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    Jimmy Carter

Furai Xie

Author's Bio

Burton Ira Kaufman was born on January 23, 1939. He obtained his PhD from Rice University. Kaufman is a professor emeritus at Miami University in Ohio and was previously the professor of history at Kansas State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), where he was appointed the first chair of the Center of Interdisciplinary Studies in 1995. Kaufman has written six books and has been published in several professional journals. In addition to being an expert on U.S. presidencies, he has been named the presidential lecturer at North Texas State University.

From Peanut Farmer to President

     Burton Kaufman reveals in The Presidency of James Earl Carter Jr. that in 1972, when James Earl Carter Jr., better known as Jimmy Carter, announced to his family his intention of running for president, his mother instinctively replied, "of what?"1 Virtually unknown before his bid for the presidency, the native Georgian and Washington outsider overcame great odds to defeat President Gerald Ford in the 1976 election. Despite early blunders such as making risqu¨¦ comments in Playboy magazine and "flip-flopping" on several key issues, Carter arose as the victor while his public image remained relatively unmarred. In fact, in the first year of his presidency, Carter's approval rating was a staggering seventy-five percent. This figure, however, steadily declined throughout his term as Carter faced grueling challenges at home, including the impending energy crisis, unparalleled inflation, and continuing violations of human rights. Although his foreign policy, especially regarding the Iran Hostage Crisis, was often criticized, Carter succeeded in signing the Panama Canal Treaties, passing the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and most significantly, negotiating the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. Nevertheless, Carter was consistently viewed as inexperienced and ineffective. Accused of lacking a clear sense of purpose, Carter failed as a "trustee president."2 Even though historians characterize Carter's presidency as lackluster, if not a complete letdown, Jimmy Carter's public image greatly improved--through his continuous efforts in promoting human rights--after his term in office, establishing a unique legacy few could contend.
     Born on October 1, 1924 in the small town of Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter attended Georgia Southwestern College and the Georgia Institute of Technology before entering the United States Naval Academy. After seven years in the navy, Jimmy, along with wife Rosalynn, returned to Plains after his father's death. The family's peanut-growing business soon became so prosperous that Carter sought participation in community and local affairs. Soon, his friends easily persuaded him to run for office. Ambitious and determined, Carter won a seat in the Georgia Senate and after two terms, decided to run for governor. Securing the office of governor in 1970, Carter proved to be an advocate of "racial equality and economic and social justice."3 Having earned a respectable reputation, Carter, after only two years as governor, decided to run for president. In one of the closest elections in United States' history, Carter defeated President Gerald Ford in 1976 and would strive to assimilate into Washington life. Yet, Carter was doomed from the start for as political scientist Thomas. E. Cronin says, a president "will always have too much power for the realization of that cherished ideal--government by the people--yet never enough to solve all the problems we expect him to solve."4 Although upon inauguration Carter meticulously strove to select capable members to his cabinet, appointing an unprecedented number of women and blacks, his well-intended efforts toward promoting equality were overshadowed by a growing number of obstacles facing the nation. His inability to combat the energy crisis, to gain Congress' support, and to stimulate the slow-moving economy disappointed the American population. Even Jody Powell, a member of the Carter's staff, realized that "we [the administration] are trying to do too much."5 This overzealousness compounded with a lack of a clear purpose would inevitably spawn problems and increasingly alienate Americans as time went on.
     In his eagerness to positively impact America, Carter was also overly idealistic. In terms of foreign policy, Carter "spoke of a new world order based on mutual cooperation, stability, justice and peace."6 To ensure implementation of such ideals, Carter recognized the necessity of continuing d¨¦tente. Carter, however, also strongly advocated human rights. In one of his many misjudgments, Carter intervened with the Soviet Union's internal affairs by supporting a Soviet dissident in championing human rights. In addition to straining Soviet-American relations, the Carter administration--as well as the entire nation--also suffered from a division over tax reform as the economy continued to slow down. Meanwhile, the energy crisis and inflation grew to be mounting problems. Thus, by the end of 1977, Americans thought the president "had not lived up to his campaign promise and that he seemed unable to get things done."7 Placing his energy and tax programs on hold, Carter dedicated himself to solving the inflation issue during his second year of office. His administration supported voluntary wages and price controls to keep inflation at bay but the House rejected the legislations. The legislations were unpopular outside the House as well; congressional Democrats and business and financial leaders vehemently attacked the proposed program's weakness. Unable to improve the economy and mitigate inflation, Carter lost support from even his own party.
     President Carter did, however, manage to achieve a number of notable accomplishments during his one term as president. In 1980, Carter passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which reserved more than 100 million acres of land for national parks. The most significant victory, however, was the 1978 Camp David Accords which led to Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin signing a peace treaty that ended thirty years of antagonism. This treaty provided the framework of the peace treaty later signed by the two nations on March 26, 1979-- Carter had succeeded in "[establishing] a basis for future negotiations."8 Another highlight of the administration was the second round of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT II). In 1979, Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev agreed to further reduce the number of nuclear weaponry produced and maintained. However, because the U.S. Senate believed SALT II would weaken American defenses, the treaty never passed Congress. Nevertheless, both the United States and the Soviet Union adhered to the principles outlined by the treaty. Any ground gained with the successes of the Camp David Accords and SALT II, however, was quickly lost with the Iran Hostage Crisis, which ended after Carter's term of office. When the autocratic Shah of Iran--who had been a U.S. ally since the Second World War--was forced into exile during the Iranian Revolution, Carter permitted his entry into the United States for treatment of cancer. Upon hearing this, Iranian militants immediately seized the U.S Embassy in Tehran, taking sixty Americans hostage. The situation worsened as Iranian students in the United States protested and demonstrated to support their native country. Though Carter calmly and levelheadedly ordered the end of oil purchases from Iran, froze all Iranian assets held in the U.S., and sought diplomatic ways of freeing the American hostages, it immediately became clear that if the crisis was not resolved soon, the public would undoubtedly blame the president.
     When the next presidential election year--1780--arrived, Democrats nominated Carter even though they doubted he would again be victorious. Carter was, however, confident in his own ability to regain the presidency. Although Carter's main strategy in the campaign was to attack his Republican opponent Ronald Reagan and his incapability in leading a nation, "indeed, the president's competency, not Reagan's, became the recurring theme of the campaign."9 In another neck and neck election, Reagan defeated Carter. When asked how he thought history would judge him, Carter listed his achievements in "opening [access] into Africa, [normalizing] relations with China, the Middle East peace effort, [and] the maintaining of [the] nation's peace¡­"10 Carter's legacy today, however, is built upon actions after his term of office. After resettling as a private citizen, the former president busied himself with writing his memoirs, fundraising for his Carter Presidential Center, volunteering for Habitat and Humanity, and teaching at Emory University. Because of his ardent efforts towards promoting human rights around the world, Carter has been rightly dubbed the "best ex-president." 11
     Though Burton I. Kaufman acknowledges Carter's achievements during and after his presidency, Kaufman maintains that Carter's presidency is correctly characterized by contemporary historians as mediocre. Kaufman furthermore agrees with the projected image of "a hapless administration in disarray and of a presidency that was increasingly divided, lacking in leadership, ineffective in dealing with Congress, incapable of defending America's honor abroad, and uncertain about its purpose, priorities, and sense of direction."12 Yet, Kaufman points out that although every president is expected to deal with problems upon entering office, Carter was forced to confront a more complex set of situations. He even acknowledges Carter's prudent manner in helping the nation recover from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Even then, Kaufman's thesis still claims that Carter's diplomatic handling of the Camp David Accords, support of Alaskan wilderness preservation, and human rights projects after his presidency were not enough to compensate for a lack of focus throughout all four years of Carter's term. Kaufman's primarily negative opinion of the Carter administration--and of the man himself--is a product of Kaufman's inclination towards taking strong positions. As a history professor, Kaufman relinquishes the expected neutrality towards the subject, siding with historians of his time in criticizing Carter's insufficiencies more than extolling his accomplishments. Kaufman's texts are, however, extraordinarily credible for this book was the first full-length work based on the materials found in the Jimmy Carter Library. Additionally, every page is infused with quotes from professional sources, further strengthening Kaufman's claims. In terms of historiography, this text is highly valid in that the author, who is deemed an expert on U.S. presidencies, uses a wide range of reliable sources and also a myriad of citations which attests for the authenticity of the statements.
     Despite the credibility of Kaufman's sources, his opinions are not wholly convincing. Gary M. Fink in The American Review writes that in emphasizing Carter's inability to harness his executive power to resolve conflicts at home, Kaufman "largely [ignores] circumstances prevalent before and after this troubled presidency¡­ [and] fails to place it into its proper historical context."13 By isolating Carter's presidency, Kaufman is unable to compare Carter's actions and responses with those of his predecessors and successors. Kaufman claims that the president had a substantial amount of ability to quell national problems, yet he overestimates this power because he overlooks the Watergate scandal and OPEC's price increase which undoubtedly weakened the president's power. Thus, Carter was less at fault than Kaufman renders him to be. In fact, Carter was responsible for a number of long-lasting accomplishments. Yet, according to Patrick J. Maney in the Journal of Southern History, Kaufman downsizes these accomplishments and "even takes much of the luster off of Carter's proudest achievement--the Camp David Accords--which, the author suggests, did more to paper over basic problems in the Middle East than to resolve them." Cynically, Kaufman suggests that "failures and missed opportunities outweigh successes" 14 in judging a president. Thus by downplaying diplomatic and legislative victories and executing only a narrow analysis, Kaufman depicts Carter in a more negative light than is deserved.
     Although Kaufman's own opinions about Carter are pervasive throughout the book, Kaufman does succeed in presenting information without overwhelming the reader. His diction is clear and precise, allowing the reader to easily understand the complexities of presidential maneuverings. A main weakness in this book is the organization. Because the chapters move chronologically, economic, domestic, and foreign issues are constantly meshed together. For example, in the chapter titled War on Inflation, Kaufman includes the opinions of "feminist leaders¡­ [and] women's issues." 15 Since a wide variety of subjects are tightly interwoven, it is difficult to separate the different aspects. Thus, the reader does not receive a complete portrayal of Carter's economic policies until he or she finishes the book. This lack of a complete picture generates slight confusion as the reader is left to piece the information together by him or herself. But overall, Kaufman is able to effectively inform the reader about the circumstances surrounding Carter's presidency--both at home and abroad.
     When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in 1977, he interrupted--and ended--what was known as the imperial presidency. As a Washington newcomer and outsider, Carter hoped to alleviate the nation from remnants of the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War. In fact, Carter sought to increase his approachability while boosting his approval rating by "portraying [himself] as a 'citizen-president.'"16 Shocking the American public in a good way, Carter carried his own bags, placed his daughter in the public schools, and eliminated most of the White House's limousines. His appeal to the common man greatly contrasted the superiority emanated by previous seventies presidents. "Imperial" practices previously associated with presidents ended with Carter's term. Because of Carter, "Hail to the Chief" is no longer played when a president makes a public appearance and the presidential figure has transformed from untouchable Head of State to accessible voice of the people.
     Politically, Carter strove to continue the policy of d¨¦tente initiated by his predecessors. Though he was successful in negotiating the Camp David Accords, which led to the signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, problems at home soon overshadowed Carter's international accomplishments. In the seventies, the United States suffered an economic recession and "inflation remained 'public enemy number one.'"17 Inflation combined with little or now growth led to "stagflation" which ultimately resulted in wide unemployment and worsening recession. Stagflation, economic recession, the energy crisis, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the Iran Hostage Crisis consumed the 1970s, characterizing the decade as more turbulent than prosperous. Yet, the Seventies also witnessed a thawing of the Cold War with the enactment of SALT I and the unofficial SALT II. Also, the People's Republic of China was recognized by the United States under Carter's administration, signaling new ties. Thus the seventies proved to be a precursor for the events of later decades as it set up new policies to further peaceful ties with the world.
     As an unassuming but personable peanut farmer from Georgia, Jimmy Carter entered upon the presidency with low expectations. The public welcomed the Washington newcomer, one whose hands were clean of White House scandals, but doubted Carter's ability to produce results. Although his contemporaries criticize Carter for not seizing available opportunities and not acting to the best of his executive power, they must admit that "the problems Carter had to face¡­were arguably more complex and intractable than the problems encountered by most of his predecessors."18 Despite the barrage of economic, domestic, and international troubles berating his administration from all sides, Carter was still able to achieve notable legislative victories including the signing of the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaties, and the second round of SALT. Carter also created the Department of Energy and the Department of Education in his effort to restructure the civic service system. Yet, throughout his term, and his life, Carter has always been a staunch advocate of human rights. It was through his efforts after his presidency however, that Carter proved himself to be an adept and effectual spokesperson of human rights, deserving of the positive public image now attributed to him.


1. Kaufman, Burton Ira. The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993, 15. 2. Kaufman, Burton Ira 3. 3. Kaufman, Burton Ira 9. 4. Kaufman, Burton Ira 22. 5. Kaufman, Burton Ira 34. 6. Kaufman, Burton Ira 38. 7. Kaufman, Burton Ira 65. 8. Kaufman, Burton Ira 121. 9. Kaufman, Burton Ira 197. 10. Kaufman, Burton Ira 210. 11. Kaufman, Burton Ira 2. 12. Kaufman, Burton Ira 3. 13. Fink, Gary M. "The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr." The American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 3. (Jun., 1994), pp. 1000-1001. 14. Maney, Patrick J. "The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr." Journal of Southern History 60.n3 (August 1994): 622(3). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Irvine. 2 June 2007. 15. Kaufman, Burton Ira 111. 16. Kaufman, Burton Ira 31. 17. Kaufman, Burton Ira 99. 18. Kaufman, Burton Ira 2.

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