Monday, February 20, 2023

President's Day: James Carter - the 39th President of the United States

Former President James "Jimmy" Carter is on my mind these days as he is, at age 98, entering hospice care.  

Perhaps now more famous and liked for his post-Presidential career than his time during office - a period during which I would not envy anyone who was in the White House - Carter may not be with us much longer, so now seems like an opportune time to remind all of us who Jimmy Carter is other than a nice old man who spends a lot of time volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

Carter was born and raised in Plains, Georgia, where his family had a peanut farm.  He would leave to go to college, finishing as a Naval Academy graduate, which led to his military service aboard submarines in both the Pacific and Atlantic fleets.  Clearly he had something going on upstairs as he was selected to study reactor technology as nuclear submarines came online.  Yes.  He's a nuclear engineer.  

Even as a kid, I remember hearing Carter was "a peanut farmer", which was true.  With his father's passing, Carter returned to Georgia in the mid-1950's to take over the family business, which had diminished significantly.  Carter and family wound up living in public housing. which he grew into a considerable agricultural supply enterprise, while also becoming involved in the local community.  By 1963, Carter - with the navigation and support of his wife, Rosalyn - ran for office as a State Senator, uncovering local corruption of party politics along the way.

It should be noted that Carter's platform was pro-desegregation, and much of his political stance of his early career was based on his support of the Civil Rights movement.  However, his 1970 run for the Governor's office was marred by appeals to segregationists - who he essentially betrayed during his inaugural speech, seeking an end to segregation.  Pretty wild.  

As governor, he focused on the Civil Rights movement, educational equity, and opportunities and care for a wide array of Georgians. 

Carter served one term before running for President in 1976, partnering with Walter Mondale as a running mate and narrowly defeating Gerald Ford, the Gerald Ford of presidential candidates.  

During his governorship, Carter had not played ball well with party hardliners, and arriving in DC, he didn't particularly endear himself to the legislature, refusing horse-trading for political actions and pushing back against the Ted Kennedy-led wing of the Democratic party.  What I personally remember was that Carter took a lot of blame for an economy he inherited from Ford, which had a 9% unemployment rate and inflation that we're only seeing again lately.  His efforts at economic recovery were knee-capped by the 1970's energy crisis, which wound up as a key part of Carter's legacy (he pushed comprehensive energy strategies that got some traction).

Carter established the Department of Education, Head Start, and fought for better healthcare coverage 0 perhaps including universal coverage - a fight that continues on to this day.

Carter was a Cold War-era president, but his focus wound up on creating a peace between Egypt and Israel, and I grew up knowing what the Camp David Accords were, and what part the US played in Mid-East peace, which was a factor for the US constantly through the early 2000's.  If you want to understand how long and how f'd up the US's history has been with Afghanistan and why every time we start talking about Afghanistan a lot of us grind our molars, Carter was in office when the Soviet Union invaded the country, which would go on for years.  We, of course, provided weapons and support, all of which had a very long tail as we chose perhaps the not-best allies in the region.

And, of course, Carter was at the wheel during the Iran Hostage Crisis, which is one of my earliest TV News Memories (along with Reagan being elected, Reagan being shot and Pope John Paul II's attempted assassination, which I frown upon).  

It's worth noting that during the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant incident, nuclear engineer/ President Jimmy Carter walked right into the plant during the emergency to be briefed in a way it's impossible to see any prior or subsequent president participating.  

The first Presidential Election I can recall was the 1980 election and I remember sitting on the floor while my parents explained that they'd both voted that day and for different candidates.  I found this mind-boggling, but also somehow comforting - but which also set me up to really not get how insane people are about their candidates of choice.  Everyone simmer down out there.

Carter was roundly defeated by Ronald Reagan, and retreated to Georgia.  

I don't recall hearing much about him until 1994 when he went to North Korea on behalf of Clinton.  According to the internet, this went way crazier than I remembered, with Carter trying to outline a treaty without Clinton's consent.  Huh.  You do you, Jimmy.

After this, Carter started appearing before cameras again, and now he was "Telling It Like It Is" Jimmy Carter.  This isn't to say he was a crazy old man - he sounded 10x more lucid and well-considered than anyone in office who had to worry about optics, etc...  and it occurred to me that he was probably an incredibly smart man that usually had a hard time compromising and communicating, and he might make a far better elder statesman than he had a president.

For the past two decades, Carter has fought off brain cancer while also participating in community work like Habitat for Humanity, speaking with current presidents as an advisor and generally being a decent moral touchstone for some Americans.  As a President who was in office during a period of complicated history coming home to roost, in many ways, he was just the guy in the chair when a multitude of things occurred that had been problems set in motion by prior office holders, but that's the job.  It's always the job.  Carter in particular seemed to take it on the chin for not being a magical being who could fix all the ills that beset the nation in the wake of WWII's post-history, the Cold War, US interventionism (which he built upon), and an economy prior administrations hadn't wrangled particularly well.  

Again, that's the job.  No idea why people want it.

As Carter enters his final days or weeks, he has a mixed legacy as a politician.  Like all people, he's complicated and contradictory and occasionally compromised.  But I'd argue he's used his last few decades showing us what ex-Presidents are capable of if they seek to show the world a level of decency and betterment for others through service.

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