Wikipedia:WikiProject Georgia (U.S. state)/New Georgia Encyclopedia/Jimmy Carter

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Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) is the only Georgian elected president of the United States, having held the office for one term, 1977-81. His previous public service included a stint in the U.S. Navy, two senate terms in the Georgia General Assembly, and one term as governor of Georgia (1971-75). After being defeated in the presidential election of 1980, he founded the Carter Center, a nonpartisan public policy center in Atlanta.

During his years of public service at the local, state, and federal levels, Carter's policies contained a unique blend of liberal social values and fiscal conservatism. He emphasized comprehensive reform and stressed efficiency and economy, advance planning, and rational organization. He also championed equal rights for all Americans, especially women and minorities, and basic human rights for all people. In 2002 Carter won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts.

Early years and education[edit]

Jimmy Carter's journey to the nation's highest office began in the small Sumter County town of Plains. Born on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter Jr. later adopted the more informal "Jimmy" as his official designation. His father, a farmer and small-town merchant, was one of the area's leading citizens.

Although a supporter of the Democratic Party by southern tradition, James Earl Carter Sr. rejected most of the liberal New Deal tenets endorsed by the national party. His political conservatism had its counterpart in social arrangements. Among other local customs, he never questioned the prevailing southern racial doctrine that stamped his African American neighbors as inferior. Conversely, the future president's mother, Lillian Gordy Carter, instilled in her son a decidedly more enlightened view of race. A registered nurse by training and voracious reader by habit, she surprised her family when at age sixty-eight she volunteered for the Peace Corps and served in India.

After attending public school in Plains, Carter matriculated at Georgia Southwestern College (later, Georgia Southwestern State University) in Americus and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta before receiving a coveted appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He graduated with a baccalaureate degree and a naval commission in 1946 and eventually became senior officer of the precommissioning crew of the Seawolf, the second nuclear submarine. His superior officer in the program was Admiral Hyman Rickover, the architect of the U.S. nuclear submarine program. The renowned naval officer's relentless quest of excellence made a lasting impression on the young Carter, who later claimed the austere Rickover as a mentor and role model.

Family, business, and community[edit]

Carter married Rosalynn Smith, also from Plains, shortly after leaving the Naval Academy.

They had three sons, John William, James Earl III, and Donnel Jeffrey, and a daughter, Amy Lynn. After the death of Carter Sr. in 1953, the younger Carter resigned his naval commission, forgoing a promising military career, and returned to Plains. He spent the next several years reviving the family-owned peanut warehouse business, farming, and generally assuming the patriarchal and paternalistic responsibilities previously exercised by his father.

The family businesses thrived under Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's adroit management. Consequently, with more time to devote to community affairs, Carter took an active interest in a variety of local concerns. He served on Sumter County's library and school boards and on its hospital authority. He held leadership roles in regional and state planning associations and eventually became president of the Georgia Planning Association. He also served as state president of the Certified Seed Organization and as district governor of Lions International. In a few short years Carter had comfortably assumed his father's community leadership position.

State politics[edit]

Politics increasingly attracted Carter's attention. His father had represented Sumter County in the state legislature at the time of his death, and now, with family business affairs in order, Carter prepared to make his own entry into state politics.

He overcame the unlawful machinations of a political boss in Quitman County to win election to the state senate from the Fourteenth District in 1962. Carter devoted much time and attention to educational affairs during his two senate terms. While serving on the Sumter County School Board, he vigorously promoted efficiency and educational opportunity through school reorganization and consolidation. But fearing such reforms would be the first step in school integration, a predominantly white county electorate voted them down in a referendum election. Later, as chair of the Senate Education Committee, Carter continued to advocate such policies on a statewide level.

After briefly flirting with a run for the U.S. Congress in 1966, Carter instead joined the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. For a little-known state senator, he ran a surprisingly strong race but missed the runoff, finishing third to former governor Ellis Arnall and flamboyant restaurateur Lester Maddox. Although deeply disappointed by the election results, Carter soon began laying plans for a second gubernatorial campaign in 1970. In the first race Carter had positioned himself as a moderate progressive alternative to the more liberal Arnall and the staunchly conservative-segregationist Maddox. During his second campaign Carter subtly appealed to class antagonisms, running as the representative of the ordinary people. It was a successful campaign strategy wherein Carter projected himself as a traditional southern conservative. He associated his chief opponent, former governor Carl Sanders, with Atlanta's social and economic elite and chastised him for failing, during his governorship, to invite Alabama's outspoken segregationist governor, George C. Wallace, to address the Georgia General Assembly.

Governor of Georgia[edit]

After easily defeating his Republican opponent, Carter surprised most of his Georgia supporters and attracted national attention during a short, twelve-minute inaugural address when he proclaimed that the time for segregation had ended. "No poor, rural, weak, or black person," he declared, "should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job, or simple justice." He soon revealed himself as a moderate business progressive with an extensive reform agenda designed to make state government operate more efficiently and to be more responsive to the needs of its citizens.

The reorganization of state government served as the cornerstone of Carter's gubernatorial program. This massive reform effort, which continued through much of his four-year term, produced large-scale structural reform. Sixty-five budgeted and 200 unbudgeted agencies, boards, bureaus, and commissions were consolidated into 20 line agencies. The objective was to group similar functions into a single jurisdictional body, thus saving money by avoiding duplication while improving the delivery of services. The most controversial aspect of the reorganization plan involved the creation of three super agencies—the departments of administrative services, natural resources, and human resources—that absorbed the functions and responsibilities of 62 existing state agencies.

An effort to improve management efficiency and reduce the costs of services accompanied the larger, more dramatic endeavor to restructure the administrative organization of state government. One of his more controversial proposals concerned budget reform. Under Carter's "zero-based budgeting" plan, state departments and agencies, rather than submitting an aggregate budget figure, supposedly started from scratch each year, evaluating and justifying every dollar they requested.

In addition to reorganization, Carter continued his earlier efforts to upgrade the state's notoriously weak educational system. The "Adequate Program for Education in Georgia," the governor's educational reform package, provided funds to support vocational education, reduce class size, and equalize funding among districts. At the same time, Carter increased the state's commitment to preschool education and launched a campaign that eventually led to the adoption of a statewide kindergarten program.

Substantial reform in the operation of the state's criminal justice system also occurred during Carter's governorship. These revisions included significant movement toward the creation of a unified court system, the systematic use of a merit system in the selection of judges, a constitutional method of regulating judicial conduct, and much needed penal reform.

Carter also initiated significant new mental health programs and took a variety of actions, both substantive and symbolic, to promote civil rights and equal opportunity for women and minorities. The governor reflected his commitment to fairness and justice most obviously in his appointment policy. He appointed more women and minorities to his own staff, to major state policy boards and agencies, and to the judiciary than all of his predecessors combined.

President of the United States[edit]

Still a relatively young man of fifty at the end of his term and ineligible to run for reelection under the state constitution (later changed), Carter had begun to explore possibilities for higher office well before leaving the gubernatorial office. During the summer of 1974 he agreed to direct the Democratic National Committee's nationwide midterm campaign to elect Democratic governors, senators, and congressmen. The position allowed him to meet state party officials, political consultants, constituency leaders, and other party functionaries. This exposure proved invaluable when Carter officially declared his candidacy for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination. Meanwhile, the slow, agonizing unraveling of the Watergate scandal that eventually drove U.S. president Richard Nixon from office greatly enhanced the Democratic Party's electoral prospects in the upcoming general elections.

Carter prevailed during the presidential primaries and then narrowly defeated Nixon's successor, incumbent Republican president Gerald R. Ford, in the general election. In office Carter emphasized high moral standards, ethical behavior, and democratic principles. He often projected himself in populist terms, dressed casually, and sharply reduced the level of pomp and ceremony that had come to be associated with the modern American presidency.


An unpretentious, egalitarian demeanor, however, did little to offset the severity of the national and international problems that Carter inherited. In 1973 the Arab oil-producing nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (known as OPEC) had sharply reduced oil production, driving up prices and creating selective gasoline shortages. In addition to higher fuel costs, escalating health and food prices spurred a tenacious inflationary surge. The combination of rising prices, persistent unemployment, and a stagnant economy had by 1977, when Carter took office, been dubbed "stagflation." The Carter administration sought to slow inflation by raising interest rates and restraining federal spending.

Along with other measures, the program of federal fiscal austerity that Carter followed eventually brought inflation under control but at considerable political cost. Wage workers, a core Democratic Party constituency, fared poorly under Carter's economic prescriptions. In the battle to control inflation, administration policies encouraged reduced employment, and for those employed, it advocated pay restraints that had the effect of decreasing real wages. Disillusioned, many traditional Democratic supporters either deserted the party or abandoned politics altogether.

Domestic record[edit]

Despite rocky relations with Congress, Carter created two new cabinet-level departments (Energy and Education), developed a national energy policy, and deregulated the trucking and airline industries. Particularly sensitive to conservationist and environmental concerns, he successfully pushed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act through Congress, more than doubling the acreage in the national park and wildlife refuge system. Continuing the practice he had followed in the Georgia governor's mansion, Carter also appointed a record number of women and minorities to federal government offices.

International affairs[edit]

In addition to continuing domestic problems, international crises, over which Carter had little control, further undermined his leadership. Two events that occurred late in Carter's term proved particularly ill-starred: the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, following the expulsion of the Shah by the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a fundamentalist Muslim cleric. Ultimately, Carter managed these two crises judiciously, but the incidents embarrassed the nation, and Carter's measured response to them won him little public applause. Nonetheless, Carter survived Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy's forceful challenge in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries, but he decisively lost his bid for reelection to Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.

Although at the time he departed office his presidency was widely perceived as a failure, Jimmy Carter left behind a solid record of accomplishment in both domestic and international affairs. He firmly established human rights as an essential component of foreign policy both at home and abroad, opened diplomatic relations with China, and helped to negotiate the Panama Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) with the Soviet Union.

The Carter Center[edit]

Shortly after returning to Georgia following his reelection defeat, the former president founded the Carter Center in Atlanta and became the University Distinguished Professor at Emory University. Under Carter's direction, center associates have not only examined and analyzed national and international policy issues but also actively engaged in efforts to promote democratic practices, advance human rights, and resolve conflicts. The Carter Center has monitored more than forty elections in twenty-one countries, including Venezuela, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. It worked to resolve conflicts in Haiti, Bosnia, Ethiopia, North Korea, Sudan, and other countries. The first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, Carter spent time during his May 2002 visit with Fidel Castro and political dissidents alike. Carter visited the AIDS sanitarium and a school for disabled children, and threw a pitch for an all-star baseball game in Havana. With Castro and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon in attendance, he delivered a live and uncensored speech on Cuban TV and radio, in Spanish, in which he opened up communication on free trade and democracy.

Through its Global 2000 programs, the center has sought to eradicate or control such debilitating diseases as river blindness, guinea worm, and trachoma, which have devastated the populations of many poorer countries. It also has striven to relieve hunger through agricultural reform, especially in drought-plagued sub-Saharan Africa. Along with his support of Carter Center projects, Carter continues to champion Habitat for Humanity, a Georgia-based philanthropy that helps needy people build new homes or renovate older ones.

In 2002 Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his continuing effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts and to advance democracy and human rights. At the time, Carter was the third American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson both received the prize while still in office, as did President Barack Obama afterward. Carter shares with Martin Luther King, Jr. the distinction of being the only native Georgians to be so honored. In 1999 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, along with the Carter Center, received the inaugural Delta Prize for Global Understanding, an award administered by the University of Georgia.


At the time of his presidential candidacy, Carter published Why Not the Best? (1975), a biographical introduction of his political stance and viability as a candidate. In his postpresidential career, Carter has written numerous books, including one he cowrote with his wife, Rosalynn, and a children's book (illustrated by daughter Amy). Covering a variety of topics, from postpresidency activity to aging/retirement, faith, human rights, and even poetry, Carter has made a point in his publications to be not only informative but also forthright about his life and political philosophy.

In A Government as Good as Its People (1977), Carter discusses government policy on crime, poverty, nuclear energy, foreign policy, and human rights, and with The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East (1993) he breaks down the history of that region. Carter's collection of essays entitled Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis (2005) spent several weeks at the top of the New York Times best-seller list and won an award from the Georgia Writers Association. A sharp critique of the religious right and the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush, the book addresses a wide range of topics, including global warming, gun control, human rights abuses, and the war in Iraq (2003- ). The following year he published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, an analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The best-selling book's criticisms of Israel generated controversy soon after its release. In 2007 filmmaker Jonathan Demme released a documentary, Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, chronicling Carter's publicity tour for the book.

In a book coauthored with his wife, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (1987), Carter discusses their experiences with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center. In Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age (1992), Carter relates the story of his first campaign for public office, a seat in the Georgia state senate in 1962. He recounts the difficulties of resisting segregationist groups in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stated "one man, one vote."

In addition to two memoirs published in 2001, Christmas in Plains: Memories and An Hour before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood, Carter has written an autobiography, Living Faith (1996), which focuses on his spiritual faith in service to the country. His semiautobiographical poetry appears in Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems (1995). With the 2003 publication of The Hornet's Nest, a work of historical fiction about the Revolutionary War (1775-83) in the South, Carter became the first U.S. president to write a novel.

In 2006 Carter was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and the following year he won a Grammy Award for the audio version of his book Our Endangered Values. Honored in the category of spoken word album, Carter's recording tied for the award with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee's With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. Also in 2007 Carter published Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope, in which he discusses his postpresidential career and the accomplishments of the Carter Center during its first twenty-five years.

Carter published his memoir of Lillian Carter, entitled A Remarkable Mother, in 2008. The book features interviews with family and friends, photographs, and Carter's own memories of his mother.


This article incorporates material written by Gary M. Fink of Georgia State University for the New Georgia Encyclopedia ("NGE"), posted or last updated May 9, 2008. All derived works must credit the NGE and the original author.

Further reading[edit]

  • Peter G. Bourne, Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-Presidency (New York: Scribner, 1997).
  • Douglas Brinkley, The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey beyond the White House (New York: Viking, 1998).
  • Gary M. Fink, Prelude to the Presidency: The Political Character and Legislative Leadership Style of Governor Jimmy Carter (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).
  • Frye Gaillard, Prophet from Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007).
  • Erwin C. Hargrove, Jimmy Carter as President: Leadership and the Politics of the Public Good (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).
  • Burton Ira Kaufman, The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).
  • Kenneth E. Morris, Jimmy Carter, American Moralist (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).
  • David Skidmore, Reversing Course: Carter's Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, and the Failure of Reform (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996).