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Jimmy Carter’s unfairly mocked presidency deserves another look

As the madcap, ugly 2016 election nears its end, one thing is clear: most Americans don’t trust either of their main choices for president. Between Hillary Clinton’s serious trust deficit and Donald Trump’s ever darker unpleasantness, this election cycle is increasingly marked by voters’ indifference and disgust.

It all feels rather like the situation four decades ago, when Americans’ faith in government was at one of its lowest ebbs. By the mid-1970s, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had all but dashed the hopes of a progressive era; instead, Americans lived through Vietnam and endured a government that treated its people with contempt, culminating in the national scandal of Watergate.

Against this crisis of spirit, and with an unpopular incumbent in Gerald Ford and a paucity of inspiring Democratic candidates, the 1976 election was all set up to be a morose affair. But then, as if out of nowhere, along came a former peanut farmer to shake things up.

It’s hard to overstate just how much of an “outsider” candidate Jimmy Carter was before the 1976 election. Despite being governor of Georgia, he was a virtual unknown nationally. But for most of 1975, he managed to gradually build momentum with a personal style of campaigning – and after vaulting to the front of a crowded field of primary candidates by winning the Iowa caucuses, he eventually managed to secure the Democratic nomination for president.

Turning in solid performances in three televised debates, Carter managed to oust Ford by a narrow margin and became the US’s 39th president. A recurring slogan of his campaign was “Why not the best?” – and he genuinely did intend to give his best to a country that sorely needed it. But his presidency didn’t go to plan, and public opinion has been cool to say the least ever since.

But with the US once again mired in a not dissimilar sort of malaise, it’s time to reassess what Carter meant to his country.

Trouble abroad

Carter was the first president to put human rights at the forefront of his foreign policy. “I know how easy it is to overlook the persecution of others when your own rights and freedoms are not in jeopardy,” he later wrote, referring to his upbringing in segregationist Georgia. “To me … moral principles were the best foundation for the exertion of American power and influence.”

Carter officially disdained dictatorships in Central and South America whether they were capitalist or communist, a truly unprecedented move for a postwar president. Previously, the US had often blindly supported far-right dictatorships and insurgencies to offset communism, and it would do so again; both the Vietnam War before Carter’s presidency and the Iran-Contra affair after it are testament to the shortsightedness of this approach.

Troubled times. Flickr

Carter’s government emphasised rights for all, not just for Americans, and his administration was defined by the quest for peace rather than military superiority. With his vigilance and determination, the seemingly impossible Camp David Accords were signed between Egypt and Israel. The resulting Framework for Peace in the Middle East created a secure relationship between the two countries, and was the first time Israel truly acknowledged Palestinian rights.

While the accords were a model example for Middle East negotiations for years to come, they were never going to win Carter votes. He knew this perfectly well; his motivation was doing what was necessary to advance the interests of global peace. In his moral crusades, Carter was unwavering – and he expected the same of the American people.

A crisis of confidence

Domestically, Carter’s administration was dogged by an unprecedented energy crisis. From his first week in office, Carter made it clear that America’s reliance on foreign oil left it vulnerable to blackmail, and that alternative sources had to be developed if Americans were to prosper.

Carter made many televised addresses to the people emphasising the importance of looking to renewable alternatives for the nation’s energy, but average Americans seldom took him seriously. Unable to rally public support, Carter lacked the political capital to pressure congress into enacting his energy bills.

While he managed to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil, pursuing renewable energy sources by investing billions in research and development, the energy issue continued to fester. And by the summer of 1979, America found itself in the depths of the very energy crisis that Carter predicted.

In 1977, Carter walked from his inauguration to the White House, the first president to do so for years. Jimmy Carter Library

With the country losing faith in him, Carter took to television to give his most famous address, the so-called “crisis of confidence speech”. In this address, Carter asserted a need for Americans to now pull together if they were to defeat the energy crisis, acknowledging that the people had developed an apathy towards their government thanks to the events of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The speech had its limitations as a piece of oratory, but it was a bold and honest move. Nonetheless, it would prove to be Carter’s political undoing in his 1980 re-election campaign.

Dubbed the “malaise speech” by Carter’s Republican opponent Ronald Reagan, it was used to frame Carter as an out-of-touch president with little faith in the American people. Coupled with Reagan’s patriotic platform and the continuing Iranian hostage crisis, Carter’s prospects for re-election shrivelled. Reagan ultimately scored a landslide victory.

Looking back at his four years in office, Carter came through on his slogan of “Why not the best?”, but perhaps not in the way Americans were expecting. Carter made America a moral force under his tenure, mediating some of the world’s most fraught tensions and fighting for peace and freedom for all. He was open and honest with his people; as he famously said in a campaign commercial:

I will never tell a lie. I will never make a misleading statement. I will never betray the confidence any of you has in me.

Carter’s presidency wasn’t a success on all measures, but it set a remarkable standard for decency, honesty and justice. The US would be lucky to have such a person running for president in 2016.

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