Jimmy Carter’s unlikely presidency
By Kai Bird
The man was not what you think. He was tough. He was extremely intimidating. Jimmy Carter was probably the most intelligent, hard-working and decent man to have occupied the Oval Office in the 20th century. When I was regularly interviewing him a few years ago, he was in his early 90s yet was still rising with the dawn and getting to work early. I once saw him conduct a meeting at 7 a.m. at the Carter Center where he spent 40 minutes pacing back and forth onstage, explaining the details of his program to wipe out Guinea worm disease. He was relentless. Later that day he gave me, his biographer, exactly 50 minutes to talk about his White House years. Those bright blue eyes bore into me with an alarming intensity. But he was clearly more interested in the Guinea worms.
Carter remains the most misunderstood president of the last century. A Southern liberal, he knew racism was the nation’s original sin. He was a progressive on the issue of race, declaring in his first address as Georgia’s governor, in 1971, that “the time for racial discrimination is over,” to the extreme discomfort of many Americans, including a good number of his fellow Southerners. And yet, as someone who had grown up barefoot in the red soil of Archery, a tiny hamlet in south Georgia, he was steeped in a culture that had known defeat and occupation. This made him a pragmatist.
The gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson once described Carter as one of the “meanest men” he had ever met. Thompson meant ruthless and ambitious and determined to win power — first the Georgia governorship and then the presidency. A post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era of disillusionment with the notion of American exceptionalism was the perfect window of opportunity for a man who ran his campaign largely on the issue of born-again religiosity and personal integrity. “I’ll never lie to you,” he said repeatedly on the campaign trail, to which his longtime lawyer Charlie Kirbo quipped that he was going to “lose the liar vote.” Improbably, Carter won the White House in 1976.
But Carter refused to order any military retaliations against the rogue regime in Tehran. That would have been the politically easy thing to do, but he also knew it would endanger the lives of the hostages. Diplomacy, he insisted, would work. And yet now we have good evidence that Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager Bill Casey made a secret trip to Madrid in the summer of 1980, where he may have met with a representative of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and thus prolonged the hostage crisis. If this is true, such interference in the hostage negotiations sought to deny the Carter administration an October surprise, a release of the hostages late in the campaign, and it was dirty politics and a raw deal for the American hostages.
Carter’s presidency was virtually scandal free. He often spent 12 hours or more in the Oval Office reading 200 pages of memos a day. He was intent on doing the right thing and right away.
The majority of the country rejected him as a president way ahead of his time: too much of a Georgian Yankee for the New South and too much of an outlier populist for the North. If the election in 1976 offered hope for a healing of the racial divide, his defeat signalled that the country was reverting to a conservative era of harsh partisanship. It was a tragic narrative familiar to any Southerner.
Bird is the director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography The New York Times
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