the hostages. They laughed at Carter but they feared Reagan was some crazy cowboy who was capable of anything- so they saw the light. Any hope of re-election went down the drain with the long drawn out “America Held Hostage.”
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter’s reaction was a grain embargo on the Soviets and he decided not to let the United States participate in the 1980 Summer Olympics which were held in Moscow. A bad decision in my opinion.
OK, I need to also point out the positives. His crowning achievement as POTUS would be the 1978 Camp David Accords in which Carter sat down with Israel’s Prime Minister Begin and Egypt’s President Sadat and ended the 31 year state of war between Israel and Egypt. A great achievement no doubt and it wouldn’t have happened without Carter’s hard work.
Carter is the only president to serve a full term who didn’t have a Supreme Court appointment. A major positive.
The Panama Canal Treaty returned the canal and the canal zone to Panama.
Carter didn’t fail for lack of effort. He was a hard working president who took his job seriously. He was just ineffective. The hostage crisis seemed to take its toll on him. It also made him sort of a hostage in the White House. Carter was a micro-manager. One of the most famous stories was that he made the schedule for the matches to be played on the White House tennis court.
In 1980 Carter ran for re-election. He faced a challenge from within the democratic party in Ted Kennedy. Carter would end up winning but the challenge from Kennedy hurt him. Carter’s famous quote going into the primaries was “I’ll kick his ass.”
Former California Governor Ronald Reagan would win the Republican nomination. The race seemed to be a close one until late in the campaign. It was a case of America being sold on Reagan. Reagan’s famous line in the debate that is long remembered is “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Not many people could say “Yes” to that. Reagan would go on to win a landslide 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49.
Carter’s post-presidency has been interesting. His wife Rosalynn wanted him him to run for re-election in 1984 but Carter knew better. He has over the years won praise from some as “the greatest ex-president ever.” He is good at building cheap houses but he has spent the past 36 years being critical of everyone who succeeded him in office. A man who never had the answers as president seems to think he has all the answers as a former president. As a failed president I can understand his wanting to rehabilitate his image. He has written 29 books since he left office. He’s been very active. Is he a bad man? I don’t think so but he has been an annoyance. One thing I’ve never heard in the past 36 years “Boy, I miss when Carter was President.” “Histories Greatest Monster” as The Simpson’s called him- the 39th POTUS in the countdown.
Some trivia to tell your friends- about Jimmy Carter.
- Jimmy Carter has lived more years than any other president since leaving the office. He left the presidency on January 20, 1981. As of last week the 92 year old Carter has been an ex-president for 36 years.
- Jimmy Carter was the first president born in a hospital, he was born in 1924.
- Just last week Carter became the oldest president to attend an inauguration when he went to the inauguration of Donald Trump. I give Carter and his wife credit for going. A lot of the house members who skipped it because of Trump didn’t get it. Carter didn’t go to show support for Donald Trump, he went because Inauguration Day is about America not any individual.
- Carter is known to be a fan of Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers and the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
- Jimmy Carter won the 2002 Noble Peace Prize for” his decades of effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights and to promote economic and social development.”