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Not to be morbid, but with Jimmy Carter having been diagnosed with cancer, this might be an appropriate time to look back at his term as president. No, we’re not suggesting he’s going to die. After all, people beat cancer every day. But Carter is 90 years of age, his cancer has been described as “advanced,” and should the worst happen, his presidential accomplishments and failures are bound to be reviewed.
Call it historical perspective or simple nostalgia, but it’s worth noting how many things tend to look better in the rearview mirror. Take the hapless Carter administration for example. Arguably, among the (many) negative things Carter will be remembered for are runaway inflation, the Iran hostage debacle, and the deregulation of the transportation, communication, and financial industries, moves that, arguably, hurt us as much as they helped.
Vilified by the Republicans and mocked by the Democrats, Carter reached the point where he was regarded by his own party as such a political liability, they (in the person of Ted Kennedy) tried to torpedo him in the 1980 primary. Not something that happens to a successful incumbent.
But despite the bad memories, a closer look shows that Carter accomplished some fairly important things during his single term in office — things that, given the near-paralytic gridlock that defines today’s politics, seem all the more impressive in hindsight. Here are ten of them.
1. Created the Department of Energy. The DOE provided the administration with the bureaucratic chops to formulate and implement what could have been a comprehensive, long-term national energy strategy. Had Carter’s aggressive gas mileage standards continued to be pursued by subsequent administrations, we would today — 30-odd years later – not be dependent on Saudi oil.
2. Created the Department of Education. Despite howls from anti-government groups who opposed yet another federal agency, the decision to carve out Education from the already over-burdened Department. of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) was a bold and necessary one.
3. Supported SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks). It sounds trivial today, but in the 1970s a nuclear non-proliferation pact, even a flawed one, was seen as an important step in forging a lasting peace with the USSR. A generation ago, people were genuinely frightened of a nuclear holocaust. Although Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the agreement, the U.S. Congress, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, refused to ratify it.
4. Brokered the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. By initiating the Camp David Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (which led directly to the landmark treaty), Carter laid the groundwork for improved Israeli-Arab relations. That good relations in the region never materialized wasn’t Carter’s fault.
5. Installed solar panels in the White House. This was not only a practical gesture, but a symbolic one as well, demonstrating to the world that America was serious about conserving energy, and that conservation does, indeed, begin at home. Alas, Ronald Reagan believed solar panels made the United States look pathetic and needy, and had them removed.
6. Boycotted the 1980 Olympics. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter boycotted the Moscow games, a decision that earned him ridicule and scorn, even though Japan, West Germany, China, Canada, et al, supported his decision. Boycotts are unpredictable. Some work, most don’t. Still, who knows what would have happened if the world had boycotted the 2004 Olympics to protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? It might have made a difference.
7. Granted amnesty to Vietnam draft-dodgers. Even though Carter issued these unconditional pardons on January 21, 1977 (his first day in office), the political fallout was severe enough to cost him votes in the 1980 election. Reagan’s people showcased it. Controversial as it was, his gutsy call helped move the country forward, providing closure to one of the most divisive chapters in American history.
8. Established diplomatic relations with China. Officially transferring U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China seems like a no-brainer today, but in the year 1979 it was a singularly progressive move.
9. Pushed for comprehensive health care reform. Carter’s plan was bigger, better, cheaper and — right out of the blocks — had a greater chance of passing in its original form than either Clinton’s or Obama’s plan, but inertia, timidity, and old-fashioned politics (both Democratic and Republican) ultimately killed it.
10. Returned the Panama Canal to Panama. Another gutsy move that surely cost him votes. By ceding the canal to tiny (and deserving) Panama, the mighty U.S. looked confident and magnanimous….rather than paranoid and petty. Although Carter was able to secure bipartisan support, of the 20 senators who voted in favor of the treaty, and were up for re-election, only 7 were re-elected.
We hope Carter beats this thing and lives to be 100. In any event, half a century from now, historians and political pundits are bound to view Jimmy Carter far more generously, dwelling more on his accomplishments than his mistakes. Good luck, Mr. President.