James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr.: 39th Retrospective
Jimmy Carter represented confidence and optimism when the country needed both. He sold himself as an outsider who wasn’t a part of the dramatic events of the ’60s, nor Watergate.
Carter wanted to be a different kind of president. He walked the inaugural parade route from the capital to the White House as Jefferson did in 1801. It demonstrated a quality the President should always embrace: Humility.
Carter’s family was always visible in the White House. His daughter, Amy, had a treehouse, and his hard-drinking brother Billy infamously pitched his Billy Beer. Carter himself loved softball and jogging, was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and served in the pioneering nuclear submarine program. He was tenacious, virtuous and smart. A devout southern baptist whose Secret Service code name was “Deacon”
Carter said what he felt, and tried to do what was right by his Christian standards. That doesn’t always work in Washington DC. Many thought he was a weirdo for actually holding these sincere religious beliefs.
Carter approached the presidency with the protestant work ethic that had served him well his entire life. He was a micro manager who scoured briefing books and memos.
The oval office proved to be his crucible where high ideals were challenged and ultimately withered under the heat of political realities. Carter found political games unsavory and didn’t play them, but in Washington you have to get along with politicians as president to achieve your policy goals.
Carter was indeed very idealistic. He wanted to do the right thing, but ultimately had no pragmatic political sense to negotiate the power centers you have to in order to get it done. Political reticence handicapped his domestic initiatives, though he did add two cabinet posts: the Secretary of Energy and Secretary of Education.
Jimmy Carter was the first President who made human rights central to his foreign policy. We were allied with military dictatorships in South America, Central America, Latin America, but Jimmy Carter reversed that trend. Of course, it revealed a certain naivete he had about a world that can be, brutal, harsh and menacing. Still, his religious idealism and tenacity of purpose yielded spectacular results.
Camp David Accords
On November 9, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announces that he is “ready to go to the Israeli parliament itself” to resolve the Mid-East conflict. This is despite the fact that the two countries do not have diplomatic relations and are technically still at war.
On November 15, through the US, Israel formally extends an invitation to Sadat to visit the country. On November 19, 1977, Sadat makes a historic first visit by an Arab head of state to Israel. During the three-day visit, Sadat meets with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, addresses the Knesset and lays a wreath at a monument to Israeli war dead.
From December 2-5, representatives from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, South Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organization meet in Libya to discuss ways of stopping the Israeli-Egyptian peace process. On December 5, Egypt cuts diplomatic ties with Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and South Yemen.
On December 14, Egypt hosts Israel, the US and the United Nations at a peace summit in Cairo. December 25-26, Sadat hosts Prime Minister Menachem Begin at a summit in Ismailia, Egypt.
On September 6, 1978 – The Mid-East peace summit begins in Camp David, Maryland. After meeting formally on the first day of the 13-day summit, Sadat and Begin do not meet again during the negotiations. Instead, Jimmy Carter acts as a go-between. On September 19, the Egyptian Cabinet approves the agreement. On September 28, the Israeli Knesset approves the agreement.
The Camp David Accords called for:
1) A formal peace treaty to be signed between Israel and Egypt, within three months.
2) The establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
3) Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in stages, to be completed within three years.
4) Further meetings to resolve the Palestinian question. The meetings would include Jordan and a representative of the Palestinian people.
5) A five-year transitional period of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. This transitional period would include the introduction of Palestinian self-government.
6) An end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
It did not, however, settle the question of East Jerusalem.
The Camp David Accords were the high-water mark of the Carter years. Begin and Sadat did not get along at all as their conversation was boiled down to ancient, religious grievances. Without Carter, this agreement does not happen.
On June 30, 1979, a weary Jimmy Carter was looking forward to a few days’ vacation in Hawaii, as Air Force One sped him away from a grueling economic summit in Tokyo. He had earned it. Two weeks earlier, Carter had successfully concluded the SALT II arms control negotiations with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in Vienna, the latest in a series of foreign policy achievements since the dramatic Camp David summit the previous September.
That week, the energy crisis that Carter had been trying to avoid since taking office had finally erupted. The OPEC oil producers’ cartel had recently announced another in a series of oil price increases that sent gasoline prices skyrocketing and led to severe shortages. Long lines at the gas pump and short tempers appeared in California and spread eastward, focusing Americans’ outrage on a seemingly endless economic decline. Much of that anger was directed at the White House: Carter’s approval rating had dropped to 25%, lower than Richard Nixon’s during the Watergate scandal.
After fifteen years filled with assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and a declining economy, Americans were suffering from a general “crisis of confidence.” Furthermore, Carter soon realized that Americans had stopped listening to him. Carter called “everyone” to Camp David. Dozens of prominent Americans — members of Congress, governors, labor leaders, academics and clergy — were summoned to the mountaintop retreat to confer with the beleaguered president. Sitting on the floor taking notes, Carter listened to criticism, much of it scathing, of him and his White House.
People no longer believed that the future of America was going to be as good as they had thought. Addressing this fundamental problem, and inspiring the country to overcome it, would turn his presidency around. Others within the administration thought there were real problems in America that were not mysterious, that were not rooted in some kind of national psychosis or breakdown, that there were real gas lines, there was real inflation, that people were worried in their real lives about keeping their jobs. They thought Carter should have engaged the nation by addressing those problems and asking for a new level of public support.
On the evening of July 15, 1979, millions of Americans tuned in to hear Jimmy Carter give the most important speech of his presidency. He both shared in the blame and admonished the American people. The public rewarded him with higher approval ratings in the days that followed. Quickly, the speech boomeranged on him and it became known as Carter’s Malaise as people wanted him to do something about the problems instead of blaming them.
Carter didn’t help himself by clumsily conducting a shakeup of his government in the week following the speech. On July 17, he asked his entire cabinet for their resignations, ultimately accepting those of five who had clashed with the White House the most, including Energy Secretary James Schlesinger and Health, Education and Welfare chief Joseph Califano. Many others in the administration chafed when newly-named White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan circulated a “questionnaire” that read more like a loyalty oath.
Iranian Hostage Crisis
In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini installed an anti-Western Islamic theocracy, which replaced the pro-Western monarchy of the Shah of Iran. The U.S. was referred to as “the Great Satan” by the new Iranian government, and Iranians looked at the United States with suspicion because of its role in keeping the Shah in power. Iranians felt the United States meddled too much in Iran’s internal affairs, and were afraid the CIA was plotting to return the Shah to power. The Ayatollah himself blessed the hostage-taking at the embassy, further fueling the government’s hard line against the United States.
By October 1979, the Shah had fled Iran and was staying in Mexico. There, doctors discovered the Shah was suffering from an aggressive cancer and recommended he be admitted to a hospital in the United States. The situation in Tehran was already tense, and the head of the diplomatic mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran sent several cables to Washington, saying that if the Shah was allowed to come to the United States for treatment, the embassy would be taken. President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah into the United States, with much hesitation, and the Iranians were outraged. They saw this as an excuse to bring the Shah to the United States to plot his return to power.
In October 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. Images of American diplomats paraded with blindfolds and enduring humiliation was a shock to the people. Iran has maintained a narrative that the hostages were treated well, but that is not true. Not all the hostages were treated the same. The two women, Ann Swift and Kathryn Koob, said they were treated “correctly” by their captors, but others, including Al Golacinski, John Limbert and Rick Kupke, were subject to a mock execution, where they were awakened in the middle of the night, forced to strip to their underwear and marched to a room in the basement where their guards made it seem they were about to be executed by firing squad. The guards fired their weapons, but they were not loaded.
Carter resisted calls for swift military response, preferring diplomacy. This confirmed for many the feeling that he was too weak-kneed to be president, but he said he would not drop bombs to boost poll ratings as destroying Iran would probably lose hostages, which was his ultimate goal. The failed military rescue effort weakened his image.
Even though the United States and Iran had come to an agreement to free the hostages in December, the Iranians waited literally until the hour President Reagan was sworn in before allowing the plane with the hostages to take off. The Iranians had a deep hatred of Carter and wanted to deny him this last moment of victory as President.
While Carter would lose the 1980 election in a landslide, post-Presidency he would become known as a peacemaker and international statesman. In 2002, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Jimmy Carter “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
Gerald Ford would precede him.
Ronald Reagan would follow him.
It all started with George Washington.