More than a quarter-century after completing his term of office, James Earl Carter is still to be found in the thick of debates about national policies on a range of issues: nuclear arms, Iraq, North Korea, and, especially, the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. A steady stream of books and articles continues to issue forth from his pen, and he travels the world on self-selected diplomatic missions. No other former President has chosen to play a similar role. But then, Carter’s whole political career has been out of the ordinary. In order to understand the man today, it is necessary to see him in the light of his past.
In 1976, when Carter tossed his hat into the ring for the presidential nomination, the Democratic party was still deeply riven by the long, bitter debate over the war in Vietnam. Carter’s response was to soar above these divisions, downplaying both ideology and issues. Instead, he put himself forward as a man of piety and character who would restore a high tone to government in the aftermath of Watergate and related scandals. Before the rise of politically-oriented televangelists, Jimmy Carter made his personal experience as a “born again” Christian into a key tenet of his platform. “I can give you a government that’s honest and that’s filled with love, competence, and compassion,” he pledged.
When the scramble for the Democratic nomination began, Carter was widely seen as a long shot. But by the time the primary season was half over, he had left the other, better-known Democratic contenders in the dust. That he was able to compete with them at all—that is, to raise money and enlist volunteers—owed to the national exposure he had received for his inaugural address as governor of Georgia in 1971. At that time, with much of the South still clinging to Jim Crow and resisting the nation’s new civil-rights laws, Carter had boldly declared that “the time for segregation is over.”
Yet the path that led him to that dramatic moment was a tortuous one, known to few outside of Georgia, and it shed light on the man who five years later would be promising voters across the country: “I will never lie to you.”