Presidential historian calls the 39th US president 'a transitional figure'
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is being remembered for his optimism, humanitarianism and, by Sun Devils, a handful of visits to Arizona State University.
Carter, the longest-living former president at 98 years old, recently entered hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia, signaling he was at peace with his fate after a remarkable life of service and gratitude.
In 2015, Carter visited Arizona PBS at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication to discuss his memoir “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety” on “Arizona Horizon'' with host Ted Simons. Two years later, he returned to ASU to accept the O’Connor Justice Prize for his efforts on behalf of peacemaking and human rights — furthering his global recognition as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in this realm.
“It’s clear that Carter’s post-presidential career was much more impactful than his presidency,” says ASU presidential historian Brooks Simpson while reflecting on Carter’s impact and legacy with ASU News. “He may have come to national prominence as a presidential candidate and president, but he owes his place in history to what he did over more than four decades of post-presidential service.”
Simpson, an ASU Foundation Professor of History in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, says Carter “pursued public service on his own terms.” Here is more of what he had to say about the 39th president of the United States.
Question: It’s been said that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had one of the greatest “second acts” after leaving the White House in 1981. What does this mean?
Answer: After Carter left the White House in 1981, he embarked upon an active post-presidential career that included turns at diplomacy, helping the homeless and advocating human rights. Not since John Quincy Adams, who served in Congress for some 18 years after his presidency, have we seen a former president be so visible in the public sphere. Not everything he did or said was met with overwhelming public approval, but that did not deter him. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his efforts — the only American ex-president to receive the award.
Q: What are some details about Jimmy Carter that have been mostly overlooked?
A: Although people are aware that Jimmy Carter served in the United States Navy as an officer and built a peanut-farming business, those early achievements have been overshadowed in relaying his life story. For example, only recently have people recalled his successful efforts to prevent a major disaster at a Canadian nuclear plant in 1952 while exposing himself to high levels of radiation. His underappreciated understanding of the presidential selection process was extensive enough for him to use that system to secure the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination despite his status as a largely unknown outsider when he embarked on his candidacy.
Q: How does Carter’s presidency rate in history?
A: Carter’s reputation as president rebounded in large part due to his record of achievement after he left the presidency. Many scholars give him credit for his good intentions, especially in matters concerning the environment, energy policy and human rights. During his time in office, Carter had his share of accomplishments — most notably negotiating the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978 — but he was unable to work harmoniously with Congress, struggled to promote economic recovery during a time of widespread inflation and high interest rates, and failed to resolve the Iran hostage crisis, which presaged challenges to come for the United States in the Middle East. Presidential reputation polls rank him squarely and fairly in the middle in evaluating his performance in office.
Q: How did Carter as a one-term president differ from other one-term presidents? Was he more consequential?
A: In retrospect, Carter was a transitional figure. Elected president largely on his reputation as an outsider who would elevate public life in the aftermath of Watergate, he found that governing from the outside was challenging. Members of his own party proved willing to support Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s efforts to unseat him in 1980; in the general election, Carter’s pragmatism offered a somber contrast to Ronald Reagan’s more appealing message of optimism and change. Carter advanced some ideas that now seem timely and worthwhile, but he found it challenging to translate his proposals into policy.
Q: What will people recall when they look back fondly on Carter?
A: Carter’s career as a resilient optimist who tirelessly advocated principles of peace, human rights and justice will continue to resonate with many people. To a significant extent, his post-presidential career redeemed his presidency and served as a personal vindication of his beliefs in action, overshadowing some of his shortcomings and frustrations.
Just after the election of 1992, I had the opportunity to listen to Carter as he held forth on the consequences of a presidential election that returned a Democrat to the White House — and another Southern governor, to boot — for the first time since he left it. He could hardly restrain his happiness; he was giddy and gleeful at what he saw as something approaching a redemption of his own presidency. His smile remains his trademark, while his work with Habitat for Humanity reflected his willingness to lend a hand to making people’s lives better.
Top photo: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter receives the Sandra Day O'Connor Justice Prize from Barbara Barrett on Jan. 27, 2017. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU