What if we could put a man in office in 2008 that was a conservative Southern Baptist, yet was politically in the center, a Democrat? He doesn't polarize people, and fights for many of the values that Democrats hold dear, while keeping faith in Christ and leading this country morally. What if we had a President who sought to bring people and nations together in consensus, worked hard to make peace with and help the developing world, really cared about the environment, and listened to a wide range of people's opinions instead of just the few of his political base. Sound too good to be true? Well, that man is/was Jimmy Carter. The man was 30 years ahead of his time.
1. He was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher from Georgia (and an ordained deacon). He taught SS both before and after his presidency. Can you imagine an evangelical active SBCer getting elected to the White House now? Impossible. Carter has since broken off from the SBC (at the height of the bad press over the 2000 SBC convention), but still holds to his Christian beliefs. He believed in leading by morals, and not by politics.
Here’s a quote from an interview in Playboy magazine during the 1976 Presidential campaign:
"I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do--and I have done it--and God forgives me for it."
Show me any other President that will quote Matthew 5, and recognize that even lust is adultery.
Carter could talk about his Christian beliefs, in a way that wasn’t nearly as awkward or polarizing to people as it is now.
2. He worked for peace. Carter saw his duty as a Christian to be a “peacemaker.” He was all about building consensus and finding common ground with people. He further normalized relations with China. He condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and build a global coalition protesting it. He started the SALT II anti-ballistic missile treaty with the USSR, an important step in arms reduction. He oversaw the Camp David Accords which brought a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that still exists today. He still works for peace today. The Carter foundation works today to monitor elections, and provides conflict mediation for countries at war.
3. Jimmy Carter was GREEN, before a Green Party existed. “Acknowledging the physical realities of our planet does not mean a dismal future of endless sacrifice. In fact, acknowledging these realities is the first step in dealing with them. We can meet the resource problems of the world -- water, food, minerals, farmlands, forests, overpopulation, pollution -- if we tackle them with courage and foresight.” He said this in his farewell address. President Bush only a few weeks ago admitted that the environment might be in trouble. 25 years before, Jimmy Carter had already turned down the thermostat at the White House in the winter, and turned it up in the summer, to save energy and promote conservation. No President has done that since. (Japan’s government just this year started to do it, and make it mandatory for businesses to do it as well). He also proposed immediate development of alternative energies, including green ones. Carpools, and development of mass transit systems, were all things he strongly encouraged.
4. Despite his strong religious beliefs, he was seen as a centrist. A pragmatist without Washington “good old boy” ties. He was the governor of Georgia. He upheld things like welfare, and believed in the whole “Great Society” concept of government doing what it could to help the poor of this country. That’s how he was and still is a Democrat. If he ran today, he’d say he was a “compassionate centrist.” I think that’s what we need in the White House. Someone who is not about serving big business and maintaining global empire. Someone who is not about just appealing to the “base.” But, someone who also isn’t so far left that he alienates the religious right. He was from the Deep South, yet Californians could trust him.
He set precedents for appointing women and minorities to government positions. He created the Department of Education to promote what he saw as the means to helping achieve equality in public schools.
5. Carter in many ways was a fiscal conservative. He pushed for a tightening of government spending in response to rising inflation. He believed that the President should be a man of the people, and should therefore live fiscally responsibly. He sold the presidential yacht. He refused to add elaborate renovations or decoration changes to the White House that all administrations do to their liking. He also stripped Air Force One down so that it wasn’t nearly as luxurious as it is today. Reagan/Bush changed all of that by adding in the luxuries and spending money, telling people it was okay to be rich again. Clinton followed suit. Carter also proposed welfare and tax reforms which were never passed by Congress (which had Democrat majority at the time).
6. Carter was a friend to many third-world countries. He’s the only President to have visited sub-Saharan Africa, one of the poorest and most desperate places on earth. He saw the best way to keep the peace and keep people’s view of America as great was to respect and help less fortunate countries. He truly saw America’s need to be humble with its neighbors. He put through a treaty with Panama that essentially gave Panama control of the Panama Canal, which is key to U.S. security and commerce interests. He trusted President Torrijos, and respected Panama’s right to sovereignty. His pushing through of the Canal Treaty is still controversial, and people still write him letters letting him know. Carter says that “It was more difficult to get the Panama Canal Treaties ratified by two-thirds of the Senate of the United States than it was for me to get elected president in the first place…but it was a good thing to do.”
However, as Thomas Perkins alleges in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” the Republican administrations and business interests never forgave Carter for this, and eventually orchestrated the assassination of Torrijos, and the takeover of Panama during the Bush administration when we invaded and captured Manuel Noriega.
Carter also offended Americans in 1994 when he said he was “ashamed” of how the U.S. had neglected Haiti, and had treated it so poorly. This was when the country was on the verge of collapse, and U.S. soldiers were required to enter and restore order. The Carter Foundation was there to pave those agreements and forge peace.
7. Carter listened to a wide range of people for advice. During the 1979 energy crisis he invited people from all over the country and all walks of life to give him advice for 10 days. He then, transparently, told the entire nation what they said, and how they’d criticized his poor leadership. He wasn’t afraid or too proud to seek advice and help.
8. Carter wanted to challenge the nation to sacrifice their comforts and seek alternative ways to doing things, for the long term. This is seen in his denouncing of materialism and his promotion of finding a way to decrease our dependence on foreign oil. Many Democrats today have pushed the idea of a “Manhattan Project” for switching to alternative fuels. Columnists like Tom Friedman have proposed that the President lead, and set a goal for Americans to cut fuel and find alternatives by a certain date. Jimmy Carter did that in 1979, and had a large amount of his energy proposals passed by Congress. The man was just 25 years too early to have his points followed up on. (The problem was that Carter told people that this meant personal “sacrifice,” see below).
9. Carter was a veteran of the U.S. Navy. He earned a degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and served 11 years. This gave him a wide range of experience and increased his view of the world.
No person or President is perfect. Some of the strengths I listed above perhaps helped Carter become very unpopular. I’ll be fair and list some that I can think of.
1. Carter was seen as doing too much preaching, and not taking enough action. His response to the energy crisis of 1979 was to get on TV and say this: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.”
This is a sermon heard in many churches today. He was telling people to stop thinking about themselves, and stop basing their self-worth on their riches. Amazing! His poll ratings actually shot up a little after this speech.
As I mentioned before, the Reagan/Bush/Bush administrations have essentially said “It’s okay to be rich,” which is the opposite of Carter’s message. Republicans have essentially said: “It’s okay to drive a gas-guzzling SUV, okay to increase drilling for oil, okay to cut taxes and increase spending.” You can hear this theme at every Republican convention. Americans love it, it feeds our desire to find prosperity, and we vote for it.
2. Carter’s humility and desire to seek a wide range of advice made him an easy target. A person with many advisors may look like he’s hesitant to make decisions. The opposite of this is President GW Bush, who has a small number of trusted advisors and makes decisions on what he calls “gut instinct.” This can be very dangerous, but it has helped him win 2 elections because Americans like to follow people who lead strongly with strong convictions.
3. Carter lacked the support of most of his cabinet and administration. At one point, he asked for all of his cabinet members’ resignations at one time.
4. In response to issues like the energy crisis, Carter asked Congress to pass new taxes and increase the authority of government to cut through “red tape” in ways not seen since WWII. He saw this as government’s role to get things done for the long-term benefit of the American people. This helped his creation of the Departments of Education and Energy. Republicans saw it as just another tax-and-spend initiative.
5. Carter was seen as weak militarily. This came in the post-Vietnam era where our nation’s morale was weakened by facing up to the mistakes of the war, and Watergate. When the Iranian revolution broke out, the puppet Shah of Iran was deposed and revolutionaries seized our embassy and held 66 Americans hostage, it was like Iran was holding America hostage. Every day on the news, the hostages were shown blindfolded and it was another slap on the face. Carter authorized a U.S. Special Forces operation to free the hostages, but it ended with a helicopter crash and disaster. No subsequent attempts were made to do anything, and eventually a deal was reached to unfreeze Iranian assets in the U.S. in exchange for their release. He canceled further production of the B-1 bomber, and development of the neutron radiation bomb (as part of non-proliferation principles). It’s worth noting that he did do other things to strengthen the military such as approve spending on cruise missiles.
“Those of us who have advocated for the resolution of international conflict in a peaceful fashion are looked upon as being unpatriotic, branded that way by right-wing religious groups, the Bush administration, and other Republicans” (Carter quoted in Carter’s Crusade by Ayelish McGarvey).
In a new book, Prelude to Terror by Joseph J. Trento, it’s said that senior members of the CIA itself helped plot Carter’s re-election defeat.
6. Carter asked Americans to really sacrifice. “I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy. I do not promise a quick way out of our nation's problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort. What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight, and I will enforce fairness in our struggle, and I will ensure honesty. And above all, I will act. We can manage the short-term shortages more effectively and we will, but there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.”
Americans don’t like to hear that. They want to hear that tax cuts and rebates and such will fix the problem, and we can keep roaring ahead and keep the status quo.
7. Carter was seen as weak on economics. Inflation was high, gas lines were long, and no hope was in sight. In 1976 he invented the “Misery Index” which combines inflation with unemployment. It was 13.4% when he took office, and 20% when he ran for re-election. The index was a noose of his own making. Much of this was not Carter’s fault. OPEC decided to increase oil prices, again to punish America for its support of Israel. Carter’s response was to challenge Americans to conserve, and look for alternative fuels. This was a long-term solution and not something to remedy the problems of 1979.
8. Carter boycotted the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan by boycotting the Olympic games. There were no economic or other immediate actions taken. This was highly unpopular since popular athletes trained long and hard for this event, and at the time it was a much anticipated event on TV.
Like all Presidencies, the Carter administration was unable to push through all of its proposed government reforms and legislation. If it had been more successful in doing so, perhaps his place in history would be more secure today. Had he inherited a better economic situation, he definitely would have had higher popularity, and probably would have won re-election. But, he was not a man for the 80’s. I just think he’s a man for the 2000’s.
I know that Jimmy Carter is a man of great moral conviction and principle. His administration believed in fiscal prudence, and believed that war should always be a last resort, and making peace should be a top priority. It understood that our nation is strong militarily, and should use its might to defend the nation at all costs, but must truly be humble when dealing with other nations. He saw that it was important to tie promotion of human rights into the treaties and deals we make with other countries. His administration led the way in promoting equality among women and minorities. He showed that we must work to fight poverty and build democratic structures in poorer countries to help make friends. We must build coalitions around these ideals. He realized that Africa’s problems must be addressed if we’re to make any progress anywhere else in the world. He told America that the environment needs help, and that America is too dependent on oil. He recognized the need to do something in this area and promoted ways to fund research into alternative fuels, even to the point of setting targets and dates. He understood that sometimes it’s necessary to ask people to sacrifice for the greater, long-term, good. He was morally tilted right, and politically moderate.
This is the kind of administration we need today to face the moral issues that are prevalent in our country, and to build the coalitions we need among Americans and other democracies abroad. It’s the humility we need in dealing with other nations, and the challenge we need to conserve energy and decrease our dependence on oil (i.e.: foreign countries like Saudi Arabia that produce the oil). It’s also the wake-up call we need to let the world know that America is serious about the environment, and its President is going to lead its people, and the world, in confronting the problems. It’s also the type of administration that lets you know you’re not excluded, whether you be black, white, Hispanic, conservative, or liberal. Everyone has a voice, and the political “base” isn’t catered to.
I think this is just the type of administration we need to see elected in 2008.