A few weeks ago, I read a headline that said that former President Jimmy Carter had to receive medical treatment after suffering from dehydration while helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house. The 39th President recovered and went right back to work serving others. No one should be surprised that Jimmy Carter was spending his time helping a wonderful organization like Habitat do meaningful work providing homes to families in need. No one should be surprised that a few times a month, Jimmy Carter voluntarily teaches Sunday School at his home church in Plains, Georgia. No one should be surprised, because Jimmy Carter's life as been one of public service. Now, at 92 years old, the ex-President still seeks to be an advocate for those in need, pursue social justice, and set an example of dignity. Jimmy Carter is an international statesman, a veteran, and a true public servant. However, he achieved most of his acclaim after 4 trying years in the White House.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter appeared to be the perfect candidate for the perfect time. For the past, 8 years, the United States was a political and social mess. The economy was in decline. Race relations were far from ideal. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal created a mistrust of government never before seen in American history. Despite the efforts of a good and decent man, President Gerald Ford, Americans wanted a break from business as usual in Washington. Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia offered something new. He was not part of the swamp of Washington. He was an outsider. Furthermore, Carter, an outspoken born again Christian, carried himself with a level of integrity, humility, and honesty, not often seen on the banks of the Potomac. In a close election, Carter defeated the incumbent Ford and became the 39th President of the United States.
Critics of President Carter regard his presidency as one of the true failures of the 20th Century. He was a weak leader that accomplished nothing and diminished our standing in the world. These charges, serious as they may be, are overstated. Yes, Cater was a weak President. He lost the confidence of Congress, and more importantly, the American people. However, for all of his presidential shortcomings, Carter had several significant achievements that help to balance out the struggles.
First and foremost, Jimmy Carter is a good person. He conducted himself and his administration with decency and respect. While this is far from a guarantee of strong leadership, it is significant because of the aforementioned political disgraces of early 1970s. It is important that Americans trust and respect their president, even if they don't agree with him. Carter made the presidency respectable again. A process started by his predecessor Gerald Ford. His sincere religious faith, while off putting to some, served as an asset in the early days of his administration. However, some of the support he enjoyed from the emerging evangelical movement began to evaporate when conservative religious leaders realized that Carter wasn't going to use the office to further their worldview. Nevertheless, Carter was and is well respected for his character.
Finding real domestic achievements is a challenge when studying Jimmy Carter. One of the main reasons for this is that Carter had terrible relations with Congress. Carter had no relationships with the leaders on the Hill, and generally refused to play the quid pro quo games necessary to move legislation forward. As much as Americans claim they want a Washington "outsider" to shake things up in D.C., the truth is that the ability to cultivate, maintain, and benefit from relationships with Congress are often times the most important qualities in a successful presidency. Carter was a true outsider, this played well on the campaign trail, but hindered him once he attempted to govern.
For all of his struggles with Congress, Carter did have significant achievements on the world stage. The President improved relations with China, Latin America, and signed a significant arms limitations treaty with the Soviet Union. However, it will be his efforts in the Middle East that will be the crowning achievement of the Carter presidency.
The state of Israel was established in 1948, following the end of World War II. From the very beginning of its existence, Israel was under nearly constant attack. Several declared wars and multiple armed conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors occurred between 1948 - 1976. Israel's largest and strongest enemy was Egypt. Often times, when conflicts would arise in the region, Egypt was leading the charge against the Jewish state. Hoping to establish some sort of peace in the troubled area, Carter invited President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin to Camp David to hammer out a peace agreement. After days of arguing and intensive negotiations, Carter personally brokered peace between the two historic enemies. In return for territorial concessions, Egypt recognized Israel's right to exist. While there are many other aspects of the accords that had long lasting effects, the important part is that Carter successfully championed the most significant step toward peace in the Middle East ever taken in the twentieth century.
If the Middle East was the source of Carter's greatest triumph, it was also the cause of his greatest challenge in November 1979, the American embassy in Tehran, Iran was stormed and 52 Americans were taken hostage. The new Islamic leaders of Iran, were unwilling to release the hostages, it was payback for years of American support for the oppressive regime of the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Months and months of negotiations and a failed rescue attempt yielded no results. Meanwhile, images of blindfolded American diplomats appeared on American news channels on a nightly basis.
In addition to the hostage crisis, an oil shortage and energy crisis began to take its toll on the American economy. The United States' over reliance on foreign oil was proving to be a reality as an embargo led to long lines at gas stations across the nation. With prices rising, Carter proved to more of a lecturing parent and less of a leader. The President traded in his suit jacket for a sweater and encouraged Americans to do the same in an attempt to reduce energy consumption. When he gave a speech about the crisis on national television, the President's tone was less than inspirational and was met with ridicule and anger.
Jimmy Carter returned home to Georgia before embarking on a career as an international advocate for human rights. His work to ensure safe, fair, and free elections around the world has earned him international praise. His support for organizations like Habitat for Humanity has earned him the respect of even his harshest critics. In many ways, Jimmy Carter will be remembered more for his groundbreaking post presidency than for his tremulous four years in the White House.