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A common-sense salute to the presidency of Jimmy Carter

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With a return of inflation, it has recently become popular among pundits to offer comparisons to, or commentaries on, President Jimmy Carter. He is often cited a having been overwhelmed by the conflux of inflation and Iranian hostages. It’s often reported that many historians rate Carter’s presidency as mediocre.

The 39th President turns 98 this year, and last year we lost his vice-president, Walter Mondale. I think it’s time to offer a common-sense salute to one of our best presidents.

First, in full disclosure, I am not a historian, and I was a mid-level official in Carter’s administration. Like most Beltway insiders from the Northeast, I did not initially support Carter and for a long time held a cynical view of the Georgian governor: He sounded like a hillbilly, openly discussed his Christianity, was not a member of any of the important groups that dominated American politics … and probably couldn’t even find K Street. (Reminding me that my most amusing memory of the president took place during a large Congressional breakfast meeting in the White House where, to my complete surprise, I was seated across from the president. The waiter served eggs and then plopped down a scoop of oatmeal on my plate. I was playing with the oatmeal wondering if I should tell the waiter that oatmeal should be served in a bowl with milk when I looked up to see Carter closely watching me. He sternly said “They’re grits. Eat them.” The story says a lot about Carter’s encounter with Washingtonians.)

I learned to respect Jimmy Carter for the kind of person he was as president and for his most important accomplishment, which in my view was showing the American people that a fairly honest (nobody’s perfect) person could be a successful politician and president. Among modern day presidents, Carter stands out for that reason alone.

The downgrading of Carter as president by scholars, pundits and media tends to ignore the important lesson he taught America about being an honest person while being president — and instead focuses on “concrete accomplishments” or, worse, something more like “glamour.” A common refrain is something like ‘he was better after being president,’ ignoring both the moral leadership and practical accomplishments of his 1977-1981 presidency. Similarly, most ignore the simple fact that by the third year of his presidency (1979, before the Iran hostage events), his popularity was well above 50 percent, which is more than can be said for almost every president since John F. Kennedy.

One doesn’t need a K Street office, a PhD or a camera in front of them to make a common-sense assessment of Carter’s presidency, so here’s mine:


  • sent his daughter to D.C. public schools;
  • began the modern era of government deregulation by deregulating commercial airlines, trucking, rail and much more;
  • began the modern era of fiscal consciousness by immediately implementing an earth-shaking notion of “Zero Based Budgeting”;
  • began the modern era of energy consciousness by creating the Department of Energy;
  • began the modern era of human rights consciousness by, shockingly, pointing out that human rights abuses should be criticized among our friends and not just among Communist adversaries;
  • established the concept that supporting education was a fundamental (not episodic) responsibility of the federal (not just state and local) government by creating the Department of Education;
  • began the modern era of global politics by transferring the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama and normalizing diplomatic relations with China (imagine a world in which we and the UN still recognized Taiwan as China?);
  • redefined the Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the world’s most dangerous and longstanding, by negotiating (everyone involved claims that he played the central role) the Camp David Accords under which the leading Arab nation, Egypt, recognized Israel;
  • demonstrated compassion by, as the only president who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, pardoning every single young man who had illegally evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.

History will remember, and some pundits will emphasize, that Carter was up against some strong headwinds.  And although none of these were of his making, they were all impossible to ignore. 

Carter also:

More important than these was the simple fact that Jimmy Carter was an outsider from the Washington establishment and consequently never enjoyed the genuine loyalty of the vast majority of Democrats in the Congress, Democratic-leaning interest groups/media or even many of his own appointees. This distance was compounded by his open displays of morality, which many felt were condescending, and a personality that none outside of his family would describe as warm.

And so, this leaves us with a president who accomplished a lot — by far the most important of which was his integrity — but who also faced strong headwinds.

Although he is widely praised for declining to amass a fortune after leaving office and focusing instead on charities, by my count, he deserves a common-sense salute for his presidency as well … not just for what he did after leaving the White House.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.

Tags Core inflation Heads of state honesty Integrity Iran hostage crisis Jimmy Carter Post-presidency of Jimmy Carter Presidency of Jimmy Carter President of the United States Walter Mondale

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