Jimmy Carter, a great president who knew?

I can remember back to the end of the 1970’s and the huge change that occurred politically in both the UK and the US with the arrival on the scene of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. History has tended to treat them both kindly, portraying both their predecessors as weak. This was especially true of Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

So, it was fascinating to read a long article in the Guardian today about Jimmy Carter and pointing out some of his major achievements that show up even better in the light of subsequent administrations in the United States. The article is well worth reading in its entirety but there are some real nuggets that I was especially struck by.

Firstly, there was the remarkable situation in foreign affairs.

What he’s most proud of, though, is that he didn’t fire a single shot. Didn’t kill a single person. Didn’t lead his country into a war – legal or illegal. “We kept our country at peace. We never went to war. We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet. But still we achieved our international goals. We brought peace to other people, including Egypt and Israel. We normalised relations with China, which had been non-existent for 30-something years. We brought peace between US and most of the countries in Latin America because of the Panama Canal Treaty. We formed a working relationship with the Soviet Union.””

Think about that. no bombing, no firing guns and yet he claims that they achieved their international goals. What were these? Well

he forced through the Camp David Accords, one of only two peace treaties that Israel has ever signed, isolating Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David for 13 days until he gradually wore them down; he also forced through the Panama Canal Treaty, a deeply unpopular move that returned the canal to Panama, but which prevented, many believe, a difficult and nasty war in Latin America; and he brought in an energy policy that saw him reduce America’s dependency on imported oil by half. He was mocked – three decades before global warming became a fashionable concern – for walking around the White House, turning down the thermostats.

These were far reaching achievements.

Then there is the centrality of his faith to his life.

He has a profound faith, rooted in his Baptist upbringing. He and Rosalynn read the Bible to each other every night and have done so for “30-something years”. (They read in Spanish, so that they can practise their language skills at the same time; they’re relentless self-improvers.) “I read a chapter one night,” says Rosalynn. “And he reads a chapter the next night.”

His faith has shown up in how he leads his life and his concern for others. Instead of a large mansion and going on speaking tours to raise money his house and lifestyle seem to retain a simplicity

There are no porticoes. No columns. No sweeping lawns. There’s just a small brick single-storey structure that Jimmy and his wife, Rosalynn, built on Woodland Drive back in 1961 when he was a peanut farmer and she was a peanut farmer’s wife, right in the heart of the town in which they grew up. Though Plains, Georgia is barely a town. A street, might be a more accurate description. A single road going nowhere much….. it’s hard to overstate how modest it is.

You could call this lifestyle modest and unassuming but alongside a simple lifestyle he is still focussed on making a difference to the world.

The Carter Center, the foundation he and Rosalynn set up to promote and champion human rights, has been quietly working towards eradicating some of the world’s nastier diseases. Guinea worm, a debilitating parasite, affected 3.5 million people worldwide when the Carter Center decided to try to eradicate it. Last year there were just 1,797 cases, mostly in South Sudan, and it looks set to be only the second (after smallpox) disease ever eliminated. Also on their hit list is river blindness, trachoma and lymphatic filariasis, otherwise known as elephantiasis. As part of their human-rights efforts, they monitor elections in some of the most troubled corners of the world. “Our basic principle that has shaped us ever since we were founded is that we don’t duplicate what other people do,” says Carter. “If the World Bank or Harvard University or whoever is adequately taking care of a problem, we don’t get involved. We only try to fill vacuums where people don’t want to do anything.”

And he shows no sign of letting up. He travels to the world’s most intractable trouble spots as part of his work with the Elders, a group of elder statesmen (the caped crusaders of conflict resolution!) led by Nelson Mandela. In April he was in North Korea, trying again to negotiate an agreement on its nuclear programme – as he did successfully in 1994 when he persuaded Kim II-sung to agree to a nuclear weapons freeze. And this autumn he’ll be in Haiti, helping build 100 homes with volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, something he’s done every year for the past 30 years. He’s pioneered a model of post-presidential activism that Bill Clinton (or even ex-CEOs such as Bill Gates) have striven to emulate. And in 2002 he received the ultimate recognition for it: the Nobel Peace Prize.

He is remembered by many for his failure to rescue the US hostages taken by the Iranian revolution and especially for the failed rescue attempt. However, reading the article and considering how things have been handled since maybe we need to re-consider his role and impact as President?

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5 comments on “Jimmy Carter, a great president who knew?

  1. Steve
    September 12, 2011 at 12:35 am #

    Cool. I’m a fan of peanut farmers too. Jimmy also tied US humanitarian aid to human rights records of recipient nations. A policy that doesn’t seem to have endured. I didn’t know about the Spanish Bible, or the no bomb, no bullets. Very nice. I have a Portuguese/English one (side by side). They don’t always agree!

  2. Will Cookson
    September 12, 2011 at 7:54 am #

    Steve, it is amazing how a person can be re-assessed over time and I had seen some of his humanitarian work in the past but still thought of him as a “weak” president. However, reading the article made me want to know more about him.

    In terms of versions of the bible not always agreeing that isn’t surprising! I have about a dozen different versions and they often can have differing ways of translating as language is so dynamic. Also, Hebrew and Greek words often don’t have a single word to translate (e.g. Shalom). Gives me an idea for a blog post sometime! Love to the family.

  3. George
    September 13, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    I have a dream (!) – that Jimmy Carter’s presidency will be seen in years to come as a role model for the leaders of nations (and political parties). Quiet, unassuming, lacking in ego and rooted in ethics. Leading (what was then) the world’s most powerful nation in delicate international negotiations with resulting lasting resolutions. And then – after retiring from office – to live a simple and still hugely effective life. Why aren’t there more like him? Is it power on its own which corrupts? How important is it for leaders to have a faith?

    • Will Cookson
      September 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

      I quite agree that it would be wonderful for more leaders to take a leaf out of his book. Reading the article reminded me how much he did and how well he has adjusted to life post-presidency.

  4. tallandrew
    September 14, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    I’ve met him. He was on the same flight as me back in April 2001, from Atlanta to Paris, and he went round the whole plane shaking hands. We were 45 minutes late taking off but no-one really cared.

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