I think it is an indictment of who we have become as a nation that he was so virulently discredited and mocked by . . . well, guess who . . . we have lost an aspect of our character when we do not respect a man, and President, of his caliber.
Jimmy Carter, may your last chapter here be as comfortable as possible.
Jimmy Carter’s Unheralded Legacy
by Stuart E. Eizenstataug
The New York Times
August 25, 2015
WASHINGTON — AS Jimmy Carter moves into the twilight of his life, it is enormously frustrating for those of us who worked closely with him in the White House to witness his presidency caricatured as a failure, and to see how he has been marginalized, even by his fellow Democrats, since he left office in 1981.
His defining characteristic was confronting intractable problems regardless of their political cost. His closest aide and confidant, Hamilton Jordan, ruefully joked that the worst argument to make to President Carter to dissuade him from action was that it would hurt him politically.
A former one-term governor of Georgia, Mr. Carter won with a colorblind campaign, and in office he stayed faithful to his message of uplifting the poor of all races at the risk of losing his white Southern base.
Mr. Carter understood that, after Watergate, trust in government needed to be restored. He imposed gift limits and financial disclosure rules on his appointees; slowed the revolving door of officials departing to lobby their former departments; and appointed inspectors general to root out fraud and mismanagement.
Mr. Carter established the Department of Education and increased college tuition grants for needy students. He ended federal price regulation of trucking, interstate buses, railroads and airlines.
America’s energy outlook would not be as bright as it is today were it not for his dogged determination to awaken the American public and Congress to the dangers of our growing dependence on foreign oil. He broke a quarter-century impasse and began to phase out federal price controls for natural gas, and then crude oil; created the Department of Energy; and began tax incentives for home insulation and for solar energy.
He created the modern vice presidency, making Walter F. Mondale a full partner, and giving him an office close to his own, access to classified documents and involvement in every major decision.
Mr. Carter’s greatest achievements lay in foreign policy, in the humbling aftermath of Vietnam. In an extraordinary act of diplomatic negotiation that he personally conducted at Camp David, Md., Mr. Carter produced the first Middle East peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. It remains a touchstone of United States security policy in the region.
In Asia, he took on the Taiwan lobby to establish full diplomatic relations with China, completing the opening begun by Richard M. Nixon. In Latin America, he began a new era of mutual respect by turning over the Panama Canal to local control, and limiting arms sales to military dictatorships. His administration began the unraveling of the Soviet Union by embracing human rights and introducing intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
Given these lasting achievements, why is the Carter presidency viewed with such disdain by so many? The answers lie in two areas, one in his style of governing and his unbending character, and the other in external events. Losing a fight for a second term in a landslide automatically casts a cloud. President Ronald Reagan’s positive, hopeful approach also contrasted with Mr. Carter’s penchant to be the bearer of unpleasant truths, to ask for sacrifice in a way that shaded into the image of a public scold. Trained as an engineer, he sought comprehensive solutions to fundamental challenges through a political system designed for incremental change; his significant successes never quite seemed to match the ambition of his proposals.
Early in his presidency, when he was trying to manage the White House on his own, without a chief of staff, Mr. Carter sent Congress a blizzard of controversial legislative proposals. By his own admission, this overloaded the congressional circuits with too many competing initiatives. What came back paled in contrast to his excessively broad goals and confused the public. Some presidents have an indefinable quality of making half a loaf seem like a victory, but Mr. Carter did not really recognize politics as the art of the possible. When he won, he looked as if accepting compromise was a loss. Mr. Carter did what he considered “the right thing” for his country, and let the political chips fall where they may.
The fruit of some of Mr. Carter’s greatest achievements came only after he left office. The most painful example was his reining in the ruinous inflation that had bedeviled his predecessors even before the first oil shock of 1973. Over the objection of almost all his advisers, Mr. Carter appointed Paul A. Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve, knowing he would raise interest rates to squeeze inflation out of the system. He told us that he had tried two anti-inflation czars, jawboning, voluntary wage and price guidelines, and an austere budget policy; that nothing had worked, and that he would rather lose the 1980 election than leave ingrained inflation to the next generation.
To this day, there is a myth — which Mr. Carter himself has not tried to dispute — that if only he had dispatched more helicopters, our attempt to rescue the American hostages held at our embassy in Iran would have succeeded. (Military commanders, in fact, argued that additional helicopters would have compromised the secrecy of the mission.)
For many it became a metaphor for a failed presidency. The withdrawal of Iranian oil from the world market meanwhile sent oil prices soaring, produced double-digit inflation, and left millions angrily waiting in lines at the gas pump, just as Mr. Carter sought re-election. The American public saw the entire country held hostage by a second-rate power in the agonizing 444 days that our diplomats and employees were held captive.
After almost 40 years, these failures — and all presidents suffer from them — should be weighed against this good man’s major accomplishments. Another Democratic president who left office widely unpopular, but who in the cold light of history is seen as a paragon of honesty, decisiveness and achievement is Harry S. Truman. He was an idol of Mr. Carter, who put a plaque with Truman’s slogan on his Oval Office desk: “The Buck Stops Here.” Their plain-spoken decency, integrity and courage are too often lacking among political leaders today.