Many years ago, I turned 18. It so happened that I passed that milestone in early 1976, and that 1976 was not only the country’s bicentennial and the year of my high school graduation (we had cool little bicentennial danglies on our tassels), but the year of a presidential election. The candidates were Gerald Ford, who had pardoned Nixon after the latter left office, and Jimmy Carter (in the words of Gil Scott Heron, “Skippy”).
Having grown with parents that acquired US citizenship so that they could vote against Nixon, there really was very little choice for me. I cast my first vote, ever, for Jimmy Carter.
In retrospect, Jimmy Carter was perhaps not the best of presidents. But he took office at a point of national cognitive dissonance. Our country was 200 years old (and around 200,000,000 in population). Nixon had resigned in 1974; the economy, frankly, sucked (recall Gerald Ford’s Whip Inflation Now (“WIN”) buttons); people wore doubleknit leisure suits; stagflation reigned. It was a bad time, in many respects (though not, if you were like me, to be a college student–it cost me (OK, my parents) about $1,300 a year for as many classes as I wanted). And then there was the hostage crisis (which I remember thinking–and arguing–would be over in a week, but which really lasted for more than 63). Three Mile Island. 8-tracks. VHS. Disco. No, it was not a good time.
Nor was Carter an exemplary executive; He seems to have been a bit of a micro-manager, and anyone who has worked with someone like that knows how difficult that can be. It takes some learning to make it from Governor to President, and he may have lacked that.
And I had some of my own disagreements with President Carter as well, particularly regarding his revival of the neutron bomb (see elsewhere in this blog).
But overall, given the situation he was stuck with, he did a pretty good job. He started to make some headway in the Middle East peace process (much of which has since been pissed away, sorry to say). And though it failed, and he probably lost the election because it failed, he did try to rescue the hostages (see: Operation Eagle Claw). He made some tough choices. And once he was out of office, replaced by the photogenic Ronald Reagan, Carter was an easy punching bag for the right.
That hasn’t stopped him from putting himself on the line again and again. He has acted as election monitor, adviser to other presidents, humanitarian, author, you name it. And he has, in his post-presidential period acquired a kind of luminous quality, as either the last of the “old” politicians (though I tend to put Nixon there) or the first of the new (though that doesn’t quite fit Carter, either. Not mean enough).
But it’s his presidency I focus on when I hear things like “Even Jimmy Carter would have made that call…”
Look. You may not like the man. You may not like the party. But Jimmy Carter made the call. He took a massive risk and tried to do the right thing. He got it wrong. But he made the call. Reagan gets the credit for shaking off the “Vietnam Syndrome” by throwing the massed military might of the United States against that of the mighty Grenada. In comparison to Operation Eagle Claw, Grenada was an easy (some would say manufactured) choice. Reagan looked good on film; Carter was (is) the real thing.
Or when people talk about the economic mess that Reagan inherited from Carter (and of course, fixed with a waive of his magical trickle-down wand), and they forget Gerald Ford’s WIN buttons and the economic mess that Carter inherited indirectly from Nixon, who had admirably tried to maintain LBJ’s march toward a great society while (not so admirably) extending and expanding the former’s war in Vietnam. The economy didn’t actually get permanently above 1965 levels until 1985.
James Earl Carter took–and takes–chances. He may not have been the best president ever. But he was pretty damn good, all things considered.