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Why Jimmy Carter is a great American leader

 President George W. Bush (C) meets with President-elect Barack Obama (2nd-L), former President Bill Clinton (2nd-R), former President Jimmy Carter (R), and former President George H. W. Bush (L) in the Oval Office January 7, 2009, in Washington.
President George W. Bush (C) meets with President-elect Barack Obama (2nd-L), former President Bill Clinton (2nd-R), former President Jimmy Carter (R), and former President George H. W. Bush (L) in the Oval Office January 7, 2009, in Washington.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

During the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter cut an ad that would be replicated, in much slicker fashion, by presidential and congressional campaigns for decades to come.

"We’ve seen walls built around Washington," he said in the ad, "and we feel like we can’t quite get through to guarantee the people of this country a government that’s sensitive to our needs, that we can understand and control, that’s competent, well-managed, efficient, economical, purposeful, and also a government of which we can be proud."

It was such a compelling theme because the nation had just lived through the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Washington insiders who lied to the public about Vietnam, Watergate, and many other things. Gerald Ford's September 1974 pardon of Nixon had deepened the public's mistrust of Washington.

The idea of a morally upright outsider cleaning up the nation's capital remains so potent and alluring that 40 years later, it's still the heart of the narrative spun by most of the 2016 presidential candidates. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz talks about breaking up the "Washington cartel," the not-your-typical-politician campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have caught fire, and even Jeb Bush, who would be the third president in his nuclear family, claims to have little knowledge of Washington's ways.

The reason the approach worked so well for Carter is the same reason he struggled in the presidency: He was the real deal, an authentic outsider. And not just in terms of Washington politics. Carter had spent his life as a loner, hoping to bring people around to his way of thinking by dint of example and argument. If he was right, others would see it.

That rectitude, rooted in both his personality and his born-again Christian faith, rubbed almost everyone in Washington the wrong way, particularly the Democrats in Congress who felt impugned by his very manner. Along with economic and foreign policy disasters and a full-scale sabotage effort by Ted Kennedy, Carter's cloak of self-righteousness doomed his presidency.

But it also drove him to create the modern post-presidency. He arrived back in Georgia almost penniless, the victim of poor management of the blind trust he created as a demonstration of his commitment to cleaning up government. From there, he rebuilt himself as a crusader for peace and against poverty and disease — an extension of the human rights cause at the heart of much of his policymaking in the White House.

Now 90 and battling cancer -- on Thursday he told the Washington Post he'd undergo radiation for melanoma spots on his brain -- Carter has more than redeemed himself. And after years of Democratic leaders distancing themselves from the disappointment of his presidency, it's time for the party, and the nation, to acknowledge the important role Carter has played in elevating issues of injustice around the world. The greatest gift his successors have given him, he said in an interview just after the release of his book A Full Life, is to allow him to pursue conflict resolution around the world — even when it has meant meeting with dictators and despots.

"I realize that the longer I get away from having served in the White House, the less common interests that we have," Carter told Vox in July. "I have a disappointment in not having a closer relationship with some of those presidents, but I am grateful when they have sometimes closed their eyes."

It's time for us all to open our eyes and bring the ultimate outsider in from the cold.

Carter was a civil rights supporter, but he appealed to segregationists to become governor of Georgia and set himself up for a presidential run

Black sharecroppers worked the fields at Carter's childhood home, giving the future president an early introduction to inequality. His familiarity with the relationship between poverty and injustice would inform many of the causes of his career, both in the White House and afterward.

"We were the only white family. I was completely absorbed in a black culture. Black women took care of me," Carter recalled. "All of my playmates and friends were African Americans."

At the Naval Academy and as an officer, Carter learned not to discuss politics with classmates and fellow submariners, he wrote. He was reprimanded for planning to attend a rally for Henry Wallace, an integration-backing liberal who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1948. When Harry Truman, the sitting Democratic president, ordered the integration of US armed forces, that year, Carter quietly celebrated aboard his submarine. After resigning from the Navy in 1953 and moving back to Georgia — where he secured subsidized housing — Carter refused in 1958 to join the White Citizens Council, which was formed to preserve the Jim Crow South. The other whites in the area staged a short boycott of his peanut-farming business.

But Carter's political ambition eventually would crash into what was otherwise a very strong lifelong commitment to most civil rights, particularly for a Southern leader of his era. Ambition won out.

In 1966, Carter ran for governor and came in third in a Democratic primary won by arch-segregationist Lester Maddox. Maddox had become a folk hero by refusing to serve three black patrons at his restaurant, and used an ax handle as a symbol of his willingness to use violence to preserve segregation. With Maddox limited to one term, Carter ran again in 1970, squaring off in the all-important Democratic primary against the liberal former Gov. Carl Sanders.

Carter ran hard to Sanders's right in the primary, courting the segregationists even as he met with black leaders privately. He endorsed Maddox, who was running for lieutenant governor. In his book, Carter blames the media for portraying him as a race-baiter.

As I gained in popular support, the Atlanta newspapers did everything possible with both news coverage and editorial comments to picture me as a racist. They failed to report my many meetings with black citizens, and attributed to me the aspersions cast on Sanders as a liberal by any conservative persons or news media.

That may have been because Carter operatives distributed a photograph of Sanders with black basketball players and, as Kenneth E. Morris wrote in Jimmy Carter: American Moralist, Carter publicly shamed Sanders for having denied segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace permission to speak on state property years before.

His criticism of Sanders could easily be interpreted as an endorsement of the Alabama governor's segregationist stance. Choosing his words carefully, Carter opted to portray himself in precisely this fashion.

But when he won, Carter spun on a dime on race. Though he would oppose busing to integrate schools — a position held by many moderate Democrats of the time — Carter made clear where he stood in his inaugural address.

"The time for racial discrimination is over," he said. "No poor, rural, weak, or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job, or simple justice."

For a deeply religious man, Carter had one hell of a mean streak

Carter was reviled by the Georgia state legislature and later Congress in part because he has a vicious mean streak that he often relied upon to knock political opponents onto their heels. He knew not only how to set himself up as a leader by standing apart from the crowd but also how to bully other leaders into following him or risk holding less sustainable ground in a conflict.

Hunter S. Thompson, who had chronicled the previous campaign in the book Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 noticed that mean streak at a Law Day event at the University of Georgia in 1974 — a ceremony at which Ted Kennedy, a presumed rival for the 1976 Democratic nomination, already had spoken.

Carter walked into a room full of lawyers and politicians, including a potential adversary for the presidency, and, citing Bob Dylan and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, told them all about their moral failings. He chided Kennedy for making a political speech focused on his faith in the "rule of law" to guide the US through what Kennedy said was the "challenge" — but not "crisis" — of Watergate. Carter said he rewrote his own speech after listening to Kennedy, deciding to focus on what he saw as the harshest inequities in the legal system: the link between poverty and prison, overly harsh sentencing, mass incarceration, and corruption at the state and local level:

After Senator Kennedy’s delightful and very fine response to political questions during his speech and after his analysis of the Watergate problems, I stopped at a room on the way, while he had his press conference and I changed my speech notes. ... In general, the powerful and the influential in our society shape the laws and have a great influence on the legislature or the Congress. This creates a reluctance to change because the powerful and the influential have carved out for themselves or have inherited a privileged position in society, of wealth or social prominence or higher education or opportunity for the future.

He might as well have held up a picture of Ted Kennedy sailing on a yacht off the coast of Hyannis Port. The contrast between the commitment of the privileged to preserving the status quo against his innovative spirit as a farmer, engineer, and nuclear physicist was a central theme of Carter's speech that day and a preview of how he would position himself against Kennedy over the next half-dozen years.

Thompson later said admiringly that Carter was one of the three meanest men he'd ever encountered. The others: heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali and Sonny Barger, the leader of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

From peanuts to the presidency

Carter had begun plotting his run for president in 1972, with a strategy he described as a middle ground between Wallace and Kennedy, the candidates he and his advisers expected to run. He campaigned relentlessly for Democratic candidates in 1974 and then began running for president as soon as his gubernatorial term expired in January 1975. He benefited from Kennedy's decision, influenced by lingering questions about Chappaquiddick, not to run.

Carter barnstormed Iowa, which was in its second cycle as the first contest on the calendar. At the time, Iowa's caucuses weren't very important in national politics. But Carter used his victory in the first competition to convince the national media — and Democratic voters — of the strength of his candidacy.

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Though he actually came in a distant second to "uncommitted," Carter could claim victory over the other candidates, and he helped turn the once-sleepy caucuses into a focal point of presidential campaigns for at least four decades.

On the trail, Carter found that what voters wanted most at a time of deep mistrust of government was a president who would simply be honest with the American public. So he had developed a response that he delivered, in slightly varying wording, to voters all across the country: "If I ever lie, or even make a misleading statement, don't vote for me."

He won the primary easily and then faced off against Ford, who was suffering from the ill economic effects of high inflation rates that had begun to settle down and his pardon of Nixon.

Carter caused a stir shortly before the 1976 election when he told Playboy magazine that he had "looked on a lot of women with lust" and "committed adultery in my heart many times." In a debate with Ford, he promised to choose a different venue the next time he decided to expound upon his morality.

On Election Day, Carter dominated the South, Appalachia, and big Eastern industrial states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. He lost all the Midwestern farm states and every state west of Texas, save Hawaii. Carter prevailed with 297 electoral votes, and he carried the popular vote 50 percent to 48 percent.

Carter accomplished more than he's given credit for...

The book on Carter among the political class is pretty black and white: His was a failed presidency. Exhibit A in that case is the fact that the American public rejected him in favor of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Carter's failure to win reelection was rooted in his powerlessness to bring about a quick conclusion to an Iran hostage crisis that spanned the last 400-plus days of his presidency and inflation levels that had returned to double-digit territory. The criticism is not without merit — after all, voters decided they had had enough of Carter by November 1980.

But that's not the whole story.

Richard Moe, who was chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale, said Carter pursued an ambitious domestic and foreign policy agenda that he thought was right for the country and accomplished much of it through the combination of the power of the office and his sheer will.

"The country was facing a lot of really hard choices at that point in the ‘70s in the economy and energy and foreign policy," Moe said in an interview. "He didn’t hesitate to make those hard choices, and he did so at great political cost to himself in many cases."

For example, Carter began the move toward more sustainable energy by deregulating natural gas and creating an Energy Department, opened up Latin America to the US by giving control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians, established formal diplomatic relations with China, and struck a peace accord between Egypt and Israel that remains intact to this day. His efforts to open up the marketplace to competition were felt in the deregulation of not only energy but the ground and air transportation industries, as well as banking and insurance.

He often vexed members of his own party by pursuing politically risky policies, and was forced to turn to Republicans in Congress, particularly Senate GOP leader Howard Baker, to push through items like the Panama Canal deal and an agreement to sell F-15s to Saudi Arabia.

And his penchant for micromanagement proved to be an ill fit for a job that requires delegation and decision-making. Saturday Night Live nailed that aspect of his personality in a 1977 skit in which Carter, played by Dan Aykroyd, tells a caller to his fictitious radio program what type of acid the caller's done and that he'll be okay if he takes some vitamins, drinks a beer, and listens to the Allman Brothers.

For the most part, though, Carter's presidency was defined by restoring integrity to the Oval Office.

Mondale once described the administration's accomplishments this way: "We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace." To that, Carter wrote, it should be added that "we championed human rights."

...But he would have done a lot more if not for Ted Kennedy's presidential ambitions and opposition from liberals in Congress

Carter made an easy foil for Kennedy, the leader of the ascendant liberal wing of the Democratic Party in Congress. From the left's point of view, Carter was an accidental president who didn't share the progressive movement's values and who wasn't able to function in the sophisticated power corridors of Washington. He frequently fought with fellow Democrats over spending for major programs and pork barrel projects in their states and districts, eschewing the back-scratching ways of Washington. And the holier-than-Washington talk from the campaign trail turned out to be how Carter really felt.

"Carter was so much smarter than most of the Democrats in Congress — and he let them know it," Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, a moderate Republican, said, according to historian Douglas Brinkley. Kennedy and others would "grind their teeth" leaving meetings with Carter because he had "talked down to them."

None of that sat well with powerful Democrats in Congress, who held a two-thirds majority in the House and a filibuster-proof 61-seat majority in the Senate. In the modern era of partisan loyalty, it's hard to imagine institutional fights between a president and congressional leaders of his own party. But that's just what happened to Carter, especially as Kennedy began ramping up to challenge his renomination in 1980.

Health care was Kennedy's signature issue, and he used it to sabotage Carter. In 1979, Carter presented a proposal designed to provide catastrophic insurance for all Americans, comprehensive plans for 16 million lower-income workers, and more competition among insurers. Sound familiar? It was an early model of what would become Obamacare. Carter had carefully lined up support within the administration and from key interest groups and committee chairmen in Congress. But Kennedy charged that it was a weak salve compared with the promise of a universal, single-payer health-care policy.

"The Jimmy Carter who had declared that he wanted mandatory and universal coverage and had a plan that was nearly identical to mine had now been replaced by the President Carter who wanted to approach health insurance in incremental steps, over time, if certain cost containment benchmarks were met," Kennedy wrote in his 2009 memoir True Compass.

Even before Carter released his plan, Kennedy had fired a rhetorical shot at Carter at the party's 1978 mid-session convention.

There are some who say we cannot afford national health insurance. They say it has become an early casualty of the war against inflation. But the truth is, we cannot afford not to have national health insurance.

Just as Carter was ready to start moving his legislation on Capitol Hill the following year, the "bulls" — the committee chairs he needed — suddenly backed away from it. Kennedy's influence in Congress was too strong for Carter.

"It was just a natural political ploy that he exerted, that I guess everybody would have done, not to let me look good with a major achievement," Carter said. "He decided to run for president for two years."

The tension between Carter and Kennedy ran deeper than the health-care issues, or even the politics of the 1980 nomination fight. Carter, who maintains that he holds Kennedy in high regard and regrets not having done more to make peace with him early on, harbored personal enmity for the scion of the great American political dynasty.

"When I asked him about Kennedy, he actually had praise for Ted Kennedy and said that he was a very, very effective senator," recalls Carter biographer Randall Balmer. "He also said he thought that Kennedy felt entitled to the presidency."

The sacking of a president

In 1979, Carter looked like an easy target for Kennedy. By June of that year, Gallup measured his approval rating at a paltry 28 percent. He was beset by a staggering economy and an oil crisis fomented by the Iranian revolution. Kennedy took a commanding lead in the polls even before his November 1979 launch announcement.

Jimmy Carter approval ratings

Gallup measured Jimmy Carter's approval rating at a low of 28 percent in June 1979. He would rebound, briefly, in the early stages of the Iran hostage crisis.


But Kennedy crumbled under the weight of two developments: one of his own making, and one far beyond his control.

Three days before his announcement, CBS aired a Kennedy interview with Roger Mudd that became legendary for Kennedy's inability to coherently answer the simple question of why he was running for president.

Ironically, the other saving grace for Carter was the seizure of American hostages in Iran on the same day the Mudd interview aired. The immediate effect was a surge in Carter's approval rating. The hostage crisis would ultimately prove to be a large part of Carter's undoing in the general election against Ronald Reagan, but it benefited Carter in early primary states. Carter ran off a string of primary victories, interrupted only by Kennedy's home-state win in Massachusetts.

Though they battled through the rest of the spring, Kennedy's fate had been sealed. So, too, had Carter's. Kennedy had driven a wedge through the heart of the Democratic Party. At the Democratic National Convention, his speech further divided the party, and he forced Carter to chase him to try to arrange a unity photograph. It wasn't the reason Carter lost, but it was a moment of national embarrassment for the sitting president heading into the general election.

Carter couldn't recover from the Iran hostage crisis. His failed April 1980 attempt to rescue the hostages, dubbed "Operation Eagle Claw," was such a colossal debacle that more than 20 years later, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who was an intelligence official at the time, cited it in his initial opposition to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Kennedy wasn't able to capitalize on it because Carter already had wrapped up most of the Democratic primaries by then, but that aborted mission, in which eight service members were killed, was part of a larger narrative of Carter's weakness that helped sweep Reagan to victory. Reagan won 489 of the 538 electoral votes, carrying all of Carter's Deep South base outside of Georgia.

The first modern post-presidency

When Carter returned home after his defeat, he had little idea what to do with himself, other than write a memoir and build a presidential library. He describes the genesis of his post-presidency as an epiphany he had one night. He could use his power to convene world leaders to mediate conflicts. That's been at the core of the Carter Center's mission for nearly 35 years.

Those who know Carter well say that if he had won a second term, he wouldn't have been the man to define the term "post-presidency." But he thirsted for vindication.

"He is a genuinely good and decent person who is motivated by his faith," Balmer said. "But it is also true that he has tried to burnish his legacy."

For years, even presidents of his own party have kept careful distance from a man who has consistently been rated by historians in the bottom tiers of US presidents.

"'Jimmy Carter and I are as different as daylight and dark,'' Bill Clinton said in 1992. As Brinkley observed, Clinton shunned Carter at almost every turn, including issuing a weak and sure-to-be-turned-down invitation to attend the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago. Clinton, a fellow Southern Democrat, had lost his first gubernatorial reelection bid after Carter placed Cuban refugees in Arkansas.

Attacked as "another Jimmy Carter" during the 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama also gave Carter a cold shoulder.

True to form, Carter has defined his post-presidency pursuits by his perception of what is right, regardless of whether it's politically popular. In some cases, such as his involvement with Habitat for Humanity and his efforts to rid developing countries of guinea worm and other diseases, there's either broad support for the work or little controversy surrounding it.

But he's repeatedly made himself a lightning rod by conducting unofficial diplomacy, criticizing Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and publicly chastising his successors on foreign policy — upending the traditional notion that politics end at the water's edge. He's met with tyrants and terrorists, including officials from Hamas. And his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which took the Palestinian side, intimated that Jews dictate US policy in the Middle East, drawing charges of anti-Semitism from Jewish groups.

That episode "exemplified Carter's post-presidential career," Princeton historian and political scientist Julian Zelizer wrote:

Carter defiantly took unpopular stands about foreign affairs, but stands that he fervently believed in, displaying almost no concern about who would dislike him as a result.

With Clinton's secret approval, Carter helped negotiate a nuclear nonproliferation accord with North Korea that was later undone by the Bush administration, which charged that Pyongyang wouldn't abide by it. But even in that case, Carter angered Clinton administration officials by going on CNN to announce a deal before the White House was ready to sign off. In March 2003, he warned against the pending invasion of Iraq, calling it an unjust war in a New York Times op-ed. He had also opposed the 1991 Iraq War. More recently, he accused Obama of having "waited too long" to combat the rise of the Islamic State.

It's time to bring Jimmy Carter into the pantheon of great Americans

That penchant for speaking his mind, for giving voice to ideas, issues, and people who have little power, has further isolated him from official Washington and polite American political society. But it has also provided a unique service to his country, and the world, in elevating issues of human rights, peacemaking, racial equality, poverty reduction, and disease eradication.

In those ways, he's been one of his era's most powerful forces for justice.

It's not enough to respect Carter for his decency and his diligence while treating him like a political leper. He's always desired the respect of his peers and the public more than he's wanted to be included in any club. His self-righteousness almost demands exclusion.

But even when he's wrong, and even when his actions serve to inflate that sense of self-righteousness, Carter's persistent appeal is to our better angels. That's a rare quality in life, and even rarer still in the realm of politics. For that, the ultimate outsider deserves full recognition as a great American leader. That would say as much about our collective wisdom and decency as it would about Carter.