Friday, August 21, 2015

President Carter -- an appreciation

Former President Jimmy Carter has announced that he is critically ill, with cancer that has spread from his liver to his brain.  Buoyed, as always, by his deep religious faith, he faced the situation frankly and calmly before the public, evidently understanding that he might never speak directly to the American people again.  In return I would like to offer an appreciation of his career--one that has been genuinely unique.  I am doing so now partly in the hope that he might see it.

I shall begin by noting my personal connection, at one remove, to President Carter and his Administration.  In 1977, Carter appointed my father, Philip Kaiser, as Ambassador to Hungary, and two years later he became Ambassador to Austria.  That was the end of a diplomatic career that began under the Truman Administration.  Typically, my father went to work resolving the major outstanding issue between the two countries, the return of the Crown of St. Stephen, the ancient symbol of the Hungarian monarchy, which had come into American hands at the end of the Second World War.  With the support of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and of the President, he succeeded in doing so within just a few months.  That was a portent of bigger things to come during the Carter Administration.

Jimmy Carter had a decidedly mixed record, for me, as President.  In retrospect he was the first "new Democratic" President.  He was narrowly elected in 1976 with the support of his native region, the solid South--the last time that this has happened.  In fairness, no traditional New Deal Democrat would have won that year.  His domestic policies were relatively conservative, leading eventually to his break with Senator Edward Kennedy, who opposed him for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Like Bill Clinton, he did his part to move the deregulation of the American economy along, with fateful consequences, and the de-industrialization of America got into high gear on his watch.   His foreign policy was marked by two great triumphs but marred by events beyond his control.  First, he secured the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty, an issue that had been hanging over various Presidents for decades, at considerable political cost to himself.  Then, in 1979, he orchestrated the Camp David accords that brought peace to Israel and Egypt.  Those most directly involved in the talks, including Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, gave him and Anwar Sadat the credit for the agreement, and it was very sad that Sadat and Menachem Begin, but not Carter, received a Nobel prize for it in 1980.  According to one account I later read, this happened only because Carter, for some reason, was not properly nominated.

1979 turned out to be perhaps the most pivotal year of the last third of the twentieth century.  First, an Iranian revolution toppled the Shah, leading to the American hostage crisis and the beginning of our long estrangement from Iran.  Then the Soviet Union, in an almost perfect replay of our own Vietnam experience, invaded Afghanistan after its client regime there was overthrown.  At that point, Carter went with the Cold War flow.  He decided to lead a boycott of the 1980 Olympics, a decision to which I was, and remain, very strongly opposed.  He also, as many conservatives later admitted, began what became known as the Reagan defense build-up.  Meanwhile, oil prices shot up, and Carter, as it turned out, had no chance against Ronald Reagan, who defeated him in a landslide and wiped out the liberal Democratic majority in the Senate in 1980.

The most distinguished phase of Carter's career, however, began after his defeat.  While he will never be ranked as a great President, he became one of the two most effective ex-Presidents in the history of the United States.  Only John Quincy Adams, who went into the House of Representatives and began leading the fight against slavery in the 1830s and 1840s after he, too, lost a bid for a second term in a landslide, can be compared to him.  But while Adams focused on what was becoming the critical domestic question of the age, Carter, founding the Carter Center in Atlanta two years after leaving office, turned his attention to alleviating distress and resolving conflicts around the globe.  In the early 1990s he helped broker an agreement with North Korea regarding its nuclear program.  The agreement broke down during the Bush Administration, He has undertaken numerous personal diplomatic initiatives regarding Haiti, conflicts in Africa, regional problems in South America and attempts to improve U.S. relations with Cuba.  Most notably, he continued his intense interest in peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and did not hesitate, as so many have, to assign substantial responsibility for the failure of peace to the Israeli government.  His accusation, embodied in the title of a book, that the Israeli government was creating an apartheid state in the occupied territories aroused intense opposition precisely, of course, because it was true.

Like many great Americans, Carter was filled with contradictions.  A Georgia farmer, he was the son of a bigoted father and a remarkably liberal mother, and he was one of the first white southern politicians bluntly to repudiate racial discrimination.  A devout Southern Baptist, he broke with much of  the hierarchy of his church over the status of women and the increasing involvement of the church in partisan politics.   His became a name to conjure with around the world, and justice was served when he finally did receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.  He has had a life of which he and his family can be very proud, and I wish them well in the difficult days ahead.


Energyflow said...

God bless him

Frank Hawkins said...

Spot on post as always, Professor Kaiser. As you said in the post (and I think you also said at some point during the modern European history course I took from you in the spring term back in 1980), odds are that Mr. Carter will never be considered a great president. (He had bad luck in the timing of when he held office, and i doubt that anyone serving in office in the 1977-81 period could have done much better given the challenges of that era.) But he will rightly be considered a great man who devoted himself to doing good for others in a way that exemplifies the better angels of the American character.

David Kaiser said...

Frank Hawkins, you were in the Harvard course in the spring of 1980? Amazing. What have you been doing since?

Bozon said...


Wonderful, wide ranging, poignant, retrospective.

Incidentally, I know very little diplomatic history, really, and it was illuminating to read the part Ambassador Kaiser played during that part of his career during President Carter's administration.

Thank you