Lessons from Jimmy Carter

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Lessons from Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter

Chester L. Roberts

Former President Jimmy Carter

Chester L. Roberts

Chester L. Roberts

Former President Jimmy Carter

Sal Cerrell, Opinions Editor: Online

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As former President Jimmy Carter recently turned 95 years old on Oct. 1, becoming the oldest living occupant of the Oval Office, the legacy he will leave is long and complex. A career public servant, he has spent nearly all of his working life in service to the U.S., at both the highest and lowest levels. 

His presidency was at best unremarkable and at worst disastrous. His relationship with the Democrat-controlled congress only soured as his term progressed. Carter lacked political shrewdness and the will to negotiate with Congress, viewing the legislative branch as more of an obstacle, rather than a mechanism for the implementation of his agenda. This, in turn, created friction between himself and the powerful Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. Legislative progress on a host of issues was stagnated as a result, and therefore, his aspirations to make progress on issues of healthcare and human rights were quickly clenched. 

His most poignant blunder, however, was his handling of foreign relations, specifically in the Middle East. Carter extended his support to the Pahlavi dynasty, the merciless and unpopular monarchy that had long ruled over Iran. The Iranian hatred of its government boiled over in the ousting of the regime in 1978, in which the country’s people installed a religiously centered government, skeptical of western intentions. 

Carter, however, remained defiant in his embrace of the Pahlavi, admitting its leader, the Shah, for medical treatment in the U.S.This prompted outrage toward the now-disgraced Shah and Carter, exhibited by intense protests at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. These demonstrations quickly escalated, as college students who had organized the rallies stormed the complex, taking a large number of Americans hostage. They were held for 444 days and released under the Reagan administration over a year later. This standoff defined Carter’s presidency and resulted in both the broader destabilization of the Middle East and to some extent in his electoral lost the following year. 

However, Carter was able to revitalize his image, through his work on global development and disease eradication. He established the Carter Center, which, per their mission statement, “seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health.” 

In particular, Carter’s work on eradicating the disease guinea worm is particularly significant, as the Center spearheaded efforts to increase both private and public funding towards the creation of a vaccine. As a result, cases plummeted from 3.5 million annually at the start of their work, to just 124 in 2014.   

Because of his extensive work leading the center, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Additionally, the Gates Foundation honored the center with the Gates Award for global health, a prestigious accolade in the sphere of international health. 

Carter has also authored a total of 21 books on a diverse range of topics, including international diplomacy, religion, and much more. Most recently, he wrote Faith: A Journey for All, for which he won a Grammy award for best-spoken word album for the audio recording he produced shortly after it’s release.

Throughout history, no president has been able to create a meaningful post-presidency life, at least to the extent that Carter has. Though serving one, uninspiring and insignificant term in office, that’s not what has defined his legacy. He serves as a unique oddity in Presidential history, as his most consequential years were those after having left the White House. He serves as the ultimate model for how one can and should conduct themselves as a former American president. 

The man currently occupying the Oval Office could take note of Carter’s model, as his future as President looks ever more perilous by the day.