Prophet from Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy

Sep 14, 2007

The joke among pundits is he used the presidency "as a stepping stone to greatness." Gaillard reevaluates both the Carter presidency and the years since, neither canonizing nor castigating.

Prophet from Plains

In the summer of 1985, not too long after Jimmy Carter had left the White House, Frye Gaillard published in the Charlotte Observer a widely praised series of thoughtful articles on what was widely thought to be the failed Carter presidency. In these pieces he discussed both what he perceived as Carter's strengths and his weaknesses. Why had a man of such intelligence, determination, and character not succeeded better? Since those articles in '85, Gaillard published a study of Habitat for Humanity, If I Were a Carpenter. Now, building on all he has learned about Carter, Gaillard has produced this short but, in the best sense, dense book.

When Carter left Washington, it did not look as if his legacy would amount to much. He had achieved almost no legislative program and had made few friends in Congress. He was determined, however, to accomplish a great deal more as a former president.

The joke among pundits is he used the presidency "as a stepping stone to greatness." Gaillard reevaluates both the Carter presidency and the years since, neither canonizing nor castigating.

First, perhaps, Carter's failings. It seems agreed these were mostly failings of technique, not intent. He had never been in Congress and was unwilling to either massage or intimidate the leadership to get his agenda through. Carter, overconfident to the point of arrogance, highly intelligent, superhumanly energetic, thought the rightness of his plans was self-evident.

He was not a great TV communicator either, sometimes sounding whiny and self-righteous. The teleprompter and the camera were not his friends.

But he had his strengths. The Camp David Accords were reached and signed because he would not let Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin fail themselves and their peoples. He pushed for humanitarian rights all over the world, increased defense spending, put through the SALT treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals, reduced the national debt, returned the Panama Canal to Panama, and had the Soviets convinced that if they launched a nuclear attack he would not hesitate to retaliate.

The Carter presidency went down, finally, beginning in January of 1980, as all adults know, over the hostages in Iran. The Shah of Iran had terrified and oppressed and tortured his people, with our support, for thirty-seven years. Iranians hated him to the depths of their souls, and hated us for propping him up. Even so, Carter handled that crisis better than people knew. He warned the Ayatollah Khomeini that if there were a show trial, Iran would be blockaded and bankrupted. If a single hostage were injured, America would invade. No hostage was put on trial or injured.

Gaillard devotes half his book to the twenty-five years since. With the Carter Center as his base, Jimmy Carter has accomplished, not miracles, but mountains of progress, all stemming from his thoroughly internalized Christian convictions. To begin with, he spoke out, freely, whenever he chose, and his remarks have included today's president, whom he regards as a "disaster." Habitat for Humanity is his most famous enterprise, but Carter's efforts have helped eradicate guinea worm and river blindness in great parts of Africa. He has monitored elections in Nicaragua, Haiti, Panama, and other places, sixty elections in twenty-six countries, and has made important diplomatic missions to North Korea and Cuba. Carter is now the author of, most recently, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, again a frank discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and again controversial.

Carter's work has not gone exactly unnoticed: he has received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, and his legacy, his place in history, seems assured. Gaillard's little book is not the cause of this rise in Carter's reputation, but it reminds the 2007 reader what a man we had in the White House then, as historian David C. Carter says in his foreword, "not far in the past when integrity and decency were the hallmarks of the presidential character."