The President from Plains
It was January 20, 1975, when I first met the former Georgia governor who was launching his formal campaign for president of the United States. Trying to recruit a young political scientist and one-time McGovern organizer, Jimmy Carter was the sole passenger in my gray Mazda sedan—the model with the newfangled rotary engine—on the drive from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. On route, the former nuclear engineer observed that a small noise in the engine needed to be checked out; unfortunately I ignored his advice and the engine blew several weeks later, rendering it irreparable.
A small group of us gathered at his hotel later in the day and grilled him on relations with Korea, the B-1 bomber, tax reform, and more. He offered cogent, well-informed stances on each topic. At least as impressive, he seemed to have a clear plan on how he could win the nation’s highest office. Afterward, I enjoyed oysters and a more casual discussion of the nascent campaign at Felix’s on Iberville Street with campaign aides Frank Moore and Jodie Powell, who in two years to the day would become senior officials at the White House.
Over the next few months, I was slowly won over and ended up running Carter’s 1976 primary campaign in Louisiana as a frequently exhausted but unpaid volunteer.
In 1975, many people assumed nobody from the Deep South could successfully pursue the presidency. But more than recognized at the time, national civil rights legislation had transformed the politics of the South and national perceptions of it.
The stigma of coming from states that sanctioned racial discrimination receded dramatically as the walls of segregation began to fall. In the case of Carter, the willingness of civil rights icons Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Sr. to vouch for him as progressive on the race issue opened doors early in his national campaign that might otherwise have remained closed. One convert was my father; a resident of the Chicago suburbs, he started out stereotyping all Southern governors as racists and ended up a fervent Carter fan.
Carter won his first victories in the battle for convention delegates in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, far from his home base. Two weeks later, he faced off with George Wallace in neighboring Florida—a state where the Alabama governor had won 75 of 81 delegates in 1972. This time, Carter edged out Wallace by 4 percentage points among primary voters, a turning point for the Democratic Party in the South. All of a sudden, my friends who thought I had lost my mind toiling on behalf of Carter started taking an interest in his campaign.
In the general election, the peanut farmer from Georgia had the outsider appeal that voters were looking for in the post-Watergate era. His opponent, Gerald Ford of Michigan, while not directly involved in the scandals of Richard Nixon, was tarred by the association. Carter ran a national campaign but didn’t ignore his Southern roots.
His last pre-election stop in the South was scheduled for the largest open square in the New Orleans French Quarter. The smiling Jimmy and Rosalynn rode in an open top car down Royal Street, accompanied by a boisterous parade of jazz bands and supporters tossing specially minted doubloons to the crowds—a signal that fun-loving Catholics in South Louisiana could feel comfortable voting for a Southern Baptist. We angled the stage for his speech carefully so that photographers would be sure to capture the statue of Andrew Jackson, the president from Tennessee, behind Carter.
On Election Day, Carter edged out Ford, propelled across the finish line by voters in his native South. He carried every state below Virginia, including the belt from Texas to Alabama. Many in the region were willing to overlook possible differences in policy to send one of their own to the Oval Office.
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The man from Georgia did not hail from one of the South’s major urban centers. He attended school in Plains, a rural town of about 500 people, but grew up on a farm in the even less populous community of Archery—where he was the only white boy his age and where residential electricity didn’t arrive until his teenager years, when FDR established the rural electrification program.
Plains had an excellent school and a teacher named Julia Coleman, who urged her students to read lots of books and presciently advised that one of them (at least the boys) could become president. His uncle Tom Gordy wrote his nephew from U.S. Navy assignments in exotic spots around the world. His mother, Lillian, challenged local racial barriers. A baseball fan, young Jimmy rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals, the closest thing to a Southern major league team at the time.
Carter at a young age decided he would follow his uncle and join the navy, allowing him to travel the world and visit places like mainland China (where his ship docked, bow pointed out to the harbor, just before the final takeover by the Communists). But when his father died in 1953 at an early age and his brother Billy was too young to take over the family farm, he gave up a promising career in the nuclear navy and moved his family to Plains.
The Carters found that the discrimination of their youth had not gone away. The White Citizens’ Councils pressured landowners not to sell to African Americans, but Carter refused to join. State officials tried to block desegregation of the schools, but Carter, as a member of the Sumter County Board of Education, fought to consolidate schools across racial lines.
Having witnessed some of the worst manifestations of discrimination, he later appointed to the federal bench, with the help of an expansion of the court system, more women and minority judges than all previous presidents combined.
Carter’s rural roots forged personality traits that continued into later life. In his youth, Carter’s voracious nighttime reading habits were possible only by the light of kerosene lamps. Waste of this precious oil was considered a moral flaw. The conversion from outhouses to indoor plumbing was made possible when his father purchased from Sears a windmill kit that created the needed water pressure—an early example of renewable energy. As president, he advocated the elimination of waste as the most effective tool of American energy policy and made big investments in the more modern forms of renewables.
On the farm, he also learned to start each day early and always be punctual. At his second visit to New Orleans in 1975, university-student volunteers operating the sign-in desk were momentarily jolted when one of the first to arrive was a typically ahead-of-schedule Carter, giving them some quality time with the star attraction. One cabinet secretary in Washington recounted that his habit of rising early facilitated his ability to communicate with the also early-rising Carter. Carter staffers over the years learned that being “on time” for meetings really meant arriving ten minutes early.
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Any president takes thousands of official actions, so people with an axe to grind can cherry pick the data and argue that one of them was great, or a disaster. But evaluations of presidential performance are complex and often depend on one’s perspective.
As a junior member of the White House staff, the low point of Carter’s term in office for me came when I was rousted out of bed for the early television reports that his attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran had aborted. The failure of sand-clogged helicopters in the desert surely meant the captives would not be coming home any time soon.
Looking back now as a historian who combs the records at numerous presidential libraries and other archives with greater detachment, several of Carter’s historic foreign policy achievements stand out. The peace accords between Egypt and Israel greatly lessened the chances for war between the two protagonists. Full diplomatic recognition of China brought the world’s most populous nation into the modern era.
The Panama Canal treaties remain the most unqualified foreign policy success. Agreeing to cede control of the strategic water link to the Panamanians was consistent with international norms of behavior and likely prevented the necessity of military intervention there to hold onto it. Subsequently, U.S. prestige soared throughout Latin America and the anti-American rhetoric of communist agitators in the region packed less punch. With U.S. agreement to return the Canal and a new human rights policy that applied to despots of the left and right, Carter’s policies fostered a period of democratic reform in the hemisphere.
Carter’s battles over energy exemplified the strengths and weaknesses of his broader domestic initiatives. He tried to do a lot; some would say too much. In the spring of 1977, he introduced an energy plan with 113 components. Two years later, he added dozens of additional ideas. A major White House visual occurred on June 20, 1979, when Carter dedicated solar panels on the roof and audaciously called on the country to produce 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources by the turn of the century.
The broad scope of his proposals set him up for the perception of failure. Congress deliberated for well over a year on each set of energy proposals, leaving the impression of congressional opposition, even after most, though far from all, of them were enacted into law. When the year 2000 arrived, Carter’s goal for renewable energy appeared to have been a pipe dream. Then serving in my last year as head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it was my agency that released the bleak news that the share for renewables had risen to only 9 percent, a minor gain from the 8 percent when Carter installed solar panels atop the White House.
In retrospect, there would be positive and substantial impacts from Carter’s energy strategies. While working on a 2008 book about energy independence, I noticed that net imports of oil from 1977 to 1982 had dropped by half—making substantial progress on an oft-stated goal of making the United States less dependent on unstable foreign sources. Though the data came from official sources, this “discovery” arrived as a shock to just about everyone, including me. Some factors, such as rapid increases in the production of Alaskan oil, were set in motion by his predecessors, but Carter’s efforts, in concert with Europe and Japan, helped sharply reduce oil usage. For a time, the OPEC cartel lost its grip on the world oil market.
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Carter’s bid for reelection was hampered by periods of high inflation and a backlash in his own party to his commitment to balanced budgets. By the summer of 1979, a “Draft Kennedy” movement had organized in Florida to win caucuses electing delegations for a presidential straw ballot at the State Democratic Convention in September—a potentially big embarrassment for a sitting president. I was dispatched to Florida to put together the Carter effort, the first to leave a position in the administration for a state campaign.
An early concern was where African American votes would go, with both sides confident they would prevail. The Carter forces scheduled an August visit to Orlando by Andrew Young, a close associate of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations. Black leaders from all over the state responded they were coming. But then came a snag. Just before the meeting, Young, under pressure for having met with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, resigned his UN post. The announcement added considerable drama to the Florida visit. The national campaign told me not to allow any local or national reporters, hot on the trail of “breaking news,” into the event.
Young ended the meeting, which included Carter skeptics, with two questions. He asked how much of the loaf Carter had “given us” during his four years in office. The audience responded “half a loaf,” and Young nodded in agreement. He then asked how long would it take for Carter to provide the other half of the loaf. Before long, the assembly was chanting “four more years, four more years.” As during the first presidential campaign, Young had provided important validation at a critical juncture. Having decided to admit the press despite my orders from Washington, I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Carter’s base in early primary states like Florida held firm and provided enough delegates to fend off a late surge from Senator Kennedy and carry the Democratic banner into the fall elections.
General election polls varied. Three days before the final verdict, Carter reminded a crowd in Lakeland, Florida, that he’d grown up on a farm just across the state line and asked them to continue their tradition of supporting his candidacy. As I rode to the event with Carter in the presidential limousine, he stood up through the roof (allowed in those days), drawing excited cheers from the throngs outside. It was clear, however, that the continued captivity of the hostages and flagging polls had taken their toll on him. Governor Ronald Reagan—calling on the United States to keep the Panama Canal and blasting Carter for high inflation—surged to victory. Carter captured only six states and the District of Columbia—just one, Georgia, in his old bastion the South.
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Carter departed the White House at the age of fifty-seven, likely to face decades as an ex-president. He and Rosalynn decided to establish the Carter Center in Atlanta to promote peace, improve the understanding of mental illness, and fight diseases in some of the poorest nations on earth. Not surprisingly, several of these initiatives had links to their experiences in South Georgia.
Blatant voter fraud by local corrupt officials had stymied Carter’s run for the Georgia Senate in 1962, until the courts intervened and declared him the rightful winner. The Carter Center, with considerable personal involvement by Carter, has, in turn, observed elections around the globe to help institutionalize systems that produce results that are and are perceived to be fair. The results in many countries, including Indonesia and Panama, have helped ease the path to democracy.
As a boy in rural Georgia, he observed diseases like malaria that are now found mostly in distant and impoverished lands. Other than malaria, most diseases targeted by the Carter Center are unknown to the vast majority of Americans.
Carter’s name will likely be forever linked to the eradication of Guinea Worm—a debilitating disease found where people drink from stagnant waters that contain its larvae. The worm grows in the body to a meter long, leads to great suffering, and incapacitates victims for a long time. When the Center started working on the problem in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million afflicted people in twenty-one countries in Africa and Asia. In 2016, with a broad coalition now trying to finish the job, there were twenty-five remaining cases spread across South Sudan, Chad, Mali, and Ethiopia. Though these are particularly difficult places to work, the Center and its partners are on the cusp of a final eradication, the world’s second after smallpox.
Though the Carters have worked tirelessly on behalf of the Center, both have found time to write important books. Jimmy’s Turning Point and An Hour Before Daylight fill in important gaps in Southern history and helped guide the total renovation of the museum at the Carter Presidential Library in 2009.
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On February 8, 2017—forty-two years after first meeting Jimmy Carter—I drove my gray Prius V into the town of Plains, Georgia, to participate in a late-morning ribbon-cutting ceremony for a 1.3 MW solar farm. The farm was built on ten acres of farmland leased from the Carters and provides over half of the city’s power needs.
Compared to the 1979 dedication at the White House, this event was less about aspirations and more about reality. Major electric utilities had now declared such facilities, with the ability to tilt automatically to the angle of the sun, to be cost-effective and were working on how best to integrate them into the grid. As a result, solar farms were mushrooming across the country.
My remarks noted that after the delays in reaching President Carter’s ambitious goals for renewable energy, momentum in the new century had shifted dramatically. Solar production had doubled in just the past three years. Renewable energy as of 2016 constituted 12 percent of total U.S. energy, an increase that started to make his 20 percent goal look very achievable.
Carter, not surprisingly, had arrived eight minutes early for the event. When he addressed the crowd, which included two great grandsons, he called the event one of the happiest days of his life. His stressed the bright future for solar energy and the benefits to farmers willing to lease land for such projects. When asked by a reporter whether he now felt “vindicated” for his presidential emphasis on solar energy, he said he would use the words “pleased” and “proud.”
At the age of ninety-two, Jimmy Carter is a man still ahead of schedule and ahead of his time. And, with the explosion of solar installations around the country, maybe the times are starting to catch up with him.