Jimmy Carter: American Moralist by Kenneth E. Morris

President #39, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #25

Would you like some malaise on your sandwich?

carterJimmy Carter was, and in many ways still is, a confounding figure to understand. Just how did someone rise from the relatively obscure position of Governor of Georgia to the Presidency? And just what were Carter’s goals and aims in the White House? Was he just a man with a nervous grin who seemed paralyzed by events, especially the hostage crisis in Iran, or was he a shrewd politician? And why did he seem to blame America’s problems on the American people?

Kenneth Morris, the author of this book, is not a historian, but rather a sociologist. And as the subtitle of the book would lead you to believe, it is an examination about how and why Jimmy Carter tried to turn the office of the Presidency into a place where he could exert moral leadership of the country. Morris describes how Carter changed over time from a child of a comfortable upbringing in rural Georgia to a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy and then on to Georgia politics, and ultimately, the White House, using what he considered to be his two best skills: morality and competence.

The problem for Carter was that the American people often look for more than competence in their Presidents. They want to be inspired. They want to be led. They want to feel as if they are doing the right thing. And, in the end, Carter wasn’t able to convince the American people that they needed his style of leadership, which some thought sounded more like criticism than anything else.

Morris reveals quite a bit about Carter from an examination of his upbringing in Plains, Georgia. And, first of all, people should know that Carter actually grew up in a smaller town near Plains, called Archery. His father, James Earl Carter (called Earl by everyone), was a prosperous farmer and businessman and also served in the Georgia Legislature.

Earl was a strong supporter of Herman Talmadge, a Georgia governor and ardent segregationist. Earl was, like many Southerners of his era, also a supporter of segregation, although he was personally kind to African-Americans. Earl Carter didn’t mind the African-Americans who worked for him and was a good landlord to those who rented from him. But, Earl Carter was not of the mind that African-Americans should share any sort of economic or political equality with whites. His son did not share these views, however.

His wife, Lillian, primarily married Earl for his money, although she did bear him four children. But, she traveled a lot (she would later join the Peace Corps as a nurse) and was not a major figure in the life of her eldest, James Earl Carter Jr., aka Jimmy or Jim, or her other children. Jimmy was, like many people, a son who didn’t like his father, but wanted nothing more than his father’s approval. Morris writes that Earl’s favorite was his daughter Ruth, whom Morris hints that Earl may have been a bit too fond of.

Jimmy Carter left Plains in 1943 to go to the U.S. Naval Academy and get away from the influence of the man whom he felt he could never satisfy. So, Carter left Georgia to start out on a new phase of his life.

Because of World War II, the term of instruction at Annapolis was shortened from four to three years, but that still meant that Carter missed out on combat duty in World War II as he didn’t graduate until 1946, around the same time he married his wife, Rosalynn.

Despite serving on ships and submarines, Carter made few friends during his tour of duty in the Navy. Morris spoke to many other sailors that Carter served with and none of them had any stories to tell about him, except to say that he was a loner who almost always kept to himself, even on a submarine. Morris speculates that Carter may have been suffering from depression during this time.

In 1953, Earl Carter died of pancreatic cancer. His eldest son, who had wanted to not be like his father, immediately resigned his naval commission and headed back to Plains (that was where the family business was located) and, essentially, became his father. Jimmy Carter took over the family business (a peanut farm and processing plant) and reinvented himself.

Back in Plains, Carter worked at the family business, although his younger brother Billy was actually the better businessman. By 1962, Carter decided to try for his first government office, the Georgia State Senate. Carter sought this office in part because the U.S. Supreme Court had mandated that all state legislatures be chosen on a “one man, one vote” system and this changed the demographics of the district making it more favorable for someone like Carter, who would have been considered a liberal on civil rights at the time in Georgia.

Carter actually lost his first election for the State Senate seat, however; the results were thrown out because of voter fraud. After several court decisions changed the result back and forth, Carter’s opponent just gave up and Carter was elected for a four-year term.

During his four years in the State Senate, Carter vowed to read EVERY page of EVERY bill he voted on. He wanted to show that he was not a machine politician who could be swayed by his boss’ suggestions, as his father was by the Talmadge machine. Carter apparently did keep to this promise.  It likely required him to pull some all-nighters at the end of each legislative session. Carter was trying to emulate John Kennedy, not realizing that Kennedy would never have worked that hard.

In 1966, Carter was planning to run for a House seat and would likely have won it, except he decided, at the last minute, to run for governor instead. Carter didn’t win and he ended up splitting the Democratic primary vote in such a way that Lester Maddox, a segregationist who prided himself on not serving blacks at his restaurant, as well as chasing away any potential black customers away by waving an axe handle at them, won the primary, and later the general election.

Carter underwent another transformation after this setback. With time on his hands, Carter began to read the works of notable philosophers and theologians and became especially enamored with the work of Reinhold Niebhur. Also, Carter’s sister, Ruth, had become a minister and she brought about a religious reawakening in her older brother. And from this Carter would begin to identify himself as a “Born Again Christian.”

Along with this religious transformation, Carter also set his sights on correcting his mistakes in running for governor and started to prepare for another run in four years (at the time Georgia governors could not be reelected.) Carter, along with his political advisers Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, mapped out a strategy that would make Carter appeal to just about everyone in the state of Georgia. They studied voting patterns for each one of Georgia’s 159 counties. Carter gave speeches that were tailored for each particular ZIP code he was in. The hard work paid off and Carter assumed the Governor’s job in 1971.

Almost as soon as Carter was elected governor, he started to prepare for a presidential run. In 1972, Carter (or his supporters) tried to get him nominated as George McGovern’s running mate, but McGovern was not interested.

The lesson Carter took from McGovern’s landslide loss to Nixon in 1972 was that the American people liked McGovern’s ideas, but didn’t think that McGovern was competent enough to run the country. So, Carter went about showing his “competence” with a series of reforms in Georgia and a reform of the budget process. It’s hard to tell just what he accomplished as governor of Georgia.

Carter was one of the first declared candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1976, and most political pundits assumed that the election was in the bag for the Democrats in the wake of Watergate and President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. However, after a quick start with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Carter’s momentum stalled as Democrats started looking at other candidates, like Morris Udall or Jerry Brown. Even Hubert Humphrey was still popular among Democrats. Carter had built enough of an early lead though, that his nomination was not in doubt.

In the general election, Carter, according to Morris, almost blew a huge lead in the polls, edging out Ford by a little more than 2% in the popular vote and by just 51 in the electoral vote. Carter won only one state in the West, Hawai’i. Carter’s election represented the last gasp of “The Solid South” for Democrats and that was was attributed more to the region’s desire to return one of its own to the White House for the first time since 1848. (Texans have told me that Texas is not in the South. I will not disagree with them. Also, Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia, but was considered a New Jerseyan when elected.)

Carter’s four years in office were not a time that many Americans look back at with much fondness. The “stagflation” of the Nixon and Ford Era, continued. People were faced with double digit rates of inflation combined with interest rates well over 15 percent. Worker productivity declined. There were sporadic energy shortages.

Energy was the first issue that Carter tried to tackle. Immediately, he faced opposition from Congressional Democrats who found Carter’s style to be somewhat dismissive of them. Also, Carter wasn’t considered liberal enough by the Democrats in Congress. It took two years to get any sort of legislation in this field passed.

As Morris wrote, Carter worked very hard to find the perfect middle road and established a unique position on just about every political issue possible. There were estimates that Carter had over 250 different position papers on separate subjects. It was hard to figure out just what he stood for, except possibly just for Jimmy Carter.

In foreign policy, Carter decided to make the return of the Panama Canal to Panama, his first big issue to tackle. While negotiations had gone on for several years under different administrations, opposition to the return of the Canal was fierce. Carter won Senate approval of  the treaty after spending quite a bit of political capital.

In 1978, Carter’s made his greatest mark on history when he was able to get Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypitan President Anwar Sadat to come to Camp David. Carter was able to mediate a peace treaty between these two enemies.

By 1979, the wheels came off of Carter’s Presidency. On July 15, 1979, Carter addressed the nation on television, ostensibly to discuss energy policy, but Carter changed his idea about the speech and spoke about a “crisis of confidence” in the United States. Carter said that the problem with the country wasn’t Congress not passing his energy policy, but the problem was that the country didn’t believe in itself and was skeptical that the country get itself back on track.

This speech was dubbed the “malaise” speech, even though Carter didn’t use that word in the speech. But, the American people didn’t like to be told that they were a bunch of whiners. Carter did not give the appearance that he was leading anymore.

And then on November 4, 1979, terrorists held 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. This was, first in protest of Carter allowing the deposed Shah to come to the U.S. for medical treatment, but the crisis continued past the Shah’s death. Carter retreated in to the White House and seemed to offer little hope for the hostages’ return. Not that finding their release would be easy as the Iranian government was in flux and it was difficult to find anyone who had any authority. Also, decades of anti-American attitudes were being played out in this event.

Carter did order a commando style rescue of the hostages, but it ended up with two American helicopters crashing in the desert, the hostages still in Tehran, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigning in protest.

In addition to his problems with Iran, Carter irritated Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev with his support of Soviet dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov. Carter and Brezhnev negotiated a SALT II agreement to limit nuclear weapons. Neither side liked the agreement. It was scrapped when the USSR invaded Afghanistan. (That didn’t work out so well for anybody did it?)

How did Carter respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? He ordered a boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Moscow, as well as an embargo on grain exports to the USSR.

In 1980, Carter had to survive a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy to be renominated. Then, Carter had to face one of the most polished campaigners in American politics in Ronald Reagan. Compared to Reagan, the earnest, moralizing Southern farmer seemed most inadequate against Reagan, who would keep asking if people were better off than they were four years ago. And, the answer to that was almost always “no.” Reagan won by nearly 9% and by 440 votes in the Electoral College.

And the electoral defeat in 1980, brought about yet another reinvention of Jimmy Carter. Now, he became Mr. Humanitarian. Carter was often shown building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Carter would serve as an election observer in countries like Haiti and Nicaragua. And Carter would show up on Jay Leno’s show from time to time.

This book was written in 1996, before Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Carter has been seen with some world figures that have made conservatives blanch in horror. His legacy, the Carter Center, details most of his post-presidential career, although you have to judge the impartiality of the source.

It is difficult to make an assessment on the life of anyone who is still alive and still active. And with Jimmy Carter’s numerous reinventions, you feel like you have to read three different books to keep up with him. I lived during the Carter Administration and thought I followed the events of his Presidency closely for a nerdy kid in junior high. (Now I’m a nerdy adult, so I blog about Carter.) But, I still don’t fully understand what Jimmy Carter was about. Morris asks people to take a look at Carter’s moral leadership and judge him that way. However, moral leadership may not have the payoff that most people want.

Other stuff: In addition to the Carter Center, the National Park Service runs the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, Georgia.

Carter did not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court. He was the first President since Andrew Johnson to not appoint a Justice. William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Barack Obama are the other presidents with no Supreme Court nominations, although the current president still has a few years for a vacancy to turn up.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have the second-longest marriage of any U.S. Presidential couple. They will celebrate their 63rd anniversary on July 7, 2009. George and Barbara Bush were married on January 6, 1945.

During Carter’s first presidential campaign, he tried to portray himself as being much more “hip” than people’s perceptions of Southerners. One claim Carter made was that his views on tenant farming were changed after listening to Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” This was an excuse for me to link to this video.

3 thoughts on “Jimmy Carter: American Moralist by Kenneth E. Morris

  1. Bob Hendley April 19, 2009 / 10:14 pm

    Nice write up. Carter’s moral approach really came to the fore in foreign policy. Human rights played a major role in how we dealt with other countries, much to the dismay of numerous South American dictatorships.

    By the way, why do you say that he “avoided” combat in WWII. That sounds more like what Clinton or Bush,did, not someone who joined the Navy in the middle of a war.

    Finally, these Texans you speak of are from El Paso or thereabouts? Texas is clearly all over the map, so to speak, but us Texans from Tyler are southerners.

    • Bob Timmermann April 19, 2009 / 10:16 pm

      Thanks. I switched the phrase to “missed out on.”

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