Jimmy Carter, 39th
president of the United States (1977-1981). Carter had served
one term as governor of Georgia and was considered an outsider
to traditional party politics. From the beginning his
presidency was marked by caution, conservatism, frustrations,
and disappointments. Many reforms he promised were never
carried out—some because they were abandoned by Carter,
others because of congressional hostility.
the 1976 campaign, for example, Carter had vowed to reform the
tax system, which he called “a disgrace”; yet as president
he gave only token support to tax reform. He had also promised
to reduce drastically the number of agencies in the federal
bureaucracy—which he called “the worst, most confused,
bloated, overlapping, and wasteful” in history—and to
slash the number of federal employees. Instead of eliminating
departments, however, he added the departments of energy and
education to the Cabinet, and the number of government
employees continued to increase during his presidency.
management of the economy differed little from that of his
Republican predecessors. Unlike every Democratic president
since Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), he did not propose
any new or sweeping solutions to social problems. Carter,
unlike any of the other Democratic presidents in the 20th
century, did keep the United States out of any foreign wars,
and he substantially increased the percentage of minorities
and women in high-level bureaucratic and judicial positions.
Opinion polls regularly showed that the public liked Carter as
a person but lacked faith in his leadership abilities.
Earl Carter, Jr. was born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia, a tiny
farming community of 600 people. He was the oldest of four
children. His father was a peanut farmer and storekeeper.
Jimmy Carter worked on the farm, but he had an uncle in the
United States Navy who sent him postcards from exotic ports,
so as a boy he dreamed of attending the U.S. Naval Academy in
Annapolis, Maryland. He was the first member of his family
ever to go to college, starting at Georgia Southwestern
College in 1941 for a year, followed by a year at the Georgia
Institute of Technology. He then went to the Naval Academy in
Annapolis, graduating in 1946, ranked 60th in a class of 820.
his graduation, Carter married Rosalynn Smith, his high school
sweetheart, also from Plains. She became an essential partner
in all phases of his life, from the peanut farming business to
politics. The Carters had three sons, John William, James Earl
III, and Donnel Jeffrey, and a daughter, Amy Lynn.
was assigned to the nuclear submarine Seawolf and later
worked for Admiral Hyman Rickover in a nuclear engineering
project. Rickover, an extraordinarily brilliant, icy, and
disciplined man, made a lasting impression on young Carter.
Late in 1953 Carter resigned from the navy and went home to
take care of the family peanut farm when his father was
diagnosed with cancer.
early years back in Plains were not easy for Carter. In 1954
there was a drought and he earned only $200. But he built the
farm into a large business, warehousing and shelling peanuts
for other farmers in the vicinity.
Carter was from the South, his attitudes on race were closely
scrutinized during his presidential campaign. His father was a
politically active man who had believed in racial segregation,
or separation of blacks and whites. But Carter's mother,
Lillian, a nurse, did not share her husband's views. In the
1960s she joined the Peace Corps and went to India, at the age
of 68. In the 1950s, Jimmy Carter was the only white man in
Plains who refused to join the White Citizens Council, an
organization devoted to preserving segregation. That refusal
caused a short-lived boycott of the family's peanut warehouse.
In the mid-1960s, the Carter family and one other person were
the only members of the Plains Baptist Church who voted to
admit blacks to the congregation.
won his first elective office, a seat on the local school
board, in 1960, and two years later he moved up to the state
senate after proving that his opponent in the Democratic
primary had broken voting laws. After two terms in the state
senate, in 1966 Carter ran for the Democratic nomination for
governor of Georgia. He only finished third in a crowded
field, behind Lester Maddox, a segregationist restaurant owner
who came in first and later won the general election, and
Ellis Arnall, a liberal former governor, who believed in using
the power of the state to aid those who suffered from racism
defeat was a bitter one for him. He said later that he felt
sour about life after the loss, and it was at that point that
he underwent a religious experience. His sister Ruth, a
Christian evangelist, was with him when he decided to dedicate
his life to God. He did missionary work in some Northern
states for brief periods, taught Sunday school in his
hometown, and spoke about Christianity across the South.
renewed religious convictions did not keep him from using
questionable tactics when he again ran for governor in 1970.
Carl Sanders, his principal opponent in the Democratic
primary, was a moderate former governor. Carter accused
Sanders of being a “Humphrey Democrat.” He was referring
to former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a Democrat from
Minnesota who supported such liberal causes as civil rights
for blacks, an unpopular cause among many whites, especially
in the South. Some of Carter's campaign workers circulated a
picture of Sanders joking with a black athlete. Carter ran a
campaign to appeal to conservative rural voters. During the
campaign he refused to condemn Governor George C. Wallace of
Alabama, a leader in the movement to preserve segregation.
Carter received less than 10 percent of the black vote in
defeating Sanders and then won the general election.
Carter's campaign had been tinged with racism, there was no
trace of racism in his subsequent actions. In his inaugural
speech in 1971, Carter declared, “The time for racial
discrimination is over.” Carter's record as governor was
quite liberal by Georgia standards. He appointed both blacks
and women to many state boards and positions and had a
portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassinated
civil rights leader, displayed in the state capitol.
he was governor, Carter worked for tough consumer protection
laws and banking regulation. He developed new programs in
health care and education, and to reform the prisons. The
achievement he later boasted about as a presidential
candidate, however, was a governmental reorganization plan
that consolidated Georgia's 300 state agencies into 22
superagencies. Although Carter liked to imply that this
reorganization had saved the taxpayers a great deal of money,
his new programs more than made up for the savings.
apparently decided as early as 1972, halfway through his
four-year term as governor, that he would seek the presidency
of the United States. Soon after the 1972 election, his
campaign manager drew up a detailed campaign strategy. Carter
followed the plan closely, beginning an exhausting schedule of
campaigning as soon as his gubernatorial term ended.
Carter formally announced in January 1975 that he was a
candidate for president, he had almost no national reputation.
There were nine other Democratic candidates in the nomination
race, some of whom had been prominent in national politics for
decades. But from the first Democratic caucuses in Iowa and
the first primary in New Hampshire in 1976, Jimmy Carter's
ability to win votes was evident. Carter did not win by
talking about issues; in fact, he became notorious for being
his campaign, Carter promised to restore morality and honesty
to the federal government. Voters were troubled by the
country's experience in the Vietnam War (1959-1975) and the
Watergate scandal. The Vietnam War had ended in 1975 when the
government of South Vietnam, which the United States had
supported in the war, surrendered to the North Vietnamese.
Many Americans felt discouraged by the loss of a war that had
caused significant dissent at home and U.S. casualties in
Vietnam. The confidence of the people in their government was
further eroded by the Watergate scandal, which had implicated
high officials in the administration of President Richard
Nixon and led to his resignation from the presidency in 1974.
Carter, who was not part of the political scene in Washington,
D.C., had an advantage. However, his frequent references to
his evangelical Southern Baptist faith became a controversial
aspect of his campaign. While it made his emphasis on moral
values more credible to some, others found his pious tone
enough, those most inclined to trust Carter were blacks, who
gave him more than 90 percent of their votes. Other Democrats
were suspicious of Carter as a Southerner and a man who seemed
to be running against his own party. Those who believed that
the war in Vietnam had been wrong were particularly critical
of his long-standing support of that war and feared that his
naval background would lead him to favor high military
spending. Labor leaders were not eager to support him because
he was a businessman from an antiunion state. Carter gained
some support, however, by endorsing national health insurance
and a bill to guarantee a job for all Americans who wanted
won 17 of the 30 primaries he entered and easily won the
nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National
Convention. His choice of the liberal Senator Walter F.
Mondale of Minnesota as his vice-presidential candidate helped
him to win the active support of labor unions.
opinion polls immediately after his nomination gave Carter a
huge lead, but his advantage dwindled steadily after President
Gerald R. Ford was nominated as the Republican candidate.
Because Carter's campaign was based primarily on personality,
the Republicans could point to the difference between the two
sides of himself that Carter displayed, the canny politician
and the born-again Christian who promised never to tell a lie.
In three televised debates between the two candidates, Ford
also challenged Carter's credibility on issues. He attacked
Carter as a liberal whose spending on social programs would
produce higher rates of inflation and require tax increases
for most Americans.
achieved a narrow victory, however, by sweeping most of the
South and narrowly winning a few major Northern industrial
states. He won 297 electoral votes to Ford's 241, and 40.8
million popular votes to Ford's 39.1 million.
of the United States
Carter had promised during the campaign to reduce the defense
budget and arms sales overseas, both continued to climb
sharply. Nevertheless, his administration was generally
conciliatory in foreign affairs. In 1977 the United States and
Panama agreed on two new treaties to replace their 1903
agreement about control of the Panama Canal. These treaties
recognized Panama Sovereignty over the Canal Zone, and control
of the canal itself, beginning in 2000; however, they left the
United States the right to defend the canal's neutrality. The
treaties took effect in 1979.
did prove to be an able negotiator. In September 1978, he met
at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, with
Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister
Menachem Begin. They agreed on a framework for peace between
Israel and Egypt. This framework, called the Camp David
Accords, led to a peace treaty between the two countries that
was signed in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 1979.
1979 Carter formally recognized the government of Communist
China and severed diplomatic ties with the Chinese Nationalist
regime on Taiwan. He also signed in June 1979 the second
Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics (USSR). This agreement set precise limits
on the numbers and types of strategic arms that each nation
Islamic revolution in Iran created the first major
foreign-policy problem for Carter. In January 1979 the
followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a conservative
Muslim clergyman, forced Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had
ruled Iran for 37 years, to flee abroad. In November 1979,
militant Iranians, who supported the ayatollah and opposed
Western influences, especially the United States, stormed the
U.S. embassy in Tehran (Teheran), the capital of Iran, taking
66 Americans hostage. Thirteen were soon released, but for the
release of the other 53, Iran demanded a U.S. apology for acts
committed in support of the shah, his return to face trial
(unimportant after his death in July 1980), and return of the
billions of dollars that he was said to have hoarded abroad.
Negotiations did not secure their release, nor did a U.S.
commando raid the following April. See Also Iran: History.
1979 the USSR invaded Afghanistan to support a Soviet-backed
government that was fighting Muslim insurgents. In response to
the invasion, Carter halted arms-control talks with the USSR
and asked the Senate not to ratify the second Strategic Arms
Limitations Treaty. He also stopped U.S. participation in the
1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, but neither of these actions
caused the USSR to remove its troops from Afghanistan. See
Also Afghanistan: History.
relationship with the Congress of the United States, which was
controlled by his own party, was often strained. Many members
found Carter aloof and clumsy at political dealing. The
administration's inexperience in dealing with Congress
contributed to the defeat, among other things, of a proposal
for a consumer protection agency and a bill to make labor
union organizing easier.
eventually won congressional approval of a program to decrease
U.S. dependence on imported oil by encouraging alternative
sources of energy and deregulating the price of oil and
natural gas produced in the United States. Freeing domestic
oil prices, however, caused a rise in inflation, an increase
in prices of goods and services without an increase in their
value. Inflation, which had been increasing since the late
1960s, now reached its highest point since the end of World
War II in 1945. Carter refused to impose price or wage
controls; instead, he asked large businesses to hold down
prices and labor unions to avoid new wage demands.
Unfortunately, these measures had little effect.
problems also plagued the Carter administration. Budget
Director Bert Lance was forced to resign in 1977 amid charges
of banking irregularities; a medical-policy adviser left in
the wake of a minor drug scandal; and United States Ambassador
to the United Nations Andrew Young resigned in 1979 after the
disclosure of a diplomatic indiscretion.
brother, Billy, received at least $220,000 from Libya, either
as a loan or for services never revealed; the Libyan
government had been denounced by the State Department for
supporting terrorism. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti,
moreover, was accused of covering up Billy Carter's
relationship with Libya, but a Senate investigation in 1980
failed to clear up these matters.
in 1980, a federal grand jury decided that charges that White
House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan had used cocaine were not
supported by sufficient evidence to file charges, and the
Justice Department decided against formally investigating
Treasury Secretary G. William Miller, who had denied knowing
that a company of which he had once been chairman had spent
millions of dollars on illegal payoffs.
the end of his term, Carter believed that his most critical
problem was a vague sense of ill-being in the United States
that, he felt, had produced a crisis of “national will.”
The gloom hanging over the administration deepened even
further when in 1979 Senator Edward M. Kennedy of
Massachusetts announced that he would challenge Carter for the
Democratic nomination. Party leaders generally supported
Carter, however. Claiming that he was needed to watch over the
nation's business, Carter did almost no primary campaigning
and refused even to debate Kennedy.
strategy paid off in the short run: Carter won two-thirds of
the primaries. But he lost several important primaries to
Kennedy, those of New York, Pennsylvania, and California.
Kennedy, refusing to concede defeat even after Carter had won
many more than the 1666 delegates required for nomination,
fought on for a more liberal party platform. Carter was forced
to accept most of his proposals.
during the campaign Carter could never quite arouse Democratic
enthusiasm. In fact, former California Governor, Ronald W.
Reagan who was the Republican nominee, successfully competed
with Carter for the votes of many Democrats. Reagan was able
to appeal to many people by taking advantage of resentment
against the decline of U.S. power overseas, the problems of
the economy, and the decay of traditional moral attitudes.
Although a large body of voters (according to public-opinion
polls) were concerned about Reagan's reputation for an
aggressively anti-Soviet foreign policy, Carter's attempt to
make arms control the main issue of the campaign failed. The
main issue of the campaign was Carter himself and what many
people considered to be his record of failure. Carter and
Mondale (who was also renominated) lost overwhelmingly to
Reagan and his vice-presidential running mate, George Bush,
with 41 percent of the vote to 51 percent for the Republicans.
The Democrats also lost control of the U.S. Senate for the
first time in 26 years.
last major official action was to secure the release of the
U.S. hostages in Iran. The 53 Americans were freed on January
20, 1981, the day of Reagan's inauguration. Carter agreed to
return Iranian assets in U.S. banks, which he had ordered
frozen, and pledged U.S. noninterference in Iran's affairs.
leaving office, Carter championed human rights and became a
public spokesperson for numerous charitable causes. In 1982 he
founded the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta,
Georgia. The center serves as a forum for discussing issues
related to democracy and human rights. Since the mid-1980s
Carter and his wife have helped build low-income housing for
the poor as part of the nonprofit organization, Habitat for
Humanity. Carter has also traveled extensively throughout
various developing countries helping to monitor elections,
establish relief efforts, and conduct peace negotiations.
1994 he went to North Korea to help that country and the
United States negotiate a dispute over the production of
nuclear weapons. In February 1993, North Korea had announced
that it would not allow inspectors from the United Nations
International Atomic Energy Agency to enter certain nuclear
power facilities to monitor compliance with the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968. North Korea had signed the
treaty in 1985, promising to restrict the development,
deployment, and testing of nuclear weapons. As the crisis
intensified through 1993 and into 1994, there were indications
that North Korea had diverted plutonium from its power
installations to create nuclear weapons and was testing
medium-range missiles capable of striking South Korea and
Japan. In late June 1994, however, following a visit to North
Korea by Carter as an unofficial emissary, North Korea
announced that it would freeze its nuclear program in exchange
for Western aid to build new nuclear reactors that produced
less plutonium as a by-product.
that year Carter helped negotiate the return to Haiti of
ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Carter has also
written several books, including Keeping Faith: Memoirs of
a President (1983); The Blood of Abraham: Insights into
the Middle East (1985); Turning Point: A Candidate, a
State, and a Nation Come of Age (1993); and Talking
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