Jimmy Carter’s Busy 95 Years

So it was 95 years ago today that Jimmy Carter was born at the Wise Hospital in Plains, Georgia. When you get that close to the century mark, much of what’s remembered can strike those younger as timeworn and antiquated.

October 1, 1924. Calvin Coolidge was president, assuming office 14 months earlier upon the death of Warren G. Harding. On November 4, Coolidge was elected to the presidency in his own right, extending the Republicans’ hold on the White House which would eventually reach twelve years.

It would be another nine years and two months after Carter’s birth that the 21st amendment passed, invalidating the 18th amendment and putting prohibition behind us. Such images bring to mind The Untouchables, the great television show which ceased production in 1963. That was 56 years ago. Jimmy Carter was only 39, working the family’s peanut warehouse in Plains and serving the first of two terms in the state senate. Things moved too slowly there, especially considering all that Jimmy Carter wanted to accomplish for his district — and for the state of Georgia. It was time to move up a level or two. He announced his candidacy for governor.

The 1966 campaign infused and enthralled Carter. And it broke his heart. He lost just when the momentum seemed headed his way. It gave Carter a serious case of the blues. If he was listening to Bob Dylan at the time, he’d console himself with these words: “there’s no success like failure……. failure’s no success at all.”  Jimmy Carter was certainly sharp enough to figure that out. He’d experience a spiritual renewal, assemble a rock-hard determination and try again. There’d be success, more success and some failures. Put it all together and you have a brilliant life, one that he’s still working on. There’s more to do.

You Know What I’m Sayin’ And You Know What I Mean . . . .  In 1970 Jimmy Carter ran for governor once more. He won the Democratic primary and easily defeated his Republican rival, an Atlanta TV news anchor. His victorious campaign was beneath him. Voters opposed to integration heard things in Carter’s speeches that hit home. He said that when he became governor, George Wallace, the vile segregationist from Alabama, would be invited to speak in Georgia. Carter had no intentions of following up on that. The same motive was at play when he sought and received endorsements from Georgia politicians Roy Harris and Marvin Griffin. They were both arch-segregationists and would find little, if anything positive, about Carter as governor. That was especially the case when Carter gave his inaugural address after being sworn in as governor on January 12, 1971. He made it plain enough:

“I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.”

His words were appreciated and welcomed by moderates and liberals in Georgia but the tone of his campaign, passing himself off as “basically a redneck,” was confounding. It may be important that your candidate wins but it’s also important that your candidate wins honestly.

Jimmy Carter was a successful if not beloved governor in Georgia. Restricted to only one consecutive term as governor, he would find himself out of work in January 1975. Some felt he wasn’t popular enough to be elected dogcatcher in the state, let alone U.S. Senator or to the governor’s office again in four years. So he expanded his territory and aimed high. On December 13, 1974, he announced his candidacy for President of the United States.

Not having a job, Carter was able to hit the hustings early, making hay early against a less-than-compelling group vying for the Democratic nomination. As spring 1976 approached, the party’s establishment cast a wary eye on the Georgian. Anyone-But-Carter stirrings commenced. Candidates such as Frank Church and Jerry Brown jumped in but it was too late. Carter had built up a sizable lead in the early innings. The nomination was his. Now all he had to do was defeat President Gerald Ford, already hindered by a weak economy and his pardon of former President Richard Nixon.

But once Ford fought off Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, he found his own voice and hit the road, labeling Carter as a waffler. Even if one didn’t favor Ford, his new-found passion was impressive. “He wavers, he wanders, he wiggles and he waffles, and he shouldn’t be President of the United States,” Ford declared from the stump, seeming to enjoy himself.

Carter nearly wasn’t President of the United States. The Ford attacks were effective as Carter blew a wide lead in the opinion polls. Just a few weeks before the election, an interview with Carter appeared in Playboy magazine. The interview was fascinating, perhaps the most open presentation a candidate for the presidency has ever made. But Carter opened up too much, acknowledging that even as a devoted Christian, he too sinned, occasionally lusting in his heart for other women. That didn’t upset his wife Rosalyn though the Bible-thumpers, especially in the Deep South states where Carter’s lead was precarious, were aghast.

But the Deep South came through for Carter, even by the tiniest margins, like in Mississippi. On the morning after election day the margin of victory didn’t matter so much. Now it was time for Carter and his team to shape a government as he liked to put it, “as good as the American people.”

Looking back, Carter’s ’76 campaign, at the beginning a lonely sojourn, is awe-inspiring. “Jimmy Who?” moved from handshake to handshake to the Democratic nomination at Madison Square Garden and then to the new place his family called home, The White House, in two years’ time. There were bumps in the road during the campaign, but Carter came away undaunted. Being president, however was another matter. The job is quite often a matter of damage control. Unexpectedly, things happen in the government and abroad that test a president’s executive skills. It’s a complicated world; the president has to respond in a business-like manner. Americans expect the president to be in control, to be an expert in crisis management. What harms a presidency most is a sense of things unraveling from within.

Now You Must Provide Some Answers . . . .  Things were going well enough for Carter in the early months of his administration until the personal finances of his Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance were called into question. The man tasked with managing the nation’s finances was hardly prudent or transparent with his own. Lance, a longtime friend of Carter’s, went down slow and hard once questions about big loans and bank overdrafts were raised. It was a short presidential honeymoon and the ardor could not be rekindled, not even after Lance’s resignation.

Jimmy Carter did not see himself as Commander in Chief of Damage Control. He set lofty goals for his administration. With Vietnam and Watergate in the rear view, it was a time for changes in direction, even some that seemed radical to much of the American public. One was securing the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which gave Panama control of the Panama Canal after 1999. There was a hue and cry over the idea of the United States giving back anything, even if was something, as one politico said, that we had “stolen fair and square.” Negotiations to turn over the canal to Panama began during the Lyndon Johnson administration and continued under Nixon and Ford. Carter sought quick implementation. He got it but it became a major wedge issue in the next two elections (’78 & ’80). 20 of the 68 senators who voted to ratify the treaties were turned away by voters. Carter realized the risk they were taking. In 2010, he paid tribute to those who voted for ratification by calling it “the most courageous vote in the history of the U.S, Congress.”

Carter showed great fortitude and creativity in negotiating the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in the the late summer of 1978. Twelve days of secret negotiations resulting in a peace that has held for four decades.

There was another breakthrough less than three months later. On December 15, Carter announced the United States on January 1, 1979 would grant formal diplomatic recognition to the Peoples Republican of China. It was the finishing touch on what started when Nixon went to China in 1972 and is still — for better or worse — the most significant foreign policy move of the last 75 years.

Americans had to be impressed. Their president was a peacemaker. That sort of reputation didn’t hurt Carter midway through his first term. In politics, however, glory fades quickly. He was getting hit on his left by Teddy Kennedy. Surely Kennedy wouldn’t seek the 1980 nomination; would he? He was getting hit on his right by Ronald Reagan, who just missed being the 1976 Republican nominee. He was loaded for bear. On the day the U.S. officially recognized China, there were still 22 months before the presidential election. The season of crisis management was at hand.

(end of part one)