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Jimmy Carter, President and Humanitarian

James Earl "Jimmy" Carter, Jr., grew from the rural south to become peanut mogul, a state senator, the governor of Georgia, and eventually the 39th President of the United States. Though some might consider the presidency the crowning achievement in one's life, Jimmy Carter's ongoing, worldwide humanitarian efforts after his presidency leave a legacy that exceeds the mark he left on the world as President.

Carter's early political career

Carter's political career started in 1960, when he won a seat on a local school board in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. Two years later, he was elected to the Georgia state senate. By 1966, Carter thought that he was ready for the governorship. He entered the race, but following his loss at a disappointing third, he fell into a major depression, thinking his political career was over.

His sister encouraged him to find religion, and Carter became born again, turning himself into an Evangelical Christian. With his new courage, he ran for governor again in 1970.

Carter learned from his 1966 gubernatorial run that a moderate Democrat couldn't win in Georgia, so he turned his campaign around and ran as a conservative Democrat. He also played the race card: his campaign showed his major opponent, Carl Sanders, joking with a black athlete. The strategy won him the segregationist vote and the governorship.

As governor, Carter changed his tune right away. He pushed for education reform, environmental protection, and especially civil rights. In his inaugural address, he declared, "The time for racial discrimination is over." He hung a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the governor's mansion. And Carter wasn't just talk: He appointed many African Americans to high-level state offices.

Running for president

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was the Democrat least likely to win the presidency. The governor of a small southern state, he had no national political experience. In earlier times, the lack of experience would have sunk any other candidacy, but after the recent Watergate scandal in Richard Nixon's term, the U.S. public was sick and tired of politics as usual. They wanted someone new — an outsider with no ties to Washington.

As early as 1972 — just two years into his governorship — Carter wanted to be president. He established a campaign committee and had a detailed strategy drawn up. In 1974, the Democratic Party appointed Carter to head the Democratic National Campaign Committee, which was in charge of raising money for Democratic candidates throughout the country. From that position, he decided to run for president himself.

Carter announced his candidacy early in 1975. He was virtually unknown, and nobody gave him much of a chance, but he campaigned hard and kept discussion of his position vague on various issues while calling for a return to morality and an end to corruption in the federal government. Carter's platform resonated with a public that had recently dealt with both Vietnam and Watergate, and he won 17 of 30 primaries.

At the Democratic convention, Carter received the nomination on the first ballot. To placate northern liberals and unions, he nominated liberal Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale as his vice president.

Though at one point he had a huge lead, he won the presidency with 297 electoral votes to Ford's 240. (One elector cast a vote for Ronald Reagan, who was not a candidate.) Much of his support came from African Americans and the southern states.

[Credit: Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.]
Credit: Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Carter's presidency

Carter's results as president were mixed. Things started out well for him. On his first day in office, he pardoned all Vietnam draft evaders. He was able to get important environmental legislation passed, and he established the Department of Education to improve instructional standards throughout the United States. However, a number of international problems (many of which he had no control over) cast a shadow over his presidency.

Domestic policy

Most of Jimmy Carter's domestic problems centered on the issue of energy. In 1979, OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) increased oil prices dramatically. This led to inflation. By 1980, loan interest rates had hit 20%. Most people were unable to finance homes and cars. Carter took the blame for all of it.

On the bright side, Carter managed to pass legislation that encouraged the development of alternative energy in an effort to decrease dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, these programs were dismantled by his successors.

Foreign policy

Carter attempted to base his foreign policy on human rights considerations, even cutting off aid to friendly dictatorships if they violated human rights, which led to disastrous results. By 1978, the pro-American governments in Nicaragua and Iran had collapsed. Other foreign policy events largely considered failures include

  • The Panama Canal Treaty, which vowed to return the canal to Panama by December 31, 1999.

  • SALT II: The 1979 SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) treaty imposed ceilings on strategic weapons for the U.S.A and U.S.S.R. The Senate never ratified SALT II, and Carter withdrew it from consideration when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

  • The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: In 1979, the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan to keep a communist government in power. Carter reacted strongly, withdrawing SALT II from the Senate, boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and prohibiting the sale of grain to the Soviet Union.

  • The fall of the Shah: In 1979, the Shah of Iran, the major U.S. ally in the Middle East, was toppled by a Muslim fundamentalist regime headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Carter refused to help the U.S. ally. Afterward, relations between Iran and the United States deteriorated.

  • The Iran hostage crisis: On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran — a clear violation of international law. After Carter protested, the Iranian government released all the women and minorities they had seized but continued to keep 53 white men hostage. Carter's attempts to negotiate their release failed.

    In April 1980, Carter authorized a military special forces unit to rescue the hostages. The attempt failed when a sandstorm caused two choppers to collide, killing eight servicemen. Carter was blamed for the failed rescue attempt.

On the other hand, Carter did have at least one shining moment of international success as President. In September 1978, Carter brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat together at Camp David, Maryland. After long negotiations, the Camp David Accords, which ended the state of war between Israel and Egypt, were finalized. Sadat and Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the accord.

Reelection

In 1980, after a heated battle with Senator Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, Carter was forced to campaign on a liberal platform. He also had a lot of political baggage weighing him down, not the least of which was the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. On the Republican side, presidential nominee Ronald Reagan campaigned on an agenda of making the United States great again.

When the election results came in, Reagan had won in a landslide, and the Democrats lost control of the Senate for the first time since the 1950s.

After the presidency

When Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election, he didn't stop working for the values he believed in:

  • Carter founded the Carter Center at Emory University to study democracy and human rights, and Carter became an even more vocal advocate of human rights throughout the world.

  • Carter has traveled extensively, monitoring elections in many countries, and has served as a special peace emissary on more than one occasion.

  • Carter and his wife Rosalynn have championed the efforts of Habitat for Humanity, not only raising money for the organization, but actually helping build low-income housing with their own hands.

His ongoing efforts have garnered him well-earned praise and recognition:

  • In 1999, President Clinton awarded Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their humanitarian service.

  • In 2002, Jimmy Carter was awarded 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."

  • On June 5, 2004, the U. S. Navy christened a new submarine the USS Jimmy Carter, making Carter one of only a handful of people so honored during their lifetime.

  • Jimmy Carter even won the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for the audiobook version of his book Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis.

Though Jimmy Carter's presidency is largely considered a failure, what he has done since has restored his reputation and earned him respect and recognition around the world as a peacemaker and humanitarian.

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