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Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter, former Democratic governor of Georgia, won the presidency in 1976. Portraying himself during the campaign as an outsider to Washington politics, he promised a fresh approach to governing, but his lack of experience at the national level complicated his tenure from the start. A naval officer and engineer by training, he often appeared to be a technocrat, when many Americans wanted someone more visionary to lead them through troubled times.

Born in 1924 in Plains, James Earl "Jimmy" Carter, Jr., was the first of Earl and Lillian Carter’s four children. When he was four years old, the Carter family moved to a farm in the small community of Archery, two and one-half miles away. The Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm is part of the National Historic Site. The day the family moved to the farm was memorable. Earl Carter had forgotten the key and Jimmy crawled through a window to unlock the front door. Although the house used fireplaces and wood stoves for heat and had no indoor plumbing or electricity, it was a typical middle class rural dwelling for the 1920s. Earl Carter raised cotton, corn, and sugar cane with the aid of tenant farmers and was one of the first in the area to experiment with growing peanuts. He also sold canned goods, coffee, kerosene, overalls, and a large variety of other useful items in the country store/commissary near the house. Jimmy and his African American playmates helped in the fields, and Jimmy sold bags of boiled peanuts on the streets of “metropolitan” Plains for a nickel. His parents raised their children to value education, community service, the Baptist Church, and each other. Jimmy Carter lived on the farm until he went away to college in 1941.

Carter attended the Plains High School from first grade through his graduation in 1941. He quoted Miss Julia Coleman, one of his teachers and an intellectual and cultural inspiration to him, in his presidential inaugural address. After graduation, he attended Georgia Southwestern College and Georgia Tech University briefly before receiving an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He came home to marry Rosalynn Smith on July 7, 1946 in the Plains United Methodist Church. He served in the Navy for seven years following his graduation from the Naval Academy, resigning his commission in 1953 to take over the family peanut business after his father died. His income of $200 that first year was so low that he qualified to move into a low-income housing project in Plains. He and Rosalynn lived there for a year but soon turned the Golden Peanut Company into a successful production and processing business.

Following his father’s example, Jimmy Carter became involved in civic, church, and fraternal affairs, but refused to join the local segregationist White Citizens' Council. A lifelong Democrat, Carter entered the political arena in 1962. After a strenuous contest, he won a seat in the State senate and held it for two terms. He showed special interest in education and election reform. Carter abandoned plans to run for the United States House of Representatives to seek the governorship in 1966. Although he failed on his first attempt, he succeeded four years later. During his term as governor, he reorganized the State government, worked for conservation, and attracted national attention as a moderate on civil rights.

Carter’s decision to leap from governor to presidential candidate was a bold one. In a cross-country grassroots campaign, he gained support from a public looking for change after the scandals that had shaken the nation. His surprise success in the Iowa Democratic caucus began a phenomenal rise that confounded the political experts who thought his quest was hopeless. The downtown Plains train depot, which served the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad from 1888 to 1951, became Carter’s local campaign headquarters. Approximately 10,000 people a day came to Plains to find out about this unknown candidate, and Carter’s friends and neighbors gathered outside the depot to celebrate his many successes in State primaries. The Democratic National Convention made Carter their presidential nominee on the first ballot. The depot, now a museum, was again the site of a celebration on his election as president in November 1976. Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford by a relatively narrow but conclusive margin in both popular and electoral votes. He is the first president from Georgia and the first elected directly from the Deep South since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Dramatizing his break with tradition, Carter and his family walked hand in hand down Pennsylvania Avenue after his inauguration at the Capitol, to the cheers of the watching crowds.

As President Carter took office, he stressed his plans to fight “stagflation” by both stimulating the economy and attacking inflation. He succeeded in adding millions of new jobs and reducing the budget deficit but could not control inflation, which reached record rates. He developed new policies to fight the energy shortage, expanded civil service reform, and sought to protect the environment. He appointed record numbers of women, African Americans, and Hispanics to government jobs and strengthened the Social Security system. In 1977, Carter pardoned young men who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. This controversial decision, combined with his unwillingness to work within the traditional party system, brought him into conflict with Congress.

In economic affairs, Carter at first permitted a policy of deficit spending. Inflation rose to 10 percent a year when the Federal Reserve Board, responsible for setting monetary policy, increased the money supply to cover deficits. Carter responded by cutting the budget, but cuts affected social programs at the heart of Democratic domestic policy. In mid-1979, anger in the financial community practically forced him to appoint Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Volcker was an “inflation hawk” who increased interest rates in an attempt to halt price increases, at the cost of negative consequences for the economy.

Carter also faced criticism for his failure to secure passage of an effective energy policy. He presented a comprehensive program, aimed at reducing dependence on foreign oil, that he called the “moral equivalent of war.” Opponents thwarted it in Congress. Though Carter called himself a populist, his political priorities were never wholly clear. He endorsed government’s protective role, but then began the process of deregulation, the removal of governmental controls in economic life. Arguing that some restrictions over the course of the past century limited competition and increased consumer costs, he favored decontrol in the oil, airline, railroad, and trucking industries.

In foreign policy, his support for human rights complicated his negotiations with the Soviet Union and other foreign states.

His greatest success was the Camp David accords of 1978, which brought about a rapprochement between Israel and Egypt and a reduction of tensions in the Middle East. Carter’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment was the negotiation of a peace settlement between Egypt, under President Anwar al-Sadat, and Israel, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Acting as both mediator and participant, he persuaded the two leaders to end a 30-year state of war. The subsequent peace treaty was signed at the White House in March 1979.

After protracted and often emotional debate, Carter secured Senate ratification of treaties ceding the Panama Canal to Panama by the year 2000. Going a step farther than Nixon, he extended formal diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China.

But Carter enjoyed less success with the Soviet Union. Though he assumed office with detente at high tide and declared that the United States had escaped its “inordinate fear of Communism,” his insistence that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute” antagonized the Soviet government. A SALT II agreement further limiting nuclear stockpiles was signed, but not ratified by the U.S. Senate, many of whose members felt the treaty was unbalanced. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan killed the treaty and triggered a Carter defense build-up that paved the way for the huge expenditures of the 1980s.

His greatest failure was his inability to free the American Embassy staff members taken hostage by the new Islamic regime in Iran. After an Islamic fundamentalist revolution led by Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini replaced a corrupt but friendly regime, Carter admitted the deposed shah to the United States for medical treatment. Angry Iranian militants, supported by the Islamic regime, seized the American embassy in Tehran and held 53 American hostages for more than a year. The long-running hostage crisis dominated the final year of his presidency and greatly damaged his chances for re-election.

Carter’s political efforts failed to gain either public or congressional support. By the end of his term, his disapproval rating reached 77 percent, and Americans began to look toward the Republican Party again. The 14-month long hostage crisis, plus the continuing ruinous inflation, led to his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. He continued to negotiate with Iran after his defeat, however, and obtained the release of the hostages hours before the end of his term. He and his wife flew to Germany to greet them.

Retiring from public office, Jimmy Carter returned to Plains. He continued to work as a humanitarian with the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity, participates in Middle East peace negotiations, and wrote several books. In 2002, Jimmy Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his "decades of untiring efforts to find peaceful solution to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."

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Page last modified: 07-10-2017 17:47:48 ZULU