He sprang to global attention in 1974 when he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President. Although lacking a national political base and major backing, his tireless campaigning meant that his mantra, “My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President” – delivered with a grin – became familiar not just across the United States but around the world.
At home, the simple, honest, folksy approach went down well in the post-Watergate era. He called for a return to honesty, an end to secrecy in government, and repeatedly told voters: “I’ll never tell a lie.”
Born in 1924, he was the son of Earl Carter, a peanut warehouser. His mother, Lillian, was a nurse who went to India as a Peace Corps volunteer at the age of 68.
After attending college and the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carter joined the US Naval Academy, from where he graduated in 1946.
He served in the US Navy for seven years, five of them in submarines, but quit in 1953 when his father died and he returned to Georgia to manage the family peanut business.
Politics beckoned and Carter won election as a Democrat to the Georgia State Senate in 1962. He was re-elected in 1964 and became governor of Georgia in 1970.
In the presidential contest of 1976 his Republican opponent was the incumbent President, Gerald Ford. Richard Nixon’s former Vice-President, Ford had taken office when his boss resigned over the Watergate scandal, and one of Ford’s first acts was to pardon Nixon for his crimes.
Carter narrowly beat Ford, winning 51 percent of the popular vote and capturing 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240. Often dressed informally in jeans and an open-necked shirt, the new President – who on his second day in office pardoned over 200,000 Vietnam war draft dodgers – was to introduce ambitious policies of social and economic reform.
The stumbling block was Congress. Despite Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the President’s much-vaunted welfare and energy proposals as well as other schemes were blocked.
Carter’s problematic relationship with Congress ran alongside the difficult domestic issues that dogged his presidency – ever-rising inflation, high unemployment and the effects of an energy crisis that began in the 1970s.
He was more successful in foreign affairs, notably in 1978 when he presided over tough negotiations between Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David. The resulting Camp David Accords ended the state of war that had existed between the two nations since Israel was founded in 1948.
Further foreign triumphs included new diplomatic relations with China and the signing of a bilateral strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union.
Iran, however, would prove to be Carter’s downfall. Some months after being overthrown in 1979, the cancer-afflicted Shah of the troubled country went to the United States for medical treatment. Carter agreed to the visit for humanitarian rather than political reasons but as one commentator later noted, “it was like throwing a burning branch into a bucket of kerosene.”
In Iran anti-American feelings erupted and students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 American hostages.
They were to be held captive there for 444 days despite a failed White House-approved US military operation to release them. As American TV viewers were fed nightly reports on the fate of the hostages, President Carter was increasingly seen as weak and inept in the crisis.
He was swept from power in the 1980 presidential election by former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan who was able to rejoice as all of the hostages were freed just hours after his inauguration. Their release during the campaign would certainly have boosted Carter’s standing but Reagan always denied allegations that his staff had negotiated with the Iranians to delay the hostages’ freedom until after the election.
Carter may have been driven from office but he had no intention of giving up public life. In 1982, with his wife Rosalynn, he established the nonprofit, nonpartisan Carter Center. Its ambitious aims were to improve life for people in more than 80 countries by resolving conflicts, advancing democracy and human rights, preventing diseases and improving mental health care.
At the same time he threw himself into diplomatic missions and in 1994 alone he brokered a ceasefire between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, even if it proved to be only temporary; worked for a peaceful transfer of government in Haiti; and persuaded North Korea to stop building nuclear weapons.
The former President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for the Camp David Accords and for his work with the Carter Center.
By the end of 2020, at the age of 96, he stood as the oldest living former President. In 2012, he surpassed Herbert Hoover as the longest-retired President in US history, and in 2017 became the first President to live to the 40th anniversary of his inauguration.
With their marriage lasting for over 70 years Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter continued to live at the Georgia ranch from where he launched his presidential campaign.
And if his countrymen want to raise a toast to this remarkable American they can do so with a craft beer that he made possible. In 1978 he signed a Bill that scrapped tax on beer brewed at home for personal or family use. It ended Prohibition laws that had stood for 50 years and led to an explosive growth in the craft beer industry that exists in America today.
Published: December 31, 2020
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