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.