Remembering Jimmy Carter in a time of presidential decline
Jimmy Carter lost his bid for a second term in the White House 40 years ago. Four decades later, as we study the history of the modern American presidency, especially from the times of Harry Truman, there is the growing realization in us that Carter was a president who stands head and shoulders above his predecessors as well as his successors.
There was decency in him. There was humility in him. The respect he had for nations beyond America’s frontiers has never been matched by any other American president post-WWII.
Of course, Carter was hapless in the four years he served his country as its president. Dogged by misfortune, his humanistic leadership taken as weakness by his opponents, he had little chance of beating the conservative Ronald Reagan in November 1980. But if Reagan was a powerful challenger, Carter had already been bruised by the renegade candidacy of Edward Kennedy.
The senator from Massachusetts committed a double mistake in that year of change. His taking Carter on in the Democratic primaries left the president enervated prior to the election.
And the challenge was also an effective end to liberalism in America and particularly of any chances of Kennedy ever becoming president.
In the years since he left the White House in 1981, Jimmy Carter has been a globally respected statesman.
He has won the Nobel Prize for Peace, though there is the very credible argument that the prize should have come to him when he brought Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin together at Camp David and had them sign a peace deal. The Egyptian and the Israeli walked away with the Nobel.
Carter did not show his disappointment, for it was a refreshingly different style he had brought into the exercise of presidential power.
There were people, politicians included, who thought him naïve when he made it known that human rights would be the cornerstone of his foreign policy.
But he meant it, after all the years of disastrous US involvement in the politics of other nations. Perhaps the human rights concept would have worked had other crises not shaken his administration.
Those crises had something to do with Carter’s naivete. On a visit to Tehran, even as serious opposition was building up against the Shah, he described the monarch as a symbol of stability in the region. Only months later, the Shah was overthrown in a massive revolution brought about by Iranian society as a whole. It was a compassionate Carter who permitted the Shah, then dying of cancer, entry into the US for treatment.
The move was a trigger for a crisis greater than he or anyone else could have imagined. Furious Iranians, intoxicated by the Islamic revolution, seized the American embassy, took everyone in it hostage, and kept them in that miserable condition for 444 days. It must have pained Carter to have to order a rescue operation for the hostages, but it was duty he could not turn away from.
The operation ended in tragedy in the Iranian desert.
At this point in time, though, Carter’s leadership calls for deep analysis. Given the peccadilloes and the disasters committed by presidents who came before and after him, Carter remains in hindsight a bright presence in American politics.
He was elected to the White House in the post-Watergate period, promising his people that he would not lie. Having observed, in his years as governor of Georgia, presidents and prospective presidents and interacting with them, he decided he could be president as well.
His early work -- Why Not the Best? -- was an outline of the ideas he entertained about the presidency. And then he won the election, beating Gerald Ford and so effectively marking a departure from such legacies as Vietnam and Watergate. Truman destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Dwight Eisenhower had the CIA remove Mossadegh from power in Iran; John Kennedy attempted overthrowing and killing Fidel Castro; Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon pulverized Vietnam; Gerald Ford let Indonesia brutally annex East Timor.
And after Carter, Ronald Reagan was caught in Iran-contra; George Bush Sr launched the first Gulf War; Bill Clinton bombed Somalia; George Bush Jr destroyed Iraq; Barack Obama used drones against nations indiscriminately; Donald Trump treats the world beyond America with uneducated disdain.
Jimmy Carter was the president America deserved and, conversely, did not deserve.
He was a loner.
He spoke the truth, unwilling to coat negatives in pretty language. He saw the economy in trouble and spoke of a malaise abroad in the land.
He was excoriated by nearly everyone over that expression of the truth, for they believed presidents needed to be inspiring figures.
Iran remained a thorn in his side. And then the Soviets made things even more difficult for him when they invaded Afghanistan. His days as president were numbered.
In retirement, Carter has played the role of peacemaker and statesman and philanthropist. He has written books, 28 in all. He has offered frank observations on global politics. And he has grown old in absolute grace and serenity.
In these days of precipitous American presidential decline, Jimmy Carter remains a symbol of leadership as it ought to be. There was Woodrow Wilson long before him. Both men, intensely intelligent, have been profound intellectuals. Both were prophets neglected in their times.
At 95, Carter goes through his winter. His politics should be remembered for the springtime it promised when he arrived in Washington in January 1977.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.