Who Is Jimmy Carter?
Jimmy Carter was the 39th president of the United States and served as the nation's chief executive during a time of serious problems at home and abroad. Carter's perceived mishandling of these issues led to defeat in his bid for reelection. He later turned to diplomacy and advocacy, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2002.
James Earl Carter Jr. was born on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia. His father, James Sr., was a hardworking peanut farmer who owned his own small plot of land as well as a warehouse and store. His mother, Bessie Lillian Gordy, was a registered nurse who in the 1920s had crossed racial divides to counsel Black women on health care issues.
When Carter was four years old, the family relocated to Archery, a town approximately two miles from Plains. It was a sparsely populated and deeply rural town, where mule-drawn wagons remained the dominant mode of transportation and electricity and indoor plumbing were still uncommon. Carter was a studious boy who avoided trouble and began working at his father's store at the age of 10. His favorite childhood pastime was sitting with his father in the evenings, listening to baseball games and politics on the battery-operated radio.
PHOTOS: Jimmy Carter's Extraordinary Life
Both of Carter's parents were deeply religious. They belonged to Plains Baptist Church and insisted that Carter attend Sunday school, which his father occasionally taught. Carter attended the all-white Plains High School while the area's majority Black population received educations at home or at church. Despite this pervasive segregation, two of Carter's closest childhood friends were African American, as were two of the most influential adults in his life, his nanny Annie Mae Hollis and his father's worker Jack Clark.
While the Great Depression hit most of the rural South very hard, the Carters managed to prosper during these years, and by the late 1930s, his father had over 200 workers employed on his farms. In 1941 Carter became the first person from his father's side of the family to graduate from high school.
Carter studied engineering at Georgia Southwestern Junior College before joining the Naval ROTC program to continue his engineering studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He then applied to the highly competitive Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which accepted him to begin studies in the summer of 1943. With his reflective, introverted personality and small stature (Carter stood only five feet, nine inches tall), he did not fit in well among his fellow midshipmen. Nevertheless, Carter continued to excel at academics, graduating in the top ten percent of his class in 1946. While on leave in the summers, Carter had reconnected with a girl named Rosalynn Smith whom he had known since childhood. They married in June 1946.
The Navy assigned Carter to work on submarines, and in the early years of their marriage, the Carters – like many a military family – moved frequently. After a training program in Norfolk, Virginia, they moved out to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where Carter was an electronics officer on the USS Pomfret. After subsequent postings to Groton, Connecticut; San Diego, California and Washington, D.C., in 1952 Carter was assigned to work with Admiral Hyman Rickover developing a nuclear submarine program in Schenectady, New York. The brilliant and notoriously demanding admiral made a profound impression on Carter. "I think, second to my own father, Rickover had more effect on my life than any other man," he later said.
During these years, the Carters also had three sons: John William (born 1947), James Earl Carter III (1950) and Donnel Jeffrey (1952). The Carters later had a daughter, Amy, born in 1967. In July 1953, Carter's father passed away from pancreatic cancer and in the aftermath of his death, the farm and family business fell into disarray. Although Rosalynn initially objected, Carter moved his family back to rural Georgia so he could care for his mother and take over the family's affairs. In Georgia, Carter resuscitated the family farm and became active in community politics, winning a seat on the Sumter County Board of Education in 1955 and eventually becoming its chairman.
Accomplishments as a Southern Politician
The 1950s were a period of great change in the American South. In the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ordered the desegregation of public schools, and in the aftermath of that decision, civil rights protestors vociferously demanded an end to all forms of racial discrimination. However, politics in the rural South still largely reflected the reactionary racial outlook of the "Old South." Carter was the only white man in Plains to refuse to join a segregationist group called the White Citizens' Council, and shortly afterward he found a sign on the front door of his home that read: "Coons and Carters go together."
It was not until the 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Baker v. Carr, which required that voting districts be redrawn in a way that stopped privileging rural white voters, that Carter saw an opportunity for a "new Southerner," such as he considered himself, to win political office. That same year he ran for the Georgia State Senate against a local businessman named Homer Moore. Although the initial vote showed that Moore had won the election, it was blatantly obvious that his victory was the result of widespread fraud. In one precinct, 420 ballots were cast even though only 333 were issued. Carter appealed the outcome and a Georgia judge discarded the fraudulent votes and declared Carter the winner. As a two-term state senator, Carter earned a reputation as a tough and independent politician, curbing wasteful spending and steadfastly supporting civil rights.
In 1966, after briefly considering a run for the United States House of Representatives, Carter instead decided to run for governor. However, in the midst of a white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, Carter's liberal campaign failed to gain momentum in the Democratic primaries, and he finished a distant third place. The eventual winner was Lester Maddox, an ardent segregationist who had infamously barricaded the doors of his restaurant and brandished an axe to ward off Black customers.
Governors were limited to one term under Georgia law, though, so Carter almost immediately began positioning himself for the 1970 gubernatorial election. This time around, Carter ran a campaign specifically targeted at the white rural voters who had rejected him as too liberal in 1966. Carter publicly opposed busing as a method of integrating public schools, limited public appearances with Black leaders and actively courted the endorsements of several noted segregationists, including Governor Maddox. He so completely reversed his staunch commitment to civil rights that the liberal Atlanta Constitution Journal called him an "ignorant, racist, backward, ultra-conservative, red-necked South Georgia peanut farmer." Nevertheless, the strategy worked, and in 1970 Carter defeated Carl Sanders to become governor of Georgia.
Once he was elected governor, Carter largely returned to the progressive values he had promoted earlier in his career. He publicly called for an end to segregation, increased the number of Black officials in state government by 25 percent and promoted education and prison reform. Carter's signature accomplishment as governor was slashing and streamlining the enormous state bureaucracy into a lean and efficient machine. However, Carter showed disdain for the niceties of political decorum and alienated many traditional Democratic allies, with whom he might otherwise have worked closely.
On the National Stage
Always forward-thinking, Carter carefully observed the national political currents of the 1970s. After the liberal George McGovern got pounded by Republican Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, Carter decided the Democrats needed a centrist figure to regain the presidency in 1976. When the Watergate scandal shattered American confidence in Washington politics, Carter further concluded that the next president would need to be an outsider. He thought he fit the bill on both counts.
Carter was one of ten candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, and at first, he was probably the least well known. However, in a time of deep frustration with establishment politicians, Carter's anonymity proved an advantage. He campaigned on such centrist themes as reducing government waste, balancing the budget and increasing government assistance to the poor. However, the centerpieces of Carter's appeal were his outsider status and his integrity. "I'll never tell a lie," Carter famously declared. "I'll never avoid a controversial issue." Another of his pithy campaign slogans was "A Leader, For a Change." These themes hit home with an electorate feeling betrayed by its own government during the Watergate scandal.
Carter secured the Democratic nomination to challenge the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford, Nixon's erstwhile vice president, who had assumed the presidency when Nixon resigned in the aftermath of Watergate. Although Carter entered the race with a double-digit lead over the unexciting Ford, he made several gaffes that narrowed the polls. Most prominently, in an interview with Playboy, Carter admitted to committing adultery "in his heart" and made several other glib remarks about sex and infidelity that alienated many voters. Although the election turned out much closer than initially expected, Carter nevertheless won to become the 39th President of the United States of America.
Carter assumed the presidency in a time of considerable optimism, initially enjoying sky-high approval ratings. Symbolizing his commitment to a new kind of leadership, after his inaugural address Carter got out of his limousine to walk to the White House amongst his supporters. Carter's main domestic priority involved energy policy. With oil prices rising, and in the aftermath of the 1973 oil embargo, Carter believed it imperative to cure the United States of its dependence on foreign oil. Although Carter succeeded in decreasing foreign oil consumption by eight percent and developing huge emergency stores of oil and natural gas, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 again drove up oil prices and led to long lines at gas stations, overshadowing Carter's achievements.
Camp David Accords
Carter's foreign policy centered around a promise to make human rights a central concern in the United States' relations with other countries. He suspended economic and military aid to Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua in protest of those regimes' human rights abuses. But Carter's most notable foreign policy achievement was his successful mediation of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, leading to a historic peace treaty in which Israel withdrew from the Sinai and the two sides officially recognized each other's governments.
However, despite these noteworthy achievements, Carter's presidency was widely considered a failure. He had very poor relationships with Congress and the media, stifling his ability to enact legislation or effectively communicate his policies. In 1979 Carter delivered a disastrous speech, referred to as the "Crisis of Confidence" speech, in which he seemed to blame America's problems on the poor spirit of its people. Several foreign policy blunders also contributed to Carter's loosening grip on the presidency. His secret negotiations to return the Panama Canal to Panama led many people to believe he was a weak leader who had "given away" the canal without securing necessary provisions for defending U.S. interests.
Iran Hostage Crisis
Probably the biggest factor in Carter's declining political fortunes, however, was the Iranian Hostage Crisis. In November 1979, radical Iranian students seized the United States Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage. Carter's failure to negotiate the hostages' release, followed by a badly botched rescue mission, made him look like an impotent leader who had been outmaneuvered by a group of radical students. The hostages were held for 444 days before finally being released on the day Carter left office.
Ronald Reagan, the former actor and governor of California, challenged Carter for the presidency in 1980. Reagan ran a smooth and effective campaign, simply asking voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Most were not; Reagan crushed Carter in the 1980 election, which was essentially a referendum on a failed presidency. As the New York Times put it, "On Election Day, Mr. Carter was the issue."
Despite a largely unsuccessful one-term presidency, Carter later rehabilitated his reputation through his humanitarian efforts after leaving the White House. He is now widely considered one of the greatest ex-presidents in American history.
He has worked extensively with Habitat for Humanity and founded the Carter Presidential Center to promote human rights and alleviate suffering across the globe. In particular, Carter has worked effectively as an ex-president to develop community-based health care systems in Africa and Latin America, to oversee elections in fledgling democracies and to promote peace in the Middle East.
In 2002 Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize "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." Carter has also written many books in the years since his presidency, including several memoirs, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis (2006) and Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2007).
Carter will not go down in history as one of America's most effective presidents. However, because of his tireless work both before and since his presidency in support of equality, human rights and the alleviation of human suffering, Carter will go down as one of the nation's great social activists.
Delivering his Nobel Lecture in 2002, Carter concluded with words that can be seen as both his life mission and his call to action for future generations. "The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices," he said. "God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes — and we must."
On August 12, 2015, Carter underwent surgery to remove a mass from his liver and discovered that he had cancer. In a statement, he said: "Recent liver surgery revealed that I have cancer that now is in other parts of my body. I will be rearranging my schedule as necessary so I can undergo treatment by physicians at Emory Healthcare."
A week later on August 20th, Carter held a news conference in which he said doctors had found melanoma, "four very small spots," on his brain. He explained that he would begin radiation treatment that day and would have to alter his busy schedule “fairly dramatically.”
“I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” the former president said, adding that he has led “a wonderful life.” “Now I feel it's in the hands of God.”
In early December, Carter officially announced that an examination had revealed no trace of the four brain lesions. Returning to work, he continued polishing off book No. 32, Faith: A Journey for All, which reflects on the importance on spirituality in his own life and its influence in shaping American history.
Making the media rounds to promote the book's release in late March 2018, Carter discussed some of the political topics du jour, including interviews conducted by alleged mistresses of President Donald Trump. He also dove into more pressing political issues, including the importance of forging stronger relations with North Korea.
On March 21, 2019, Carter became the longest-living U.S. president at 94 years and 172 days old, surpassing the mark established by George H.W. Bush. In May, it was revealed that he had undergone surgery after falling and breaking his hip.
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