Mr. 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 Mr. Carter as one of the “meanest men” he had ever met. Mr. 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, Mr. Carter won the White House in 1976.
He decided to use power righteously, ignore politics and do the right thing. He was, in fact, a fan of the establishment’s favorite Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote, “It is the sad duty of politics to establish justice in a sinful world.” Mr. Carter, a Niebuhrian Southern Baptist, was a church of one, a true outlier. He “thought politics was sinful,” said his vice president, Walter Mondale. “The worst thing you could say to Carter if you wanted him to do something was that it was politically the best thing to do.” Mr. Carter routinely rejected astute advice from his wife, Rosalynn, and others to postpone politically costly initiatives, like the Panama Canal treaties, to his second term.
His presidency is remembered, simplistically, as a failure, yet it was more consequential than most recall. He delivered the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, the SALT II arms control agreement, normalization of diplomatic and trade relations with China and immigration reform. He made the principle of human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, planting the seeds for the unraveling of the Cold War in Eastern Europe and Russia.
He deregulated the airline industry, paving the way for middle-class Americans to fly for the first time in large numbers, and he regulated natural gas, laying the groundwork for our current energy independence. He worked to require seatbelts or airbags, which would go on to save 9,000 American lives each year. He inaugurated the nation’s investment in research on solar energy and was one of the first presidents to warn us about the dangers of climate change. He rammed through the Alaska Land Act, tripling the size of the nation’s protected wilderness areas. His deregulation of the home-brewing industry opened the door to America’s thriving boutique beer industry. He appointed more African Americans, Hispanics and women to the federal bench, substantially increasing their numbers.
But some of his controversial decisions, at home and abroad, were just as consequential. He took Egypt off the battlefield for Israel, but he always insisted that Israel was also obligated to suspend building new settlements in the West Bank and allow the Palestinians a measure of self-rule. Over the decades, he would argue that the settlements had become a roadblock to a two-state solution and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He was not afraid to warn everyone that Israel was taking a wrong turn on the road to apartheid. Sadly, some critics injudiciously concluded that he was being anti-Israel or worse.
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