Remembering the Carter era — and what it tells us about today

Remembering the Carter era — and what it tells us about today
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An occasional trip down a political memory lane is instructive in thinking about the state of politics today.

Last weekend, we were in Plains, Ga., for President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's 75th wedding anniversary. My wife, Judy Woodruff, covered Carter as governor and then as president. I was a walk-on.

Among the several hundred guests were former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonCourt dismisses GOP suit over proxy voting in House Trump is a complication for Republican hopes in Virginia Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJill Biden takes starring role at difficult Olympics Club for Growth goes after Cheney in ad, compares her to Clinton Sanders to campaign for Turner in Ohio MORE, House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe, eyeing new GOP reinforcements GOP's Banks burnishes brand with Pelosi veto Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Rafael Warnock (D-Ga.) and former Sen. Sam Nunn, media legend Ted Turner and country music star Garth Brooks, doctors from the Carter Center who cured third world diseases, architects from Carter's remarkable presidential run like Gerald Rafshoon, longtime friends, Plains neighbors, some Republicans, and more than two dozen Carter children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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It was a reminder that however difficult the politics were back then, it pales next to the divisions today.

After he was defeated for reelection in 1980, Carter was considered a failed president: Americans held hostage in Iran, an aggressive Soviet Union, double-digit inflation, schisms among Democrats.

There has been a revaluation. Two biographies — by Kai Bird and Jonathan Alter — have generated a more positive assessment of the 39th president.

From 1977 to 1981, Carter forged the Camp David peace accords — still the most important achievement in the troubled Middle East — passage of the Panama Canal treaty, made human rights a central concern, and appointed Paul Volcker chair of the Federal Reserve. Volcker's policies, which tamed out of control inflation, probably hurt Carter in his reelection. Volcker is now considered one of the best Fed chairmen ever.

Carter also won important legislative victories, with some Republican support: in addition to the canal treaty, the first major energy conservation measure; creation of the Department of Education and airline deregulation, which enabled millions of Americans to afford air travel.

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Carter’s was my first campaign covering national politics full-time. There's the Plains softball field where the hyper-competitive candidate joined his campaign staff with the Secret Service to regularly trounce the press team. Most importantly, I met my wife on that field.

Professionally, it was one of the most signature campaigns. In the first presidential election after Watergate, the peanut farmer from Georgia stunned the political establishment, defeating a 13-candidate primary field, including genuine heavyweights with prescient calculations; winning the previously little-noticed initial Iowa caucuses would move him into the top tier, and defeating the plague of the party, segregationist George Wallace in Florida, would catapult him to the top.

The Republican race was just as interesting, as Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford. That wasn't settled until the convention, when a shift of 2 percent of the delegates on a procedural vote might have changed the outcome. This paved the way for Reagan's triumph four years later.

There were wonderful asides: getting slipped a ticket for the Chicago's 10th ward Democratic annual dinner with all those Damon Runyon characters. Philadelphia Democratic boss Henry Cianfrani telling me he wasn't worried about the renomination of the machine-backed Congressman Bill Barrett, who had died shortly before the primary: “I think there will be a big nostalgia vote for Bill,” he said — and Barrett won the primary with 75 percent of the vote.

All politics is local.

On the national level, the contrast with the present is striking. In 1976 Carter beat Ford by 1.7 million votes, or 2 percent, while Biden won last year by 7 million — even adjusting for turnout, twice the Carter margin — and by 4.4 percent. The electoral college vote margin was closer in 1976 than last year. Yet Ford naturally accepted the legitimate outcome; any major Republican who suggested the election was “stolen” would have been dismissed as a kook.

Post presidency, Ford and Carter became friends. Carter delivered a eulogy at the Grand Rapids, Mich., funeral service for Ford; they had agreed if the Democrat died first, Ford would speak at Carter’s services.

In the aftermath of the first election following the first president ever driven from office under the reality of impeachment, there were plenty of divisive issues, bigger than today: the lessons of Vietnam, the first war America lost; ethics changes mandated after Watergate; residual resentments over the great Civil Rights acts of the mid- and late-1960s.

But on many matters, there was an effort to find common ground that’s largely absent today.

The “loyal opposition” was different.

A leading conservative in Congress during the Carter administration was New York Rep. Jack Kemp, a tax-cutting, return-to-the-gold-standard, inclusive Republican incapable of hate. Contrast that with today's leading Republican upstate New York representative: Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikGOP's Banks burnishes brand with Pelosi veto Former speed skater launches bid for Stefanik seat House GOP leaders say vaccine works but shouldn't be mandated MORE, a situational conservative. Or compare the conservatism of Texas Sen. John Tower in the late 70s with Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPoll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis US, Germany reach deal on controversial Russian pipeline State, Dems call out Cruz over holds ahead of key Russian talks MORE now.

I don't think politicians were smarter back then. They certainly weren't less corrupt. But for the practitioners and the press, it was more enjoyable and purposeful.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.