Professor Donald Elder : The Presidents of the United States

Jan 17, 2014 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Today we will look at Jimmy Carter, the thirty-ninth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

James Earl Carter, Jr. was born on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia. Carter has the distinction of being the first American president that was born in a hospital. Carter attended school in Plains, graduating from high school in 1942. After one year at Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, Georgia, Carter was admitted to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Carter did well academically at the Academy, graduating 59th in a class of 820. After seeing duty at sea in conventional vessels, Carter was accepted into the newly created nuclear-powered submarine service. Carter did well in that branch, rising to the rank of lieutenant. In 1953 his father passed away, and Carter felt that he needed to resign his commission and return to Georgia to run his family’s peanut farm.

He had a difficult first year, and briefly lived with his wife Rosalyn in public housing. Soon, however, he made the farm commercially viable. Once he had established himself in Plains, Carter became involved in local politics, serving on local boards. In 1961 Carter ran for the Georgia State Senate, and initially appeared to have lost the election. But Carter suspected fraud, and challenged the results. His appeal was upheld, and Carter took his seat in the legislature. Carter won reelection, but decided against seeking a third term because he had decided to run for governor. Carter came in third in the election of 1966, but elevated his public profile in the process. When Carter ran again in 1970, he was elected as governor. In his inaugural address in January of 1971, he became one of the first public officials in the South to speak out against racial discrimination.

Governors could not seek reelection in Georgia, so as his term ended Carter began to plan for his political future. Carter set his sights on winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, a goal that seemed virtually unobtainable to many outside observers. Indeed, in early 1976 he had only a 2% national name recognition. Carter made up for this by tirelessly traveling across the nation, introducing himself to the electorate. One of the states that Carter visited was Iowa, which would prove fortuitous to him because of a new method that that state had adopted in 1972 for determining which candidate would receive Iowa’s support at the national convention. In a presidential election year, caucuses would be held one night in every voting precinct, and registered voters would register their support for a candidate by standing with other like-minded attendees.

Delegates to county conventions would then be allocated based on the percentage of support that each candidate received at the precinct caucuses (a candidate had to have received the support of at least 15% of those who attended the caucuses), and a similar process of apportioning delegates would take place at that level. Representatives of each of 99 of Iowa’s counties would meet at a state convention. Here, too, delegates to the national convention would be apportioned based on the support each candidate received. Helped immeasurably by his visits to Iowa, Carter received more support at the precinct caucuses than any other Democratic candidate for president. The first actual primary in 1976 took place soon thereafter in New Hampshire, and here again Carter had prepared the groundwork for his campaign by visiting the state on a number of occasions. Carter won New Hampshire, and at that point his candidacy took on an air of inevitability. Fueled by these early successes, Carter would easily win the Democratic nomination. Because he had virtually no political record, Carter chose to use this as the focus for his candidacy, running as a person who was not tainted by a political process that had result in the resignations of President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew. In the election, Carter received just over 50% of the popular vote and 290 electoral votes, and defeated the incumbent Gerald R. Ford. Carter was inaugurated president in January of 1977.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Jimmy Carter is unfortunately best known for one of the low points in American history. Since the 1950s, the United States had regarded the Shah of Iran as an important ally in the Middle East. By the time that Carter became president, however, the Shah had become quite unpopular with his own people. In 1979 revolutionaries in that country deposed the Shah, and the ruler fled Iran. At first, no nation seemed willing to grant the Shah asylum, as they did not wish to antagonize the many Iranians who wanted their former ruler returned to them to answer for his abuses while in power. Carter initially refused to grant the Shah asylum, but changed his stance to win the support of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for a nuclear arms treaty that the Carter Administration had negotiated. When the Shah was allowed to enter the United States, Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the occupants hostage.

Carter attempted to use diplomacy to secure the release of the 52 American hostages, but his efforts were unsuccessful. While publicly proclaiming that he would not use force to secure the release of the hostages, in the summer of 1980 he secretly gave his blessing to a covert military mission to rescue the hostages. Unfortunately, the mission was a fiasco, and evidence of the failed attempt in the form of two burned American aircraft in the Iranian desert revealed that Carter had lied to the American public.

As fate would have it, the hostages were finally released on January 21, 1981—the day that Carter left the Oval Office.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Carter was very intelligent, as evidenced by the fact that he was accepted for duty in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine program. He also had great personal integrity. Finally, he displayed great courage in getting past the racial attitudes of his home area and supporting equal treatment under the law.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Ironically, a factor that had helped him become president would be one of his biggest deficiencies as president. Carter had run as a person who was not part of the political establishment, but in the United States the president needs to be able to work with Congress to get anything accomplished. While Carter did have legislative accomplishments to point to—two new cabinets, for example, were established during his presidency—he proved unable to accomplish goals that a more politically savvy president could have achieved. In addition, Carter seemed to be weak to many observers, as he would frequently change his position on an issue when faced with opposition.

Lastly, he seemed too attentive to small details that could easily have been delegated to his subordinates.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Carter was responsible for making America’s position in the world better in some respects, and worse in others. On the plus side, he was able to convince Israel and Egypt to sign a historic peace agreement, known as the Camp David Accords. He also set in motion a process by which the United States agreed to give control of the Panama Canal Zone over to the nation of Panama. But as we have seen, he presided over the Iranian Hostage debacle, an event that tarnished America’s image in the eyes of many. More importantly, during Carter’s presidency the Soviet Union sent troops into the nation of Afghanistan, and act viewed by many as an indication that the Soviet Union was attempting to spread communism. Carter reacted by asking for a build-up of American military forces and by announcing that the United States would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. This created a climate of hostility between the two nations that had not been seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Jimmy Carter left office with a very low approval rating of around 34%. Accordingly, he was viewed at the time as one of the worst presidents in our history. But he is viewed much more favorably today, due in part to the fact that he has worked tirelessly to make the world a better place since he left office. He is perhaps best known today for his advocacy for Habitat for the Humanities and for his efforts to foster world peace. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Three American presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize while in office (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Barack Obama), Carter is the only Chief Executive to receive the award after leaving office. As a result, he is currently rated as the 27th best president in our history.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

As noted above, Carter achieved a milestone in diplomacy early in his presidency with regards to Israel and Egypt. Since the creation of the nation of Israel in 1948, Egypt had been that country’s implacable foe. Armed conflict between the two nations had occurred periodically, most recently during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. When Carter became president, he attempted to broker a peace agreement between the two nations. As it turned out, the leaders of the two nations Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat) had reasons for favoring such an outcome, and responded positively to Carter’s initiatives. Acting on an invitation from Carter, Begin and Sadat came to the United States to meet with him at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland in 1978. After thirteen days of negotiations, Begin and Sadat agreed to a two-part peace plan, not only for the two nations but for the entire region of the Middle East as well. One year later, Israel and Egypt would sign a formal peace treaty, and the two nations have honored it ever since. Carter deserves to be remembered for helping a troubled part of the world take a step towards peace.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our thirty-ninth President?

When someone told Jimmy Carter’s mother in 1976 in 1976 that her son was running for president, she asked “president of what?” This comment summarizes how implausible it seemed that James Earl Carter, Jr. could go from a one-term governor of Georgia to the White House. Less than a year later, however, Carter had won the highest office in the land. Unfortunately for Carter, his decline as president was as steep as his ascent was. Carter thus had perhaps the most meteoric presidency in our nation’s history.

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