Image by Marion S. Trikosko | Library of Congress
For the college students I teach in my political science courses at St. Lawrence University, the 1970s seem like ancient history. Their response to the news that former US President Jimmy Carter has entered hospice might just echo his 1976 campaign slogan: “Jimmy Who?”
Those old enough to remember the Carter administration are as likely to recall stagflation, gasoline price hikes, and the Iran hostage crisis as the Middle East peace accord Carter brokered at Camp David or his forward-thinking environmental policies. Yet with the perspective of time, it is now clear that President Carter was a gifted leader.
As his wife Rosalynn once told me, it is easy to lead the American people where they want to go, but it takes vision to lead them where they don’t. In international affairs, Carter faced down Republican threats that his party would pay at the polls for “giving away” the Panama Canal. Amid skeptical prognostications that the Panamanians would be unable to run the canal without US help, he signed the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties that ended decades of pseudo-colonial domination of a neighboring country. Relations with Latin America improved, security threats to the canal ended, and Panama re-engineered the locks and widened the canal to return it to profitability.
That same year, faced with skyrocketing oil prices, a cardigan-clad President Carter appeared in a televised fireside chat to quietly urge Americans to turn down the heat and put on a sweater to conserve fuel and bolster American energy independence. Americans grumbled but mostly complied. New government policies on safety and fuel emissions incentivized automobile manufacturers to produce more environmentally friendly cars that today are the core of the industry.
And decades before anyone imagined that Barack Obama would break the color barrier at the White House, in his single term, President Jimmy Carter appointed more African-American judges to the federal courts than all the presidents who preceded him put together. Young people today who favor human rights, respectful foreign relations, green energy, and racial inclusion might wish for a candidate like Jimmy Carter.
President Carter left office relatively young, feeling that much of his political agenda had yet to come to fruition, so he embarked on a path that would transform the American post-presidency. Working through The Carter Center, an Atlanta-based non-governmental organization he founded in 1982, Carter set out to rid the world of Guinea Worm disease, a devastatingly painful and often deadly affliction, and to foster democratic governance and human rights in Latin America. Such monumental tasks risked failure, but Carter insisted that the Center dedicate its efforts to causes other organizations did not dare to undertake for fear that lackluster results might diminish their donor support. With The Carter Center pioneering election observation and the Organization of American States taking up that practice, by 2000, freely elected civilians governed in nearly every Latin American country. The annual number of Guinea worm cases fell from 3.5 million in the 1980s to just 15 in 2021, despite lacking a vaccine, due to the Center’s efforts in health education and disease prevention. Such boldness won Carter the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
As he observed elections in countries emerging from dictatorship and civil war, Carter was a model of integrity, always willing to call it as he saw it, whether that meant denouncing a Panamanian dictator’s fraud or criticizing US embassy bias in Nicaragua. Back at home, guided by his Christian values, Carter publicly parted ways with the Southern Baptist Convention because they were unwilling to allow women to be pastors.
In the decade I worked at The Carter Center, I was privileged to know Jimmy Carter personally and watch this principled leader at work. He insisted that The Carter Center be an “action tank,” not a thinktank, though its programs were thoughtfully run. He pioneered what came to be known as “Track 1.5 diplomacy”, neither Track 1 (relations between countries) nor Track 2 (people-to-people diplomacy), and helped foreign governments settle conflicts and improve governance.
As a private citizen who commanded the public spotlight, Carter traveled tirelessly to the world’s least developed countries and listened to peoples’ life stories with an open mind and heart. In Africa and Latin America, he conversed with powerful leaders and poor farmers on equal terms, affording them each the same courtesy and dignity, modeling the idea of a democratic culture with a graciousness that spoke of his Southern upbringing. Less known is that he recruited dozens of other former presidents and prime ministers from around the globe to help in those endeavors, including his Republican predecessor, Gerald Ford.
Criticized during his presidency for being ineffective, say instead that President Carter was ahead of his time. An internationalist, an environmentalist, a small “d” democrat who put principles before partisanship, Jimmy Carter’s brand of leadership might well hold appeal for future generations of American voters.
Shelley A. McConnell
Shelley A. McConnell served as Senior Associate Director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center from 1997-2007 and now teaches government at St. Lawrence University.