What The 2016 Candidates Can Learn From Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter attends 'Countdown To Zero: Defeating Disease' preview press conference at American Museum of Natural History on January 12, 2015 in New York City/picture alliance Photo by: Dennis Van T... Former President Jimmy Carter attends 'Countdown To Zero: Defeating Disease' preview press conference at American Museum of Natural History on January 12, 2015 in New York City/picture alliance Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

With the latest tragic news about Jimmy Carter’s cancer, many commentators and pundits have begun offering new assessments of Carter’s life and legacy. The widespread consensus has been that Carter redefined the concept of the post-presidency, and that it’s in the manifold projects and efforts undertaken during those 35 post-presidential years that Carter’s most significant and influential legacy can be found. From the work for global peace that culminated in Carter’s 2002 Nobel Peace Prize to the anti-poverty activism exemplified by his three-decade-long partnership with Habitat for Humanity, and up through his pledge to dedicate the remainder of his life to fighting for women’s rights, Carter has contributed immeasurably to his society and world since the end of his presidential term.

Those contributions themselves comprise a lasting and evolving legacy, of course. But as many commenters have argued, they also offer a model for President Obama as he begins to contemplate his own post-presidential period. Most former presidents have remained active in public life in one way or another, but Carter’s peers have done so as much (if not more so) through compensated speaking engagements and other fundraising activities as through other forms of activism. If Obama wishes to pursue a different path, whether through his recently founded Brother’s Keeper initiative or any other projects, Carter represents a potent and inspiring example for the soon-to-be former president to follow.

Yet if we focus only on Carter’s post-presidential period and what it might mean for Obama, we miss out on two distinct but complementary ways to better remember Carter’s controversial but largely forgotten presidency (at least when it comes to specifics): both its unquestionable failures and its underappreciated successes. And each of those histories offers lessons for the women and men contending to take Obama’s place as the next American president.

Carter’s presidential failures can be summed up in two historic crises: the energy crisis and the Iran hostage crisis. As with many individual historic moments and events, these were the product of histories, including interconnected ones involving America’s presence and role in the Middle East and the Arab world, that long preceded Carter’s presidency and were entirely outside of his control. Yet in both cases, Carter’s public responses to the crises left much to be desired. When he famously lowered the heat in the White House and donned a sweater as an example for his fellow Americans, he turned his homespun Georgia charm into a display of striking naivete. And when he isolated himself in the White House for more than 100 days during the hostage crisis, he turned an understandable grief for endangered fellow Americans into an inability to lead the rest of his nation during this tumultuous time.

Both of these ineffective responses offer instructive examples for our current crop of presidential wannabes. Carter’s sweater moment embodied the kinds of simplistic approaches to governance that we so often hear on the campaign trail, such as the rhetoric that the U.S. is a family that needs to do a better job spending within our means. These homespun narratives make for good campaign soundbites, but come up entirely short when it comes to policy-making. And similarly, Carter’s emotional response to the hostage crisis can remind candidates that however much voters might say they want a president who is “just like us,” the position truly demands a leader who can think, respond, and act in the moments that might cripple most of us.

Despite these public failings, on both energy and the Middle East Carter was in many ways ahead of his time. His support for solar energy in the White House represented an early championing of the kinds of conservation efforts and alternative energies we have come to realize are vital to our collective future. And his brokering of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel remains one of the most important moments of peaceful negotiation between the Middle East’s hostile parties. In such efforts, Carter can remind all political candidates and leaders that public office isn’t simply about the moment but about the long haul, and how an individual can help contribute to it.

Carter’s two most significant successes as president exemplify that theory, and model its importance for current candidates even more fully. In resisting popular Cold War narratives of what Ronald Reagan would soon call the Evil Empire and joining Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in signing the SALT II nuclear reduction treaty, Carter helped paved the way for glasnost and the beginning of the end of the nuclear arms race. The candidates opposed to the agreement with Iran and advocating instead for a more warlike disposition toward the nation (which includes the entire GOP slate and, less overtly but quite possibly, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton) would do well to remember Carter’s support for mutual nuclear reduction and the international trust that it requires and engenders.

And then there’s the Panama Canal. Thanks directly to both our support for the 1903 rebellion that granted Panama independence from Colombia and then our immediate negotiation of a hugely favorable treaty with that new nation, the United States had controlled this vital waterway since its 1914 completion.

Yet with the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties, the Carter administration returned the canal to Panama, provided the Central American nation promise to guarantee the canal’s permanent neutrality. In so doing, Carter demonstrated a foreign policy based on the same principles of international fairness and peace for which he has worked so tirelessly since his presidency. And he modeled a U.S. relationship with Latin America based not on divisive rhetoric or perceived threats but instead on a shared Western Hemisphere community. In a campaign where every day seems to bring heightened narratives of Mexican dangers and Latin American anchor babies and the like, here too Carter has much to offer these potential future presidents.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Latest Cafe

Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for jw1 jw1 says:

    What The 2016 Candidates Can Learn From Jimmy Carter

    Sadly, in this political clime, candidates must weigh their associations so very carefully; or risk slicing off some percentile of a demographic they require for election.

    The Rightwing Wurlitzer as it was known not so long ago-- has so capsulized and packaged every pol’s and public figure’s persona and record into sound-bite-sized nuggets-- processed for consumption and regurgitation so thoroughly-- as to be accepted as historically accurate-- in this age of easy distraction.

    James Earl Carter was my Governor, and the first POTUS for whom I cast a ballot.
    That I’m a (D) allows for a perspective of respect and admiration for his life’s achievements.

    But there is a multi-generational propaganda machine spewing white noise non-stop-- that will never allow for the nuances of his legacy to be anything more than a quick and simple eulogy scrolling across a cable network’s chyron.

    There exists a whole segment of our country’s citizenry who will never be exposed to the depth of greatness of this man.
    A segment whose ideology will staunchly refuse to allow them to learn from Jimmy Carter.
    And a whole raft of cut-out candidates who seem unable to learn from their own mistakes-- much less from a great man.


  2. Any human being could learn a tremendous amount about grace, decency and giving back from Jimmy Carter. As for his presidency, most of his supposed failures amounted to bad luck-the Shah could have developed the cancer that led to his fall a year later and Carter would have likely won a second term. So, I guess the message to the candidates is: be lucky.

  3. It is easy to learn from role models like President Jimmy Carter about life’s ideals.

    One can also learn from deeply and pathologically flawed individuals like Vice President George Bush the Dumber and from Donald Trump about real life.

    From Trump, I’ve learnt about the value of humility –– humility is worthless, to never trust the orthodoxy on anything and that conservatives are crazier than you can imagine.

    From Vice President George Bush the Dumber, I learnt about the solace, peace of mind and bliss, vengeful malice and willful ignorance can bring.

  4. Also, if you appreciate a good craft brew from a microbrewery, thank Jimmy Carter. If you have one of the thousands of jobs created by the microbrewery industry, you can also thank Jimmy Carter. From Wikipedia:

    In 1979, Carter deregulated the American beer industry by making it legal to sell malt, hops, and yeast to American home brewers for the first time since the effective 1920 beginning of Prohibition in the United States.[63] This Carter deregulation led to an increase in home brewing over the 1980s and 1990s that by the 2000s had developed into a strong craft microbrew culture in the United States, with 3,418 micro breweries, brewpubs, and regional craft breweries in the United States by the end of 2014.

    Contrary to popular opinion, Reagan had nothing to do with the timing of the Iranian hostage release. Iran viewed US with utter contempt back then. They hated the US no matter who was President. People give Reagan too much credit when they repeat the theory he negotiated the timing of the hostage release. Warren Christopher negotiated the release of the hostages with the Algiers Accords: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algiers_Accords

    EDIT: The Iraq-Iran war started in September 1980.We backed Saddam from the get go. If Iran and Reagan had a special relationship, would we actually facilitate Saddam obtaining chemical weapons and using them on Iranian soldiers? We provided Saddam with intelligence from the start. Reagan had no influence or deal with the Iranians.

  5. I voted for Carter both times, but the second was a hard pull. I trace the downfall of the Democratic party’s certain grip on Congress to his lack of leadership. Like Obama, he did little to inspire faith in him as a leader. He eschewed the theatrics of American presidential leadership, a necessity recognized by George Washington (who first blocked it— in the acting sense), Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and of course, Ronald Reagan. When he was elected, everyone was really angry at Republicans. Instead of using this golden opportunity (devastating for the nation, but as Rahm states, never let a serious crises go to waste)to fill the vacuum of power left by Nixon and Ford (the latter was also oblivious of the need to look like a leader) he was dismissive of his Congressional leadership team, led by real pros like Tip O’Neil and Mike Mansfield and Robert Byrd, who all despised him. His performance was so miserable that Ted Kennedy, who 7 years earlier had killed a young girl he was sleeping with, mounted a credible challenge to Carter, the energy of which, after Kennedy’s crash and burn on 60 Minutes, went into creating the Reagan Democrats. (Jeff Greenfield has a great piece in Politico today about Obama’s similar failure.) His attention to minutia was legendary. (Remember how he personally, from his desk in the Oval Office, personally handled scheduling of court time on the White House tennis courts? A real leader would have only cared that everyone else went running away when he came downstairs for a few sets.) A leader cannot be considered great if his accomplishments do not last. The Egypt-Israel agreement (something most of the Israeli and Egyptian participants occurred despite, and not because, of Carter) is the only thing that is still in effect. On January 21, 1981, the solar panels came off he White House, and in the next six years the tax system that continues to widen the income and opportunity gap that continues to grow was put in place. January 20, 1977 was the day the New Deal died, and that is how Carter will be remembered in 50 years.

Continue the discussion at forums.talkingpointsmemo.com

41 more replies


Avatar for system1 Avatar for buckguy Avatar for josephebacon Avatar for overreach_this Avatar for jw1 Avatar for ncsteve Avatar for harrytruman Avatar for mymy Avatar for wial Avatar for commiedearest Avatar for becca656 Avatar for randyabraham Avatar for mcbain Avatar for carlosfiance Avatar for bonvivant Avatar for gr Avatar for dickweed Avatar for hugopreuss Avatar for mrf Avatar for lucia4 Avatar for castorita Avatar for carlo43 Avatar for BenRailton Avatar for jltpm

Continue Discussion
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: