Fourth of July Special: Jimmy Carter…Hero?

When I defend my liberal beliefs by pointing out successful implementations in government, I normally point to FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, even Clinton…not Carter. Carter was supposed to be that great countervailing tide of liberalism who would recapture Great Society ideals from encroaching conservatism…and he failed. He could not reach out to nor influence Congress in any meaningful way, and his “human-rights” approach to foreign affairs was the wrong policy at the wrong time (with the exception of the Camp David Accords, a lone success), in a time of Soviet aggression and Middle East feuding. Jimmy Carter is the Democratic president who Republicans love to compare Obama to, that classic, failed, one-term president.

But Carter did have another victory, at a point in his presidency where practically no eyes were on him. The Iran hostage crisis, which ravaged the last year of Carter’s presidency, began to improve just as the 1980 presidential elections were rolling around. Ronald Reagan, focusing on driving home economic improvement and battling a war of attrition against communist enemies abroad, remarked: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And a recovery…that’s when Jimmy Carter loses his.” Reagan was a breath of fresh air to finally replace the stale Carter years. As Carter stumbled in opinion polls, he announced, a week before Election Day, that negotiations were improving with the Iranians. The announcement was ineffective, as it was seen as a cheap ploy to boost his image, and the president was subsequently crushed in the ensuing elections.

My American history textbook from high school mentioned that the hostage crisis came to an end on the first day of Reagan’s term, and when I asked my teacher about it, she said that the Iranians were much more willing to negotiate with the new government. So is that it? Can super-star president Ronnie Reagan add another victory to his stellar (read: mixed) foreign policy record? Was it all just a ploy from Carter in the first place, the idea that the negotiations were improving?

The announcement was not a ploy. For over ten intense weeks, lame-duck president Carter successfully negotiated the hostage crisis to a close, bringing the Americans back home. This, apparently, is a largely forgotten piece of history. And the reality is quite sobering:

The symbolic transition occured not at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981, but in the hours that preceded it. After ten weeks of additional strenuous negotiations with the Iranians, Jimmy Carter, now sleepless for two nights and worn to the marrow, received word just after six-thirty a.m. that a final agreement had been arranged for the release of the hostages in Tehran. At seven o’clock, he placed a call to the official presidential guest residence, Blair House, to tell his successor the joyous news., but the call was taken by an aide of Reagan’s who said that the governor had had a long night, was sleeping, and could not be disturbed.

“You’re kidding,” Carter said.
“No, sir, I’m not.” the aide replied.

–The Age of Reagan, Sean Wilentz

Maybe I’m blowing this up to be bigger than it is. So Jimmy Carter handled a foreign policy issue, even a massive one, and received little to no credit for it. But look at it another way. Reagan’s aide didn’t even consider it important enough to wake up the president-elect, even though it was a large part in winning him the election. And Carter was hardly the most successful president, and he must have known this. He was indecisive in crisis after crisis, increasing polarization left his centrist position largely abandoned, his Southern progressivism and insistence on morality and human rights were largely viewed as anachronistic…and yet here was a man who worked like a horse right up until the last minutes of his presidency, knowing full well his work would gain neither him nor his party any kind of political capital. How many politicians do that sort of thing nowadays? Obama made sure to let everyone know how hard he had been working while Congress did nothing. If that isn’t patriotic and selfless duty to the country, I don’t know what is, quite frankly. So as we remember patriots from history around July 4th, let us add an unlikely name to the list — Jimmy Carter.

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