Jimmy Carter’s strength
February 24, 2023
In an interview shortly after President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election, his wife,
Rosalynn, was asked what she thought of the new president, Ronald Reagan. With an
eerie prescience, she said, “I think the President makes us comfortable with our
In 1976, Carter’s election offered the possibility of a new America heading into the 21 st
century, a nation healing its old wounds of racial grievance, setting aside its aggressive
militarism, offering support to the downtrodden around the world. But his defeat
revealed who we really were — still easily seduced by racial resentment, entranced by
the pseudo-religiosity of right-wingers, bellicose toward aggressors. Those traits
continue to haunt us well into the new century.
Yes, Carter had his flaws as president. He lacked the charisma demanded by the
television age. He refused to engage in the political horse-trading that keeps the wheels
of Washington spinning. He sometimes got lost in minutia.
But he didn’t lose in a landslide because he insisted on overseeing the schedule of the
White House tennis court. Carter lost because he was the embodiment of traits we
treasure as theory but not as practice: a genuine Christianity, a strong moral core, a
respect for human rights at home and abroad.
Reagan represented something quite different. A Hollywood veteran, he covered his
bigotry with an affable charm. Nevertheless, he opened his presidential campaign with a
speech at the Neshoba (Miss.) County Fair, where he spoke of “states’ rights” — the
same phrase Southern bigots had used to defend slavery and segregation. The fair was
held close to Philadelphia, Miss., where three young civil rights activists had been
brutally murdered in 1964. Reagan didn’t mention the crime. His genial Southern
strategy of pandering to alienated whites was the calling card for Republican
presidential candidates until Donald Trump came along and discarded the smile for a
snarl, the implicit racism for explicit hatred.
Rosalynn Carter was also prescient about the unfortunate influence of ultra-
conservative Christians. Shortly after her husband lost his bid for re-election, she said
she heard an (unnamed) ultra-conservative television evangelist celebrating his defeat
with these words: “They got the evil people out of the White House. God’s people will
eventually be in control.” She told an interviewer she was “concerned” about the
influence of the so-called Moral Majority on politics.
Born to a Southern Baptist family in Plains, Ga., Carter was among the most overtly
pious of American presidents. He taught Bible classes through much of his adult life and
opposed his Plains church’s insistence on remaining segregated.
Still, Carter earned the wrath of Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority, because
the president upheld a decision to prevent segregated private schools from claiming a
tax-exempt status. That led Falwell to endorse one of the nation’s least religious political
figures — Reagan. Falwell’s version of Christianity leaned heavily into racism, and a few
decades later, his pseudo-religious cohort enthusiastically backed the campaigns of a
thrice-married philanderer who had gleefully bragged about groping women.
The belligerence that infects our foreign policy also haunts us still. After Reagan’s
victory, Rosalynn Carter was quoted as saying that her husband would have been re-
elected if he had bombed Iran. While that may sound like sour grapes from a bitter
spouse, she was likely right. Even Senate Democrats bowed to President George
Bush’s insistence on invading Iraq, even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do
with 9/11. Foreign policy stalwarts claimed that American military power could re-cast
Iraq as a democracy. Instead, the misguided invasion emboldened Iran and led to the
sadistic terrorism of the Islamic State.
Carter resisted the public demands for reprisals against Iran because he knew that
would only endanger the hostages, whom he wanted to bring home alive. Instead, he
engaged in patient diplomacy. He did green-light a rescue mission, but it failed. Adding
to Carter’s political wounds, the hostages were not released until the day his rival,
Reagan, was sworn in. For his efforts, he was tagged as weak by his critics — an unfair
evaluation that remains in public consciousness.
Yet, his post-presidency serves as a monument to his character. It is testament to his
generosity, courage and, yes, strength.