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The Conventional Wisdom About Jimmy Carter Is Wrong

His one-term presidency was underrated—and his long post-presidency was overrated.

Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images
Carter in 1980

It has long been the conventional wisdom that Jimmy Carter was a weak president and a saintly ex-president. His one-term presidency is remembered, as NPR’s Ron Elving put it last year, “for the Iran hostage crisis that consumed the last year of his presidency” and “his hapless struggles against inflation, high gas prices, and the threat of oncoming recession,” leaving “a legacy of frustration and fecklessness that has been difficult for Democrats to shake.” Meanwhile, in selflessly devoting his post-presidency to helping the less fortunate—namely through Habitat for Humanity at home and the Carter Center abroad—he became “far and away … the greatest former president of the United States,” James Zogby argued Monday at The Nation.

But I reject the easy shorthand about Carter’s legacy, which is being revisited amid the news that the 98-year-old is entering hospice care at his Georgia home. In the five years I spent researching and writing my 2020 biography of him, I concluded that his presidency was flawed but underrated, and his post-presidency was inspiring and pathbreaking but a tad overrated.

In office, Carter was a stylistic and political failure, but a substantive and often farsighted success. On the domestic side, he suffered through one of the worst economies of the postwar era, with double-digit inflation and interest rates, exacerbated by the oil price increases that came out of the Iranian Revolution. He eventually appointed Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Volcker imposed harsh medicine that ended inflation—after Ronald Reagan crushed Carter in 1980.

But many of Carter’s visionary domestic achievements have been forgotten. He doubled the size of the national park system (with the Alaska Lands bill) and signed 15 major pieces of environmental legislation, including the first funding of green energy, the first toxic waste cleanup, and the first fuel-economy standards. He put solar panels on the roof of the White House (Reagan took them down) and became the first head of state to address global warming. He brought the first true diversity to the executive branch and judiciary, curbed redlining, established the departments of Energy and Education and FEMA, reformed the civil service for the first time in 100 years, and—with his wife Rosalynn’s help—won approval of the first significant mental health bill, though Reagan later defunded it. And that’s just for starters. Carter won approval of more major legislation than any postwar president except Lyndon Johnson, and he did it in only four years.

With no experience in Washington, Carter failed on tax reform, welfare reform, and health care reform, the last of which was a casualty of his fraught relationship with Ted Kennedy, who hurt him badly by challenging him for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Carter, who could be prickly and abrupt, alienated much of the Democratic Party (though not Joe Biden, the first senator to endorse him in 1976), and he might have accomplished more had he kissed up to the Washington establishment.

But his “weakness” was mostly a right-wing concoction. In foreign policy, he used the Camp David Accords to take the Egyptian army—the only military with the capacity to destroy Israel— off the table as a threat; normalized relations with China, which became the foundation of the global economy; prevented an open-ended war in Central America—with a minimum of 100,000 American troops—by overcoming fierce opposition and winning ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties; increased the defense budget and developed weapons like the B-2 Stealth Bomber that helped checkmate the Soviet Union; completed the SALT II treaty, which after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan wasn’t ratified but was abided by in both nations and became the foundation for later arms control; and, with his (sometimes hypocritical) human rights policy, established a new global standard for how governments should treat their own people, a “soft power” process that, by the account of even many conservatives, hastened the end of the Cold War and led to a democratic revolution across Latin America and parts of Asia. Even the Iran hostage crisis, which helped cost him his presidency, ended relatively well, with all 52 American hostages coming home safely at the exact moment Reagan was sworn in.

Carter was the only president other than Thomas Jefferson who lost not a single U.S. soldier in combat on his watch. When he left office, his vice president, Walter Mondale, toasted him thus: “We told the truth. We obeyed the law. We kept the peace.” Not a bad legacy, especially after all we’ve been through lately.

As president, Carter revolutionized the office of vice president by putting the VP in the chain of command and giving him major responsibilities for the first time. He reimagined the role of first lady, by making Rosalynn an effective diplomat, a senior presidential adviser, and the coordinator of a successful campaign to convince states to require all children to be vaccinated before entering school. And, after leaving office, Carter transformed the role of former presidents, by setting a higher bar for what they should do on behalf of others.

Instead of playing golf, collecting honoraria, and serving on corporate boards, Carter established the Carter Center, which has made great contributions to global health (by nearly eradicating guinea worm disease and dramatically reducing river blindness and other diseases), democracy promotion (by monitoring elections in more than 100 countries), and helping win the release of political prisoners.

For nearly 40 years, the Carters spent a week every year building houses (I worked with them on one in Memphis) for Habitat for Humanity. Carter chaired the board for a time, though never, contrary to popular impression, ran the organization. He worked with Norman Borlaug to spread the Green Revolution to Africa and he visited and paid attention to African nations no president had ever bothered with before. Some children there are named after him.

Out of office, Carter tried to be a freelance secretary of state. In one year, 1994, he had two big wins. He convinced the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, to begin negotiating an end to his nuclear program, though Kim’s death not long after aborted much of the initiative. And Carter, Colin Powell, and Sam Nunn persuaded Haitian strongman Raoul Cédras to step back from power, thereby avoiding an invasion by American forces parked offshore.

In both cases, Carter infuriated President Clinton by taking a victory lap on CNN before reporting to him. Their meeting in the White House was arguably the most contentious ever between a president and former president. Three years earlier, in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, he had angered President George H. W. Bush by contacting members of the Security Council and telling them to vote against the war. Bush later told me that he admired Carter, but stressed that we only have one president at a time. Many Democrats agreed.

Despite repeated efforts, Carter was never able to complete the unfinished business of Camp David—a Palestinian state. He argued in one of my interviews with him that he would have achieved a lasting Mideast peace had he been reelected. That highlights why his accomplishments after he left office were ultimately less significant than those when he was in it. Former presidents simply don’t have as much power as presidents to change lives.

But the power of his example will endure. Carter spent only 12 of his 98 years in public office (four in the Georgia state senate, four as governor, four as president). And yet, for all his shortcomings, he left a legacy of service, decency, intelligence, and integrity that contrasts sharply with many politicians of our own time. Let’s hope we see his likes again.