The stock of historical figures rises and falls with the changing times that follow them. That is especially true for presidents. Examples of these top leaders whose reputations have risen and fallen in succeeding generations abound. Some who exit office with low popularity ratings wind up being thought of with respect once the immediate political circumstances pass, and both historians and the public are able to judge their achievements with more dispassion.
The most outstanding example of this phenomenon is Harry Truman, who was deeply unpopular when his presidency ended due to the inconclusive and bloody Korean War, a sagging economy and the nation’s weariness with the Democrats after 20 years of their rule in Washington.
But within a few decades, Truman’s reputation would soar. He would come to be appreciated for his postwar leadership against Soviet expansionism and for his plain-spoken style that at the time was judged as something of a letdown after the patrician bearing and soaring style of Franklin Roosevelt, whom he had succeeded. The most recent C-SPAN poll of historians now ranks Truman as the sixth greatest president in history — a development that few but his closest associates would have believed possible when he left the White House in 1953.
Supporters of former President Jimmy Carter are hoping that posterity will treat him in a similar treatment. And with the 39th president now in hospice at his Georgia home and the world anticipating the sad news of the end of his life, the campaign to revive his reputation is already in full swing. In the last month since the news about his terminal illness was released, articles and opinion pieces boosting the 98-year-old and attempting to depict his single term in office as both underappreciated and unfairly attacked have proliferated.
According to these accounts, Carter, who was defeated for re-election in a landslide that swept former California governor and movie actor Ronald Reagan into office, has been “wronged by history.” According to the author of a fawning biography, his presidency “was not what you think.”
These are unabashedly revisionist takes purporting that his weakness and the calamities, both at home and abroad, endured by the United States on his watch were actually not as bad as everyone thought at the time.
While his death will necessarily put a damper on critiques of his life and career, the temptation to indulge this push to lionize him should be resisted. While there has always been much to admire about his life and career, there is no reason to ignore the facts about his presidency.
Just as important, the widespread praise he has received for his post-presidential life shouldn’t cause us to uncritically accept the effort to reimagine him as a martyr to forces that were beyond his control. His good personal qualities notwithstanding, the notion that Carter was the public conscience of the nation cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
Above all else, his vendetta against Israel and the pro-Israel community, coupled with his efforts to legitimize the notion that Israel is an “apartheid state,” should cause fair-minded observers to judge him harshly.
The roots of revisionism
Part of the Carter revisionism is rooted in partisanship. Though he left the White House 42 years ago, many Democrats still fume over Reagan’s victory and the way his presidency, which led to victory in the Cold War among other successes, is contrasted with Carter’s. That tenure is best remembered for the Soviet Union’s unchecked adventurism, the humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis and a dismal “malaise” speech in which he seemed to blame the American people for the sorry state of the country rather than take responsibility for it himself.
Indeed, some on the left have never let go of the conspiracy theory about Republicans colluding with Iran to ensure that the hostages weren’t released until Carter left office. Though this big lie was conclusively debunked decades ago, partisan liberal outlets continue periodically to revive it, as the New York Times did just last week in an unpersuasive and misleading article.
Nevertheless, a Carter revival has always been based more on the glowing reviews of his post-presidential life than on an effort to claim that his chaotic administration was anything other than four years of national disaster.
The leftist magazine The Nation recently acclaimed him as “Our Greatest Former President,” and there are many who will undoubtedly agree with that evaluation. Carter was widely admired for his charitable work and his willingness to volunteer in endeavors like Habitat for Humanity, in which he and his wife Rosalynn built homes for the poor earned him appreciation.
After the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden, Americans have grown used to the idea that presidents can be deeply flawed individuals. For all of his shortcomings as a leader, Carter was a throwback to the antique notion that a president should be an exemplary individual, even if that idea was often more observed in the breach than most Americans were prepared to admit.
A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Carter became a submarine officer and a nuclear engineer. After his father’s death, he returned home to take up the family’s peanut farm in Plains, Ga., and, due in no small part to his scientific acumen, he was eventually able to turn it into a success.
He was also deeply religious, as well as a faithful devoted husband and father — qualities that in retrospect have taken on even greater importance in the latter half of his life as some of his successors lacked those attributes.
The Founders of the American Republic believed that morality and public virtue were a necessity for its survival, and that remains true. Though persons who lacked Carter’s upstanding qualities have been among our greatest leaders, a return to an era when an exemplary character was considered a necessity for a would-be president is something we should all desire.
Unlike many politicians who landed in the White House, he was also something of an intellectual and a man who immersed himself in the details of policy. That was admirable in some ways but also led to many of his problems. But at a time when our current president and his immediate predecessor clearly lack that sort of sophistication, someone with Carter’s cerebral style seems more attractive by comparison.
White House failure
While all of that deserves to be part of the way he is remembered, Carter was still a dismal failure as commander-in-chief. The glowing reviews for his post-presidency must also be weighed against the enormous damage he did as one of Israel’s foremost unfair critics.
The revisionism about Carter being better than anyone remembers must founder on two facts. Though he was dealt a poor hand by economic factors beyond his control, his administration’s emphasis on expanding big government was a significant part of the problem, especially when compared to the success that Reagan achieved.
Leaders must also be judged on their ability to inspire people. Rather than lift the nation up, as Reagan did so well, Carter’s preachy lectures and his predilection for what would now be rightly termed “virtue signaling” did the opposite.
Yet it is on foreign policy that Carter’s reputation foundered more than any other factor.
The revisionists give Carter credit for beginning the rebuilding of the military that expanded greatly under Reagan. And he is also lauded for his emphasis on advocacy for human rights around the globe.
Yet the problem is that he entered the presidency by saying that one of our problems was an “inordinate fear of communism.” That sent an undoubted signal to the Soviet Union — in 1977, few, if anyone, thought it would collapse by the end of the following decade — that it no longer needed to fear American power. The result was a surge in Soviet adventurism around the globe and culminated in its invasion of Afghanistan.
Though support for human rights was and still is a good thing, such efforts also led Carter to undermine imperfect regimes that were friendly to the United States, like the Iranian government then led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Carter helped push the shah out of power and was indifferent to his replacement by a theocratic tyranny led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
That was an unforced error that led to enormous suffering in Iran and elsewhere, and for which Carter deserves eternal opprobrium. That the Islamist regime then assaulted the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took 52 of its staff hostage — a humiliation that affected all Americans — was ironic but still a tragedy.
It’s possible that history might view Carter differently if the rescue attempt he ordered had succeeded. But it didn’t, and the debacle only added to the shame Americans felt about their government’s impotence.
Carter and Israel
Carter is also given credit by his apologists for helping to broker peace between Israel and Egypt at the 1978 Camp David Summit. That’s true, but it must also be remembered that the peace process was begun by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with his historic 1977 flight to Jerusalem took place in spite of Carter, not because of him. Carter had tried initially to involve the Soviets in Mideast peace efforts, something the Egyptians rightly feared.
Carter despised Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for his tenacious defense of Jewish rights and unwillingness to bow to US pressure. He always blamed Begin for somehow deceiving him about Israel’s intention to defend the right of Jews to settle in Judea and Samaria, which the president wanted to end. But that was not true since, if anything, Carter deceived himself about what Begin’s promise of limited autonomy for Palestinian Arabs in the territories really meant.
Carter’s hostility to Israel was no secret, and it played a part in the failure of his bid for re-election in 1980. Reagan achieved a modern record of 40% of the Jewish vote not so much because of his appeal but because of Carter’s unpopularity — something that Republicans have failed to remember as they’ve sought in vain to replicate that feat.
Carter blamed the Jews for his defeat; it colored his post-presidency as he began a decades-long effort to promote Palestinian statehood and to smear Israel. He was not the only person to be wrong about the necessity for a two-state solution, but few matched the virulence with which he assailed Israel, and especially its American supporters, for their refusal to listen to his bad advice.
That culminated in the publication of his 2006 book, “Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid,” which in no small measure began the effort, at least in the United States, to mainstream the big lie that the Middle East’s only democracy was in some ways morally equivalent to apartheid-era South Africa.
For all of the applause he has received for his life as an ex-president, Carter’s animus against the Jewish state and willingness to use his moral standing and influence to besmirch it and aid the efforts of antisemitic hate-mongers and terrorists to undermine its existence is also part of his legacy.
So, when assessing his life, how do we weigh that against the many good things that can be said for Jimmy Carter as an individual?
There is no calculus by which these competing arguments can be measured exactly. Like everyone, his life was a mixture of good and bad. It is entirely possible to acknowledge his outstanding personal qualities and even his undoubted positive intentions, but to also judge his presidency to be a disaster and his post-presidential efforts to have also done as much harm as good.
We should all wish him and his family well and, whenever it does happen, his passing should be acknowledged with the solemnity and respect due to a former president of the United States. But we should not let that desire to think well of a historic figure color the verdict of contemporary public opinion or history.
Jimmy Carter may have been a very decent man in many respects, but he was still a bad president and someone whose unfair attacks on the Jewish state deserve to be held against him.