Remembering the legacy of Jimmy Carter


Roger Harris | Creative Commons

Former president Jimmy Carter delivers a lecture on the eradication of Guinea worm disease at House of Lords in London in 2016.

Following the news of Jimmy Carter’s admittance into hospice care at the age of 98, many are taking the time to reminisce on the former president’s dedication to kindness, compassion and peace. 

Carter held  qualities of a unique leader which were overshadowed by a turbulence of explosive international conflicts and complex domestic issues throughout a short one term presidency. 

Carter’s dedication to care and empathy transcended past political issues, and proved unwavering, establishing Carter as a true outlier in American politics. 

James Earl Carter Jr. was born on Oct. 1, 1924 in Plains, Georgia. Carter’s upbringing in rural Georgia was intertwined with religion and agriculture. 

Carter’s plunge into the political world was a result of success in the Naval Academy, where Carter excelled in operating nuclear submarines and rose to the rank of lieutenant. Following his time in the Naval Academy, Carter returned to Georgia to inherit his family farm and established Carter’s Warehouse, making Carter stand out as a community leader, eventually earning his way into the higher ranks of Georgia politics. 

Given his experience in the Navy and connection with his community, Carter was elected as Georgia’s governor on Jan. 12, 1971. The beginning of Carter’s political journey led to undeniable success in the realm with his position preceding his presidential nomination in November 1976. 

Former president Jimmy Carter during the Egyptian president’s visit to the White House in 1977. (Marion S. Trikosko | Creative Commons)

Scott Hibbard – an associate professor of political science at DePaul – redefines the narrative many may hold about President Carter, which characterizes him as an unsuccessful politician, attributed to an oil crisis, domestic inflation and escalating Cold War conflicts in the Middle East. 

“Jimmy Carter was actually a much more successful president than history has given him credit for,” Hibbard said. “The Camp David Peace Accords were massive…he really understood government.”

The Camp David Peace Accords represent a pinnacle point in the Carter administration, creating an important framework for peace agreements between Israel and Egypt after years of complex conflict, whilst upholding the Carter doctrine of peaceful solutions. 

Hibbard, who grew up during the Carter administration, speaks admirably about Carter’s commitment to human rights and peaceful solutions, especially in terms of the Iranian hostage crisis. 

 “Carter chose to negotiate for the hostages, he did not want to resort to military force. Many people were very critical of that,” Hibbard said. 

Foreign affairs characterized Carter’s presidency, with some of the most significant events of his one term presidency being oversea relations. The events of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Camp David Accords became defining moments for the Carter administration. 

“He was in many respects a victim of circumstance,” Hibbard said, referencing the recent revelation of Ronald Regan’s meddling in the Iranian hostage crisis. In an effort to secure a victory in the 1980 election, a series of backroom deals were conducted to ensure the hostages were not released until after the election, further harming Carter’s image.

Carter’s foreign policy initiative focused on human rights also called for  cooperation between nations to work together to solve collective issues, an approach not always popularized in American politics. 

“[Carter] was so far ahead of his time…he put solar panels on the rooftop of the White House,” Hibbard said. 

Carter was also an advocate for weaning off fossil fuels and oil, a debate which remains ignited throughout American society as the threat of climate change persists. 

“All people remember is that he lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan,” Hibbard said. 

Many reflect negatively on Carter’s policies throughout his time in the White House in terms of the game of politics, but are able to see the potential of Carter’s character in American political culture. 

“Part of the problem with Carter was that he was not a good politician. He was a principle man who believed in doing the principle thing, even if that didn’t necessarily play very well politically,” said Colleen Doody, an associate professor of history at DePaul.. “I have always admired him for what he did after his presidency.”

“It sounds like there was no one in his administration that looked at his political landscape and thought about how his actions were going to play,” Doody said. 

Delaney Kaufman, a political science student at DePaul, considers her perception of President Carter throughout her education in the realm of politics.

“I think my professors focus more on the negative aspects of his presidency,” Kaufman said. “Rarely do we ever hear about his successes.”

Carter’s continued emphasis on human rights and other progressive values did not fare well in the American political arena, resulting in a deteriorated vision of what Carter’s presidency was.

“The legacy is very mixed, in part because he was president when the Iranian Revolution happened, it really tarnished his legacy,” Hibbard said. “His emphasis on human rights is all seen as utopian…to me that is really unfortunate.”

Following Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter remained an important figure in American society, continuing to engage in complicated foreign issues which persisted past his presidency, such as conflicts in the Middle East and the nuclear threat. 

In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his evident efforts and commitment to democracy, human rights and continued emphasis on peaceful solutions in international affairs.

 Americans remain thankful for Carter’s commitment to his cause, despite important reassessment of the former president’s political actions in an American climate that has faced true evolution from the 1970s. 

“There are ways in which his legacy continues to live on, even if the view of Carter as a president is mixed,” Hibbard said.