Carter at the 1992 DNC
Former President Jimmy Carter at the 1992 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, New York. Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

Last week, the nation learned that former President Jimmy Carter would begin home hospice care. In light of this unfortunate news, we wanted to take a moment to revisit President Carter’s lifetime of public service and especially his underrated four years as president. While Carter left the Oval Office more than 40 years ago, in many ways, his unlikely presidency was ahead of its time.

Much has been written about Carter’s post-presidency. A Noble Peace Prize recipient, Carter stayed in the public limelight through his continued involvement with Habitat for Humanity, the Elders, and the Carter Center. But before all of this, Carter was a political unknown campaigning as a Washington outsider. His narrow victory over President Gerald Ford made him the first president without significant Washington experience since Woodrow Wilson.

Long before he was president, Carter embraced public service through his time in the military. He served in the United States Navy as a nuclear submarine officer and advanced to the rank of lieutenant. He helped resolve a nuclear meltdown at enormous personal risk. Following his father’s death, Carter returned home to Plains, Georgia, to operate the family peanut farm. He also became involved with local politics, chairing his county’s school board and notably supporting integration. After a term in the Georgia state senate, he was elected as the first “New South” governor of Georgia in 1970.

The backdrop for Carter’s unexpected rise to national prominence resulted from the Watergate scandal, which led to President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. A month later, Ford controversially decided to pardon the former president. Americans’ faith in their public officials plummeted. 

Into this moment of national apathy and disillusionment stepped Jimmy Carter. His upset victory in the 1976 Iowa caucuses launched him to front-runner status among 17 Democratic hopefuls. But to win the nomination, Carter needed to find support nationwide, especially among African American voters. While Carter found limited support from Black politicians, he obtained significant majorities from Black voters even in the 1980 election. 

Carter’s campaign autobiography, aptly titled Why Not the Best?, corresponded nicely to his oft-repeated campaign promise: “I’ll never tell a lie.” Yet sometimes he may have spoken too honestly, as witnessed in his infamous interview with Playboy magazine in which he admitted to having “lust in his heart.” Nevertheless, in a close election, Carter won by combining an admixture of the Old South and key northern states such as New York and Pennsylvania.

As president, Carter wanted to move away from the “imperial presidency” of the Johnson and Nixon years and embrace a new image of the presidency as the common man. Carter also brought a moral and Christian principled compass to presidential leadership, believing that political leaders should work together for the common good. Among his first moves as president, he pardoned Vietnam War draft evaders, doing much to heal the divisions of the prior decade.

Carter faced a divided nation, as well as challenges related to energy, stagflation, and international crises. Carter’s domestic policies, particularly his commitment to energy independence, showed him to be far-sighted; the story of the ill-fated solar panels installed on the roof of the White House gives him a claim to be our first “green” president. 

In foreign affairs, Carter was also an internationalist with a humanitarian bent. Despite the political fallout, he pushed for what became the Torrijos-Carter treaties that ceded control of the Panama Canal in September 1977. He also famously brokered the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in September 1978. And, in another presidential first, he welcomed Chinese President Deng Xiaoping to the United States in 1979.

However, it would be a foreign policy fiasco that derailed his presidency. Carter’s misreading of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 led to his decision to allow the Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment. From there, his administration’s handling of the debilitating Iran hostage crisis cost him dearly in the 1980 election.

The second half of Carter’s presidency revealed an administration in tailspin. These years were notable for the famous “malaise speech” and the Rose Garden strategy in which he vowed not to campaign widely in 1980. Carter also faced a primary challenge within his own party, when Ted Kennedy refused to concede all the way to the Democratic National Convention. Reagan defeated Carter by a wide margin, but the Carter presidency ended on a bright note with the release of the American hostages on January 20, 1981.

Carter’s failure to win a second term underscores the shifting nature of American politics. The 1980s would take a decidedly more conservative tone, leaving Carter’s idealism behind. As Carter later admitted, he underestimated the importance of dealing with Washington power brokers. Until the end, he remained a Washington outsider, even to his own detriment. Stubborn and hardworking to a fault, Carter never embraced the give and take needed for a president to effect compromise. 

Yet the outpouring of retrospectives about the nation’s 39th president also underscore that Carter’s term was simply one chapter in an incredible life of service. And he never lost his desire to speak out against injustice, including in his last New York Times op-ed. “For American democracy to endure,” he wrote in January 2022, a year after the attack on the Capitol, “we must demand that our leaders and candidates uphold the ideals of freedom and adhere to high standards of conduct.”

For this and so much more, he should earn the affection of the nation.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.

Thomas J. Balcerski, Ph.D. is associate professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.