Jimmy Carter, trounced in 1980, gets fresh look from history

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Jimmy Carter is sometimes called a better former president than he was president.

Nodding to Carter’s decades of work as a globe-trotting humanitarian but with a glaring reminder of his landslide defeat in 1980, the backhanded compliment rankles Carter allies and, they say, the former president himself.

Yet now, 40 years removed from the White House, the most famous resident of Plains, Georgia, is riding a new wave of attention as biographers, filmmakers, climate activists and Carter’s fellow Democrats push to recast his presidential legacy, even as Republicans sometimes try to remind voters of the volatile economy and international affairs that doomed Carter to one term.

The renewed spotlight is especially significant for the broad swath of Americans too young to remember a presidency that spanned from 1977 to 1981. Sandwiched between the Watergate era of Richard Nixon and two terms of Ronald Reagan, Carter’s tenure came before Millennials or Generation Z voters were born and earlier than most of Generation X reached political awareness.

"People have always come up to tell me how much, my grandfather and my grandmother meant to them," Jason Carter, 46, said in an interview. "They used to be my parents’ age or older. Now they’re younger than I am, sometimes much younger. It’s a remarkable thing."

Many of those fans have known Carter, now 96 and largely confined to his home, only as the aging humanitarian occasionally in the news for building Habitat for Humanity houses, a critique of a successor or his latest health challenge.

In the past year, however, CNN released a documentary titled: "Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President" and independent documentarists Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz debuted "Carterland" at the Atlanta Film Festival. Two new books hit shelves in the same span: one a comprehensive biography, the other a narrower look at Carter’s time in Washington. In the preceding two years, new books included an explanation of how Carter’s 1976 victory rewrote the rules of modern presidential campaigns and an in-depth analysis of Carter’s White House years by his then-domestic policy adviser.

Altogether, the new works depict not a failed president but an ambitious, far-reaching one who is getting a more nuanced assessment from history than he got from his contemporaries.

The Pattiz brothers, documentary filmmakers born a decade after Carter left the White House, emerged from producing "Carterland" to see the 39th president as a visionary on environmental issues, especially.

"Carter had these very farsighted views of how he wanted to solve the energy crisis, and it involved conservation, but also involved turning away from fossil fuels and turning toward renewable energy, things like solar power and other renewables," said Jim Pattiz, 29.

Carter put solar panels on the White House, and he called for "shared sacrifice" to confront energy shortages. But he couldn’t overcome voters’ frustrations with fuel prices and availability. The solar panels were removed during Reagan’s presidency. But Will Pattiz, 30, said time vindicated Carter. If "President Carter had gotten an extra term in office," he said, "we likely wouldn’t be having a climate crisis right now."

Carter likely wouldn’t go that far. In 2019, the former president used his last annual presentation at The Carter Center in Atlanta to blame himself for his post-presidential center being "basically mute on the subject of global warming."

In his new book, "The Outlier," historian Kai Bird writes that Carter’s "domestic and foreign policy ledgers are lengthy and fulsome." Carter’s brokerage of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt remain his most undisputed success. But Bird also highlights Carter policies sometimes associated more with others. Carter negotiated SALT II nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union, leaving Reagan a firm foundation for his dealings with the Kremlin.

The Iran hostage crises cemented Carter’s defeat. But Bird and Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic policy adviser, detail in their books how Carter and his administration won the hostages’ release, even if Tehran held them until Reagan’s inauguration.

On the domestic front, it was Carter, not Reagan, who started the widespread deregulation of industries including airlines, natural gas, railroads and trucking. Carter came as close to a major health care overhaul as any president did until President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act. And for all the political damage Carter suffered for inflation it was Carter’s appointee as Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, whose monetary policies curbed the spikes of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Jason Carter said the new wave of analyses look beyond "the political failure of not getting reelected as the defining factor" of Carter’s presidency.

Beyond policy details, Amber Roessner, a 41-year-old University of Tennessee professor who wrote "Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign," said Carter’s broader political identity from the 1970s has "regained some saliency."

Carter, she said, ran and governed with a "message of moral reform," emphasizing competence and moderation. He espoused his born-again Christianity and called in his nomination acceptance for "love to be aggressively translated into simple justice."

In 1976, that was the antidote to the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation and the dynamics that lingered from Vietnam and the civil rights era. Now, it translates to the 21st century’s hyperpartisan politics, the nation’s latest reckoning with racism and former President Donald Trump’s turbulent tenure and serial mistruths.

"There are so many parallels," Roessner said.

It was enough to draw multiple Democratic presidential candidates to Plains during the 2020 presidential campaign, something that hadn’t happened in the previous four decades.

"There was so much distrust in government (and) he had a message of truth and honesty," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told The Associated Press, explaining after one of her visits why she sometimes invoked Carter as she campaigned.

Biden, who as a young Delaware politician became the first U.S. senator to endorse Carter’s 1976 bid, capped the pilgrimage parade in April, as he and first lady Jill Biden visited privately with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter at their home.

"We talked about old times," Biden told reporters afterward.

If anything, two presidents huddling in small-town south Georgia carried a weightier message: Old is new again.


Associated Press writer Alex Sanz contributed to this report.