The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Jimmy Carter
— 39th President of the United States —


TERM: January 20, 1977 to January 20, 1981

BORN: October 1, 1924
BIRTHPLACE: Plains, Georgia
OCCUPATION: Peanut farmer, governor
MARRIED: Rosalynn Smith, 1946
CHILDREN: John William, James Earl III, Donnel Jeffrey, Amy Lynn

James Earl Carter was born and raised in the South. He saw racial segregation at an early age because he lived in a community that was populated mostly by black Americans. He was free to play with the black children, but he attended different schools and churches.

Young Jimmy Carter was well-behaved and industrious. He worked in the peanut fields and sold boiled peanuts on the streets of his hometown. His family was well-off compared to other people in the area, but they had no electricity or running water. The only entertainment they had at home was reading or listening to a battery-operated radio.

After Carter graduated from college, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy.Carter graduated in an accelerated class in 1946 and immediately entered the Navy with the rank of ensign. He rose to the rank of lieutenant senior grade before he resigned from the Navy in 1953 and went home to manage the family peanut business after the death of his father.

By using scientific farming techniques, Carter expanded the business and by 1979 became a millionaire. In Plains, he was active in civic affairs and provided a voice of reason by calling for racial tolerance.

Carter's political career began as a Georgia state senator in 1963. He was elected governor of Georgia in 1970.

Carter was not even considered a remote choice for the U.S. presidency when he announced his candidacy in 1974. But he campaigned on restoring trust in government after Nixon's scandalous resignation. He won the Democratic nomination on the first ballot, then he narrowly defeated Gerald Ford for the presidency.

Carter's presidency will be most remembered for two incidents. One is the Camp David Accords of 1978. The other is the hostage crisis in Iran.

Even though he had little experience in international affairs, Carter was able to bring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together for 13 days of peace talks at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. The three leaders agreed on two documents, a Framework for Peace in the Middle East and a Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel.

As positive as that was, the Iranian hostage crisis was negative. In 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 Americans hostage. All of the women, the blacks, and one hostage who was ill were released, but the remaining 52 were held for more than a year. Many believe that this crisis alone was the cause for Carter's failure to win reelection.


(b. Plains, Georgia, 1 Oct. 1924) US; Governor of Georgia 1971 – 4, President 1977 – 81 The son of a farmer and a registered nurse, Carter was educated at local public school in Georgia before spending a year at Georgia Southwestern University and then entering Georgia Institute of Technology as a naval ROTC cadet. In 1943 he entered the US Naval Academy at Annapolis — a childhood ambition — graduating in 1946 and being commissioned as an Ensign in the US Navy. Shortly after graduation, he married Rosalynn Smith, from Plains. After two years of service on experimental radar and gunnery vessels, he switched to submarines. On one occasion, he came close to being lost at sea, after being swept from the submarine bridge during a storm. He subsequently applied, and was accepted, to participate in the nuclear submarine construction programme directed by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. He took courses in nuclear physics and reactor technology at Union College, New York. His naval career was cut short in 1953 when his father died, at a relatively early age, of cancer. He returned home to Plains to run the family peanut-farming and fertilizer business, despite the protestation of his wife. After some lean years, he built the family concern into a prosperous business. He also began to get involved in civic and church affairs, making a name for himself by being the only person locally to refuse to join the racist White Citizens' Council. He also started to take an interest in elective office. His father had been elected a member of the state assembly the year before he died and had encouraged his son to take an interest in public affairs. The principal spur to seeking office, though, came several years later when Carter served as chairman of the local school board. A proposal from the board was subject to a local referendum and he went round giving speeches in support of the proposal. The proposal was narrowly defeated. He made his first bid for elective office in 1962, seeking election to the State Senate. After a bitter primary contest — in which he had to resort to court action to overturn the corrupt practices of his opponents — he won the general election and served two terms (1963 – 7). He took a particular interest in election reform and improving the education system. He was also a regular opponent of "sweetheart bills", giving particular individuals breaks on salary or retirement benefits. His autobiography, Why Not the Best?, written before he won national office, also reflected a dislike of lobbyists.

In 1966 he announced his intention to run for the US Congress, but after the leading Democratic contender for governor had a heart attack and withdrew from the race, Carter was persuaded to seek the nomination. He lost the nomination to a segregationist, Lestor Maddox, and resolved to contest the nomination again in 1970. After an intense period of planning and campaigning, he was successful the second time round. In the interim, he became a Born Again Christian.

As Governor, he reorganized government, reducing significantly the number of agencies and streamlining the administration. He implemented a number of public sector reforms and increased the number of blacks appointed to public office. He disliked patronage and compromise, and preferred rallying popular support for his measures among voters to bargaining with members of the state legislature. He also sought to raise Georgia's profile abroad, undertaking ten overseas visits in order to promote trade and inform himself about other countries.

In 1972 he began to think seriously about running for President. He served as chairman of the National Democratic Party 1974 Campaign Committee, giving him experience of campaign organization and strategy. In the autumn of 1974 he announced his candidacy for the 1976 presidential nomination. He completed his term of office as Governor in 1975 and thus had time to campaign unfettered by responsibilities of office. The field of candidates increased but Carter scored a major success early in 1976 by topping the poll in the New Hampshire primary. This established him as the front-runner and generated a bandwagon effect. He won six of the first eight primaries. Despite some setbacks — he polled badly in New York and Massachusetts — his opponents were gradually eliminated. By early June he had enough delegates to be assured of the nomination. He had announced in advance that he would select Senator Walter Mondale as his running mate. He began the general election with a clear lead over the Republican, President Gerald R. Ford. Ford was the successor to Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. Ford had kept on various Nixon appointees and had pardoned Nixon for any offences he may have committed. The situation favoured the Democratic candidate. However, Carter's support slipped as the campaign progressed — his Southern speaking style worked to his disadvantage and he performed below expectations in the first televised debate with Ford — but he held on to win with a 2 per cent margin of victory. He polled well among blacks and blue-collar workers. He was the first Georgian to be elected President and the first President elected from the deep South since 1848.

In the White House, Carter tried to set a high moral tone. He stressed human rights in international affairs and opposed "pork barrel" legislation at home. In domestic affairs, he stressed the need for energy conservation and sent a major Energy Bill to Congress. He persuaded Congress to approve a major reform of the civil service, something that his predecessors had failed to achieve. In foreign affairs, he obtained Senate approval — by one vote — for the Panama Canal Treaty, restoring the Canal to Panama. In 1978 he hosted a meeting at Camp David with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachim Begin of Israel, resulting in the Camp David Agreement in which both signed up to a peace framework. In the sector of defence, he departed from past policy and cancelled the B1 bomber project. He also vetoed a measure for a $2 billion dollar nuclear carrier; Congress failed to override his veto. He also persuaded Congress to lift the arms embargo on Turkey.

However, Carter's successes in the office were sporadic rather than consistent. His relationship with Congress was not a harmonious one. He had fought the election as an "outsider" to Washington and now had to work with the institution that formed part of the establishment he had attacked. His narrow victory had denied him a coattails effect. The Democrats were well entrenched in both Houses, but with the members not owing their victory to the President. Carter adopted a high moral stance, assuming that Congress would recognize the rightness of his measures. He sent several measures to Congress at the same time and then failed to lobby for them. His Energy Bill got bogged down and emerged eventually in a somewhat emasculated form. Though most of his measures were passed, his success rate in Congress — just over 75 per cent — was markedly lower than for his Democratic predecessors Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy and only marginally better than that achieved by the Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Carter surrounded himself with advisers drawn from Georgia — dubbed "the Georgia Mafia" — who had no real grasp of Washington politics. A number of important measures, including a Labour Law Reform Bill, failed. Carter appeared increasingly out of his depth. The Camp David Agreement produced a temporary increase in popular support, but his standing soon fell back to low levels. In foreign affairs, crises appeared to be the norm and he appeared surprised by events. The fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused particular difficulties and highlighted the incapacity of the US government to do much about either. Carter cut off grain sales to the USSR and encouraged a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow — neither having much impact — and his decision to allow the former Shah into the USA for medical treatment sparked the seizure of hostages in the American embassy in Tehran. The holding of the hostages dented Carter's already fragile public support. In desperation, he authorized a rescue attempt that ended in failure.

Until 1980, Carter experienced low popular ratings because of poor economic performance. Inflation and unemployment were rising and there was little optimism about future prospects. Perceptions of poor performance were then compounded by Carter's handling of the hostages crisis. In 1980, with his popularity in the opinion polls lower than that of any president since Warren Harding, he faced a challenge from Senator Edward Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. He fought off the challenge, but it served to demonstrate the turmoil and dissatisfaction within Democratic ranks. In the general election, he was beaten by a clear margin by the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan. Carter won 35.4 million votes against 43.9 million for Reagan. It was the first time an incumbent had been defeated since 1932. Carter retired to Plains, but maintained an active public career, involving himself in projects to assist Third World countries and occasionally engaging in some international mediation.

Great things were expected of Carter when he entered the White House. He was a highly intelligent individual, a problem solver, a Democrat with a Congress dominated by fellow Democrats. Yet he proved to be a failure. He never really grasped what was required of the incumbent of the Oval Office. He tried to do too many things at once, failed to focus his activities, and was too obviously influenced by the last person he had spoken to. He was viewed as a good man, but one increasingly out of his depth. His White House staff were generally viewed by members of Congress as lightweight; a number — including the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Bert Lance — became embroiled in scandals. The White House was both scandal-prone on occasion as well as accident prone. On a visit to Warsaw in 1978, an interpreter was hired who was not up to the job — translating Carter's words on arrival as "I desire the Poles carnally" and "When I abandoned the United States, never to return" — and Carter's participation in a jogging marathon in Washington was cut short when he collapsed and had to be carried away. Some members of his family also attracted unwelcome publicity, his brother Billy receiving money to provide advice to the Libyan government. There was little observable enjoyment in the final months of his presidency.

In the 1982 Tribune poll, Carter was ranked the tenth worst president in US history. He fared a little better in the Murray poll of the same year, being ranked 25th out of 36, one behind his Republican predecessor, Gerald Ford. His public work since leaving office increased his standing in the eyes of the public, though it did little to affect historians' judgement of his presidency. In the 1995 Chicago Sun-Times poll of presidential scholars, he was ranked 22nd out of 38. Though some reassessment of his presidency has occurred, as in John Dumbrell's The Carter Presidency: A Re-evaluation (1993), he has not been subject to a new interpretation. Richard Nixon fared better in the 1995 poll than he did.


James Earl Carter

The first U.S. president to be elected from the deep South in 132 years, James Earl (Jimmy) Carter (born 1924) served one term (1977-1981). In 1980 he lost his bid for re-election to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan but went on to be a much admired worker for peace and human rights at home and abroad.

James Earl Carter was born in the small southern town of Plains, Georgia, on October 1, 1924. He was the first child of farmer and small businessman James Earl Carter and former nurse, Lillian Gordy Carter. When Carter was four, the family moved to a farm in Archery, a rural community a few miles west of Plains. At five, Jimmy was already demonstrating his independence and his talents for business: he began to sell peanuts on the streets of Plains. At the age of nine, Carter invested his earnings in five bales of cotton which he stored for several years, then sold at a profit large enough to enable him to purchase five old houses in Plains.

Following his graduation from high school in 1941, Carter enrolled in Georgia Southwestern College, but in 1942 he received word that a much desired appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis had been approved. Carter entered the academy in 1943, and showed a special talent for electronics and naval tactics, eventually going on to work on the nation's first nuclear powered submarines. During his time in the Navy he also met Rosalynn Smith who he married on July 7, 1947 and had four children with: John, James Earl III, Jeffrey, and a daughter born much later, Amy.

Civic Activist to Politician

Carter had ambitions to become an admiral, but in 1953, following his father's death from cancer, he returned to Plains to manage the family businesses. He took over both the farm and the peanut warehouses his father had established, enlarged the business and, in order to keep up with modern farming techniques, studied at the Agricultural Experimental Station in Tifton, Georgia.

During these years in Plains, Carter began to play an active role in local civic affairs. From 1955 to 1962 he was active in a number of local functions and served on the boards of several civic organizations. In this civic life, Jimmy Carter distinguished himself by his liberal views on racial issues which could be traced back to his mother's disregard for many of the deep South's racist traditions.

As far as Carter's interest in politics goes, this may have come from his father, who had served for a year in the Georgia legislature. In 1962 Carter ran for a seat in the Georgia Senate and defeated his Republican opponent by about 1,000 votes. As a state senator, Carter promised to read every single bill that came up and when it looked as if he wouldn't be able to keep this promise due to the great volume of bills, he took a speed reading course to solve the problem. In government he earned a reputation as one of the most effective legislators and an outspoken moderate liberal. Carter was reelected to the state Senate in 1964.

In 1966, after first declaring himself as a candidate for the U.S. Congress, Carter decided to run for the office of governor of Georgia. He was beaten by Lester Maddox in the Democratic primary election though. Disappointed and spiritually bankrupt, Carter then became "born again" and pushed forward. Between 1966 and 1970 he traveled widely through the state, making close to 1,800 speeches, studying the problems of Georgia, and campaigning hard. In the 1970 gubernatorial election, Carter's hard work paid off and he won Georgia's top position.

Governor of Georgia

In his inaugural address Carter announced his intentions to aid all poor and needy Georgians, regardless of race. This speech won Carter his first national attention, for in it he called for an end to racial discrimination and the extension of a right to an education, to a job, and to "simple justice" for the poor. As governor, Carter worked for, and signed into law, a bill which stipulated that the poor and wealthy areas of Georgia would have equal state aid for education. Carter also worked to cut waste in the government, merging 300 state agencies into only 30. The number of African-American appointees on major state boards and agencies increased from three to 53 and the number of African-American state employees rose by 40 percent. During his term, laws were passed to protect historical sites, conserve the environment, and to encourage openness in government.

While governor, Carter became increasingly involved in national Democratic Party politics. In 1972 he headed the Democratic Governors Campaign Committee, and in 1974 was chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee. That same year Carter officially declared his intention to run for president in the 1976 race. When Carter announced his intentions to seek the presidency, he was still little known outside the state of Georgia. As late as October 1975 a public opinion poll on possible Democratic candidates did not even list his name. Then, in January 1976, Carter's whirlwind rise to national prominence began and by March 1976 he was the top choice among Democrats for the presidential nomination.

The 1976 Election

Carter's success against ten other candidates began with a victory in the New Hampshire primary in February. He was successful in making himself a symbol of a leader without ties to the entrenched interest groups of the nation's capital. Carter convinced voters that without these ties he would be able to act independently and effectively. In his campaign he also vowed to restore moral leadership to the presidency which had been badly shaken in the wake of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Carter easily won 17 of 30 primary contests and was elected on the first ballot at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

With his running mate, Minnesota liberal Democrat Walter Mondale, Carter made unemployment a central issue of his campaign, urging the creation of jobs through increased federal spending and the expansion of business. Carter also campaigned on promises of pardon for the draft evaders of the Vietnam War period, the reorganization of the federal government bureaucracy, and the development of a national energy policy.

When Carter defeated the incumbent, Gerald Ford, by 1,678,069 popular votes, winning 297 electoral college votes to Ford's 240, he became the first president from the Deep South since Zachary Taylor in 1844. Carter's victory was definitely regional and was definitely based on social and economic class as his winning margin came from African-Americans, those with low incomes, and others who thought that they were being hurt by the policies of the Ford administration. Four out of five African-Americans voted for Carter and he also did well among white southerners, receiving the highest number of votes for a Democratic candidate since Roosevelt, but lost over one-half of Catholic voters and 55 percent of the Italian vote. One of the challenges to Carter was to ease the regional and ethnic splits evident in the election and to create a unified support for his presidency.

His Record as President

The year 1977 began well for the new president with a series of quick victories for Carter-backed programs. These included congressional approval of his plans to eliminate or consolidate federal agencies which duplicated services and of legislation aimed at lowering federal income taxes. In August of 1977 Congress adopted Carter's proposal to establish the Department of Energy as a new executive department. At the same time, Carter used his executive powers to make good on campaign pledges, including the pardoning of Vietnam War draft evaders and ending production of the B-1 bomber, which he felt was wasteful.

The Carter Administration was not without its problems though. In 1977 economic conditions had improved somewhat and unemployment had fallen, but by 1978 inflation had, despite a variety of approaches to stabilize it, continued to rise, reaching 15 percent by mid-1980. Due largely to these economic problems, Carter's approval rating in a July 1980 poll measured only 21 percent, the lowest recorded for any American president.

Carter's term was also marked by mixed success in foreign affairs. In 1977 Carter attracted worldwide attention and praise for his strong support of human rights wherein he limited or banned entirely any United States aid to nations believed to be human rights violators, but mixed reviews came for two 1977 treaties dealing with the Panama Canal. The first of these gave control of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999 and the second gave the United States the right to defend the neutrality of the canal. Carter was influential in the Camp David Accords as well as in the creation of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and in the negotiation of SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) II with the Soviet Union, although these negotiations were ultimately delayed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Carter's most dramatic moments in foreign policy affairs began in November 1979 when Iranian student militants seized the United States embassy in Teheran and took 52 U.S. citizens hostage. The hostages were to be held, their captors said, until the deposed Shah, who was in the United States for medical treatment, was handed over. Carter responded first by cutting diplomatic relations with Iran and stopping all imports from that country. When these measures failed he, in April 1980, ordered an attempt at armed rescue, which failed and led to the death of eight marines and the resignation of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. In the end the crisis lasted for a total of 444 days with the hostages finally being released on January 20, 1981, the last day that Carter held office.

The hostage crisis overseas and economic difficulties at home left Carter vulnerable but still vying for the top spot in the 1980 presidential elections. Running again with Vice President Walter Mondale, Carter was defeated by former California governor and actor Ronald Reagan by a wide margin. He received only 35 million votes to Reagan's 44 million and lost the electoral college vote 489 to 44.

The Right Things to Accomplish Post Presidency

While seen as a somewhat lame-duck immediately following his departure as president in 1981, recent historical revisionism has cast him in a more favorable light, especially in lieu of his successor's later improprieties during the Iran-Contra scandal. Viewed as a basically honest man, not a small commodity in this age of popular mistrust of government, Carter has devoted his post presidential career to an array of peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts.

In 1981 Carter established the Carter Center which, with its sizable budget, has sponsored programs from promoting human rights in third world countries to maintaining databases of immunization for local Atlanta children. The Carter Center has also monitored elections in newly democratized countries, fought such diseases as polio and river blindness, and helped eradicate the harmful African Guinea worm in Pakistan. In addition to these humanitarian efforts, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have volunteered their summers building low-income housing through the Habitat For Humanity organization.

The international relations front has also been no stranger to Carter since his defeat to Ronald Reagan. In 1990 he persuaded Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to step down and let an elected president, Violeta Chamorro, step in, something that without the relative neutrality of Carter's position probably would not have been possible. Carter has also served as somewhat of a mediator between President Bill Clinton and various leaders of non-democratic nations. In the early 1990s Carter brought messages from Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid to President Clinton which helped avoid a military confrontation and in June 1994 Carter negotiated with North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung to freeze his country's nuclear program and allow inspection of their nuclear facilities. Interestingly enough, sometimes Carter's efforts haven't been completely appreciated. President Clinton was reportedly incensed at Carter going over his head in foreign matters and making statements that he wasn't authorized to make.

One further mixed victory from Carter came when in September 1994, he, with the help of former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, negotiated an agreement with Haitian revolutionary leader Lt. Gen. Raoul CÚdras. Haiti, since the ouster of their first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991, had been a cesspool of violence and poverty since the revolution. Boatloads of Haitians seeking an escape from the myriad human rights abuses were arriving on U.S. shores daily and the situation was pointing towards a military invasion. President Clinton called on Carter to help, which he did with an agreement wherein military leaders relinquished power and handed it over to American forces until democracy could be restored. The downside of the agreement being CÚdras and his cronies being given permission to stay in Haiti instead of being exiled which drew much criticism.

Whatever flak Carter has received for his methods of handling foreign affairs they fade from view when compared to the tireless work he has done for humanity since the end of his presidency. No other former president has worked so hard in the public arena while still maintaining personal pursuits which in Carter's case involve hunting, fishing, teaching adult Sunday school, and writing several books including one of his own poetry. As Carter's former speech writer, James Fallows, put it in 1990, "…what becomes … admirable is precisely the idealism of (Carter's) vision, the energy and intelligence and morality he has put into figuring out what is the right thing to accomplish."











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008