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Thursday, August 13, 2015

A perspective on Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter has entered the final stage of his life. I first learned of his name in 1972 when I entered Georgia Tech. He had been elected Governor of Georgia in 1970, replacing the outrageous Lester Maddox. I found that controversy attached to Carter from his actions during and immediately after the 1970 campaign. As governor his signature initiative was to reorganize a bloated state government. The accomplishment was solid but hardly endeared him to the electorate. Otherwise his term in office was unremarkable, except that he replaced the Maddox legacy with a tone of reconciliation and tolerance that served Georgia and the South well.

At that time, governors of Georgia could not run for a second term — and it wasn't certain that Carter could have won reelection anyway. He left office in January 1975. I remember feeling astonished when he entered the race for President one year later. Our Jimmy from Plains, who's he kidding? Even today I can't tell whether he was just lucky or saw something that no one else did. In the dark era following Watergate, few Democrats came forward to oppose him. He bested a weak field of Morris Udall, Fred Harris, Scoop Jackson, Frank Church, Jerry Brown, and a faltering George Wallace to become the Democratic nominee. Then Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the general election by a narrow margin and became the first President from a state in the deep South since 1848. I voted for Carter only because I was still angry that Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon.

Carter's presidency, never popular with the national Democratic machine, suffered from internal problems (e.g. Bert Lance) and the simultaneous affliction of high unemployment and high inflation — a combination that economics textbooks said was impossible. After four years he was more unpopular at the national level than he had been after four years as governor. Ronald Reagan took the opportunity to move America in a very different direction with gusto. I assumed that Carter would drift into the same insignificance as Herbert Hoover, with whom he things in common. Hoover lived over 30 years after leaving office (the record until Carter).

But the former President Carter became a beloved and respected voice throughout the world for sanity, kindness, liberation, and peace. He astonished me again.