As the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter presided over the country amid a period of major domestic and international issues. Carter’s reelection campaign was unsuccessful as a result of how these concerns were allegedly handled. Thereafter, he focused on advocacy and diplomacy, for which he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
In Plains, Georgia, on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter Jr. was conceived. James Sr., his father, was a diligent peanut farmer who had his own modest piece of land as well as a store and warehouse. His mother, Bessie Lillian Gordy, was a certified nurse who, in the 1920s, had counseled Black women on health care issues despite racial barriers.
Carter’s family moved to Archery, a town about two miles from Plains, when Carter was four years old. It was a deeply rural hamlet with a small population, where mule-drawn wagons were still the primary form of transportation and indoor plumbing and electricity were still quite unusual. Carter was a good student who stayed out of trouble. At the age of 10, he started working at his father’s store. His father and him would sit together in the evenings and listen to the battery-operated radio as they discussed politics and baseball games.
Education and Naval Career
Carter’s parents were devout Christians. Carter was required to attend Sunday school, which his father occasionally taught, because they were members of the Plains Baptist Church. While the majority of the Black population in the area received their education at home or in the church, Carter attended the all-white Plains High School. Two of Carter’s closest childhood companions and two of the most important individuals in his life—his nanny, Annie Mae Hollis, and his father’s employee Jack Clark—were Black despite this entrenched segregation.
The Carter family prospered during this time, and by the late 1930s, his father had over 200 laborers working on his farms, despite the Great Depression severely impacting most of the rural South. Carter graduated from high school in 1941, being the first member of his father’s side of the family to do so.
Prior to enlisting in the Naval ROTC program and continuing his engineering studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carter studied engineering at Georgia Southwestern Junior College. The Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, accepted him to start his studies in the summer of 1943 after he submitted an extremely competitive application there.
Carter did not get along with his other midshipmen because of his contemplative, introverted demeanor, diminutive stature (he was just 5 feet 9 inches tall), or both. Carter yet persisted in his academic excellence, graduating in the top 10 percent of his class in 1946. Carter had reconnected with Rosalynn Smith, a girl he had known since childhood, while on vacation in the summer. They tied the knot in June 1946.
The Carters moved about a lot in the early years of their marriage, like many other military families, because the Navy sent Carter to work on submarines. They proceeded to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where Carter was an electronics officer on the USS Pomfret, following a training program in Norfolk, Virginia. Following successive postings to Groton, Connecticut, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., Carter was given the task of collaborating with Admiral Hyman Rickover in Schenectady, New York, on the creation of a nuclear submarine program in 1952. Carter was deeply affected by the smart and infamously demanding admiral. He subsequently remarked, “I think Rickover had more impact on my life than any other individual, second only to my own father.”
The Carters also welcomed three boys during this time: John William (born 1947), James Earl Carter III (born 1950), and Donnel Jeffrey (b. 1952). Amy Carter, a daughter, was later born to the Carters in 1967. Carter’s father died of pancreatic cancer in July 1953, and the farm and family company were left in chaos as a result. Carter brought his family back to rural Georgia over Rosalynn’s initial opposition so he could take care of his mother and manage the family’s affairs. In Georgia, Carter revived the family farm and got involved in local politics, eventually obtaining a position on the Sumter County Board of Education and rising to its chairmanship.
Accomplishments as a Southern Politician
The American South underwent significant development during the 1950s. As the United States Supreme Court unanimously ordered the desegregation of public schools in the historic 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights activists vehemently sought an end to all types of racial discrimination. Yet, the conservative racial mindset of the “Old South” was still mainly represented in the politics of the rural South. Carter was the only white person in Plains to reject the invitation to join the White Citizens’ Council, and soon afterward, he discovered a sign that read: “Coons and Carters go together” on the front door of his residence.
Carter didn’t see a chance for a “new Southerner,” as he defined himself, to achieve political office until the 1962 Baker v. Carr Supreme Court decision, which mandated that voting districts be changed in a way that stopped favoring rural white voters. In the same year, he competed in a race for the Georgia State Senate against Homer Moore, a local businessman. Moore appeared to have won the election at first, but it soon became clear that his triumph was the product of widespread fraud.
420 ballots were cast in one precinct even though only 333 were distributed. Carter filed an appeal, and a judge in Georgia threw out the stolen ballots and declared Carter the victor. Carter had a reputation as a tough and independent legislator during his two terms as a state senator, cutting back on unnecessary expenditure and fiercely supporting civil rights.
Carter decided against running for the US House of Representatives in 1966 and instead opted to run for governor. But, Carter’s liberal campaign struggled to garner traction in the Democratic primary after a racial backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, and he came in a distant third. Lester Maddox, a fervent segregationist who famously barred his restaurant’s doors and brandished an axe to keep Black customers away, was the final victor.
Yet because Georgia law only allowed for one term as governor, Carter started making plans almost right away to run for governor in 1970. Carter ran a campaign this time that was primarily directed at white rural voters who had rejected him as being too liberal in 1966. Carter actively courted the support of numerous well-known segregationists, notably Governor Maddox, and openly opposed the use of busing as a method of integrating public schools. He also made few public appearances with African leaders. The leftist Atlanta Constitution Journal referred to him as a “ignorant, racist, backward, ultra-conservative, red-necked South Georgia peanut farmer” because of how totally he turned away from his steadfast support of civil rights. Nevertheless, the plan was successful, and in 1970 Carter won the Georgia governor’s race over Carl Sanders.
After winning the governorship, Carter essentially embraced the liberal principles he had previously in his political career. He advocated for education and criminal justice reform, increased the proportion of African state officials by 25%, and made a public appeal for the end of segregation. Cutting and streamlining the massive state bureaucracy into a lean and effective machine was Carter’s most notable accomplishment as governor. Unfortunately, Carter disregarded political etiquette and alienated many conventional Democratic partners, with whom he might have collaborated closely in the past.
On the National Stage
Constantly looking ahead, Carter paid close attention to the 1970s’ national political trends. Carter thought the Democrats needed a centrist candidate to win the presidency in 1976 after the liberal George McGovern was trounced by the Republican Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. Carter came to the additional conclusion that the next president would need to be an outsider after the Watergate affair destroyed American trust in Washington politics. In his opinion, he satisfied both requirements.
In 1976, there were ten candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Carter was perhaps the least well-known at first. But, Carter’s anonymity turned out to be a benefit during a period of intense anger with established politicians. He ran for office on centrist platforms that included cutting government waste, balancing the budget, and boosting aid to the disadvantaged. Nonetheless, Carter’s outsider status and integrity served as the foundation of his appeal. Carter famously said, “I’ll never tell a lie.” “I’ll never stay away from a contentious topic.” “A Leader, For a Change” was another of his snappy catchphrases. These ideas resonated with a populace that, in the wake of the Watergate crisis, felt betrayed by its own government.
Carter won the Democratic nomination to take against Republican President Gerald Ford, who had taken over as president after Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal and had previously served as Nixon’s vice president. Carter had a double-digit advantage over the uninteresting Ford when the contest began, but he made a number of mistakes that caused the polls to close. Most notably, Carter offended many voters when he acknowledged to adultery “in his heart” in a Playboy interview and made a number of other crude comments about sex and infidelity. Carter became the 39th president of the United States of America despite the fact that the race was considerably closer than anticipated.
At a period when there was a lot of optimism, Carter took office as president in 1977 and at first had astronomical approval ratings. After giving his inaugural address, Carter got out of his limousine and walked to the White House with his supporters, demonstrating his dedication to a new style of leadership. Energy policy was Carter’s top domestic issue. Carter thought it was crucial to wean the United States off its reliance on foreign oil in light of the rising price of oil and the aftermath of the 1973 oil embargo. Carter was able to reduce foreign oil consumption by 8% and build up sizable reserves of oil and gas for emergencies, but his accomplishments were overshadowed by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which raised oil prices once more and caused long queues at gas stations.
Camp David Accords
Human rights were to be the main focus of American ties with other nations, according to Carter’s foreign policy pledge. He cut off financial and military support to Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in retaliation for those governments’ violations of human rights. The Camp David Accords, which resulted in a historic peace deal in which Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and the two sides formally recognized each other’s governments, were, nonetheless, Carter’s most noteworthy foreign policy accomplishment.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, Carter’s administration was universally regarded as a failure. He had terrible ties with Congress and the media, which made it difficult for him to pass laws or properly explain his views. Carter made a terrible speech in 1979 known as the “Crisis of Confidence” address in which he appeared to attribute America’s problems to its people’s lack of spirit. Carter’s administration began to wane as a result of several foreign policy gaffes. Many people thought he was a weak leader who had “given away” the canal without obtaining adequate protections for preserving U.S. interests because of his covert discussions to restore the Panama Canal to Panama.
Iran Hostage Crisis
Yet, the Iranian Hostage Crisis was likely the main cause of Carter’s deteriorating electoral prospects. Radical Iranian students seized the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held 66 Americans prisoner. Carter came across as an ineffective leader who had been tricked by a bunch of radical students after failing to secure the release of the hostages and a disastrous rescue operation. Before being freed on the day Carter departed office in 1981, the hostages had been held for 444 days.
In 1980, former actor and California governor Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter for the president. Reagan’s campaign was organized and successful, and all it asked of voters was, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Most weren’t; in the 1980 election, which was essentially a referendum on a disastrous president, Reagan easily defeated Carter. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Carter was the issue on Election Day.”
Carter later restored his reputation by his humanitarian activities after leaving the White House, despite a relatively disastrous one-term presidency. One of the greatest former presidents in American history, he is now universally regarded as such.
To advance human rights and end suffering all around the world, Jimmy launched The Carter Center and has worked closely with Habitat for Humanity. In particular, Carter has been successful in overseeing elections in developing democracies, developing community-based healthcare systems in Africa and South America, and fostering peace in the Middle East.
For his decades-long, tireless efforts to find diplomatic resolutions to international disputes, expand democracy and human rights, and foster economic and social development, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. In the years following his presidency, Carter has also published other books, including a number of memoirs, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Problem (2006), and Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2007).
Carter won’t be remembered as one of the most successful presidents in American history. Yet, Carter will be remembered as one of the country’s greatest social activists due to his untiring efforts during and after his administration in support of equality, human rights, and the reduction of human suffering.
Carter’s final remarks during his 2002 Nobel Lecture served as both his personal mission statement and a call to action for future generations. He declared, “The tie of our shared humanity is greater than the polarization of our fears and prejudices.” God endows us with the power of decision. We have the option to reduce suffering. We can decide to cooperate for peace. These changes are both possible and necessary.
Carter was diagnosed with cancer on August 12, 2015, during surgery to remove a tumor from his liver. He released the following statement: “Recent liver surgery revealed that I have cancer, which has spread to other regions of my body. I’ll adjust my schedule as necessary to receive treatment from doctors at Emory Healthcare.
On August 20, a week later, Carter attended a press conference when he revealed that melanoma had been discovered on his brain in the form of “four very little spots.” He said that his busy schedule would need to change “quite drastically” because he would start radiation therapy that day.
“I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” the former president said, adding that he has led “a wonderful life.” “Now I feel it’s in the hands of God,” he said.
Carter made an official announcement at the beginning of December that an examination had found no signs of the four brain lesions. As he got back to work, he finished up book number 32, Faith: A Journey for All, which is a reflection on the significance of spirituality in his own life and its impact on American history.
When touring the media to promote the book’s release in late March 2018, Carter spoke about some of the most popular political subjects, such as interviews with rumored mistresses of President Donald Trump. He also got into some of the more crucial political concerns, like how crucial it is to forge closer ties with North Korea.
Carter surpassed George H.W. Bush’s previous record of 94 years and 172 days on March 21, 2019, to become the longest-living US president. He had surgery after injuring his hip in a tumble, it was reported in May.