A rough consensus has emerged about Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-1981) and his subsequent life. Between his work on democracy and elections and his work volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, there is little doubt that he set a standard for the post-presidency not likely to be equaled. And this record has been widely acknowledged, including the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize (joining only Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Barack Obama among US President Nobel Laureates). Even his detractors concede that he has had perhaps the “best post-presidency ever.”
Yet one result of this focus on his post-presidency is that even his supporters tend to overlook a very productive presidency.
It is true that he had two major negatives on his watch, First, he didn’t do a great job of handling the hyperinflationary economy that Nixon and Ford handed him (after Vietnam, wage-price controls, and the first oil shock, among other things). Second, of course, the hostage crisis.
Yet, we forget several accomplishments that any president would be proud to have on his record. First, against all odds, he remains the only world leader who has achieved a durable peace in the Middle East. Five years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Carter brought two bitter adversaries, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Camp David and through the sheer force of his will, achieved agreement on the Camp David Accords, which provided for gradual Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in return for normalized relations. And the treaty turned out to be so beneficial that the two adversaries, who had fought four wars In the previous 30 years, have now had peace 50 percent longer (45 years) than the original wartime state.
Even more impressive is the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty. There were two things “everyone” knew for a fact when Carter started negotiations with Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos. First, Carter would NEVER get an agreement on a treaty.
The special status of the United States in the so-called “Canal Zone” had been an irritant since the “treaty” granting the US perpetual control and had become a major flash point by the 1960s, leading to riots and termination of diplomatic relations.
Yet the Canal Zone ignited equal jingoistic sentiments in the United States and when Carter did get agreement on a treaty, another thing that “everyone knew” was that the treaty had no chance of ratification in the US Senate. As US Senator SI Hayakawa said, “We stole it fair and square and we should keep it.” The original jingoistic possession ignited jingoistic feelings when the subject of giving it back was raised. Thirty-eight senators (four more than the 34 needed to block ratification) announced their opposition. Yet Carter went to work with a massive persuasion campaign and eventually was successful. The treaty arranged a handover period through 2000 and in that year, ex-president Carter led the US delegation celebrating the successful handoff. The American fears that Panama might neglect the canal or deny passage to our fleets had proven groundless and a major impediment to relations throughout Latin America was removed.
Carter had other successes as well, including the first energy policy to emphasize conservation and solar energy; the SALT II treaty; and the first implementation of a foreign policy that took our Allies’ human rights record into account. He had strong moral convictions and brought a moral sense to US foreign policy, reversing decades of “sure, he’s an SOB but he’s our SOB” foreign policy that gave US support to regimes like the Greek colonels, Latin American juntas, and a crop of kleptocrats and thugs in Africa.
Carter is frequently derided for his “malaise” speech, his sweaters, and his lowered thermostats – though the latter two are recognized as baseline elements of any program to reduce energy consumption. He is also the butt of jokes about his holier-than-thou attitude and his over-reliance on friends from Georgia – House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill once referred to his leading aide as “Hannibal Jerkin.” Yet, by the end of his term, Carter’s White House staff was widely respected on both sides of the aisle.
Carter frequently is derided as weak and ineffectual, particularly by conservatives, but in reality, he had a strong and productive presidency and has two accomplishments – the Camp David Accords and the Panama Canal Treaty – that any of his predecessors or successors would be proud to have on their record.
Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.