This is an excerpt from Arguable, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Jeff Jacoby. Sign up to get Arguable in your inbox each week.
Jimmy Carter was running for reelection the first time I took part in a presidential election. I voted happily for his challenger, who went on to win in a landslide and become one of the 20th century’s greatest presidents. I have never regretted that vote and have always been glad that Carter’s presidency didn’t extend to a second term. I agree with the consensus among historians that the 39th president was, on the whole, a second-rate chief executive.
But there was always much that I admired about Carter. And as his very long life comes to a peaceful end at his home in Plains, Ga., even those of us who didn’t want him in the White House can find much in his legacy to appreciate.
Carter was the only president whose inauguration I witnessed in person. When he took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1977, I was a 17-year-old student in Washington, D.C., eager to see history in the making. As Carter was sworn in on the east side of the Capitol, I watched from the steps of the Supreme Court across the street. Two details from that day I have never forgotten — the below-freezing temperature and a stirring line from the new president’s inaugural address: “Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere.”
Those words presaged an administration that would make a point of incorporating human rights considerations into US foreign policy, thereby elevating such concerns to a legitimate issue in international relations.
”During the early weeks of the administration, officials spoke out against harassment and human rights violations in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Uganda,” the State Department notes on its website. Under Carter, the department began the practice of annually reporting on the status of human rights in other countries — including countries friendly to the United States. Granted, the president’s record when it came to advancing liberty and democracy was far from perfect. On one occasion, he described Romania’s brutal despot Nicolae Ceaușescu as a ruler who believes “in peace, in personal freedom, [and] in enhancing human rights.” And while he rightly denounced the repression of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, he never held the Sandinista junta that deposed him to the same standard. Nonetheless, Carter’s elevation of human rights as a factor in foreign affairs set a laudable standard — one that too few presidents since have aspired to emulate.
Something else too few presidents do is admit that a major assumption they brought to the job was wrong.
Carter came to the White House willing to believe the best of the Soviet Union, which was then led by Leonid Brezhnev. In an address at The University of Notre Dame, Carter advised Americans to jettison their “inordinate fear of communism.” But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 woke him up to the reality of Soviet malevolence. To his great credit, he said so. Moscow’s aggression “has made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are” than anything he had previously observed, Carter confessed in a TV interview. Soon after, he announced the Carter Doctrine, declaring that the United States would use military force if necessary to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf. He also ordered a military buildup, setting the stage for Ronald Reagan’s later expansion and the ultimate US victory in the Cold War.
To err is human. To acknowledge error and correct it is not easy. Carter did so — openly and frankly. Even after all these years, his candor deserves applause.
He deserves still more applause for his role as the Great Deregulator. During his time in the Oval Office, he supported legislation to strip away costly and counterproductive regulations that had stifled competition and innovation in numerous industries, from airlines to railroads to trucking. Carter lifted price controls on oil that had been imposed by Richard Nixon. He deregulated the beer industry, unleashing America’s craft brewing revolution. Most of those measures were signed into law late in Carter’s term, so the effects didn’t kick in until Reagan was in the White House. During the 1980 campaign, Americans may not have been better off than they were four years earlier. But in many ways they soon would be — thanks to Carter.
Not everything about Carter that I honor has to do with public policy. I like that he launched his presidency with words of gratitude for Gerald Ford, the president he had defeated: “For myself and for our nation,” Carter said to begin his inaugural address, “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” I like that he refused to devote his post-presidential years — unlike his successors — to amassing millions of dollars in speaking fees and corporate board memberships. I like that he devoted so much time to building homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity, a faith-based charitable organization that became internationally renowned thanks in large measure to the devotion of its foremost volunteer.
When Bill Clinton stepped down at the end of his two scandal-ridden terms as president, I suggested that if he wanted to rehabilitate his reputation, he ought to follow Carter’s example of dedicating himself to humanitarian purposes and the public good.
”He could speak out in defense of human rights, or campaign for better health care in the Third World,” I wrote. “He could become a college professor and lecture on arms control, international politics, and environmental issues. He could travel to war zones and mediate cease-fires. . . . He could write about aging, or try his hand at poetry, or even attempt a novel. He could monitor elections in fledgling democracies. He could teach Bible classes. He could work on his relationship with his wife. He could build furniture. Or make wine. Or take up skiing. Or climb Mount Fuji.”
True, those aren’t the sorts of things former presidents generally do. But Jimmy Carter did them all.
I do not suggest that Carter has been a paragon of wisdom or modesty. On some issues, I think he has been grievously wrong. But that is true of every president — and like all of them, Carter will be studied and evaluated and interpreted by historians for generations to come. There will always be time to dwell on his faults. For now, as the longest-lived president in American history spends his last days in hospice care, it is his virtues that are worth reflecting on. As even those of us who never contemplated voting for him can attest, those virtues were considerable.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.