Despite a tremendous number of missed opportunities, goofs, clumsy moments, and flat-out falsehoods, President Jimmy Carter managed to accumulate some fairly impressive accomplishments during his four short years in the White House. Here are ten of them.
1. Created the Department of Energy. The DOE provided the administration with the bureaucratic chops with which 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—almost 50 years later—be dramatically less 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 badly flawed one, was seen as an important step in forging a lasting peace with the USSR. A half-century 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 (who was later assassinated for his “pro-Israel” complicity), Carter laid the groundwork for improved Israeli-Arab relations by taking a landmark first step. The fact that peace in the region was never realized wasn’t Carter’s fault. If we want to “blame” someone, blame Israel.
5. Installed solar panels in the White House. This was not only a practical gesture, it was a symbolic one as well, demonstrating to the world (1) that the gluttonous United States was serious about conserving energy, and (2) that conservation does, indeed, begin at home.
Carter wanted to “mandate” that all new homes be installed with solar, but no one was buying into it. Just imagine what almost 50 years of solar energy would look like today. Because Ronald Reagan believed solar panels made America look “weak” and needy, he had them removed from the White House.
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, despite the fact that dozens of other countries, including Japan, West Germany, China, and Canada, supported his decision. Boycotts are tricky. Some work (i.e., apartheid), but most don’t. 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 (on his first day in office), the political fallout was severe enough to cost him votes in the 1980 election. As controversial as it was, this gutsy call helped move the country forward, providing closure to one of the most divisive issues in American history.
8. Established diplomatic relations with China. Officially transferring U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China seems, today, like a no-brainer today, but in the year 1979 it was a singularly daring and progressive move. If it were an easy and “automatic” decision, it would have been made decades earlier.
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. Inertia, timidity, and old-fashioned politics (both Democratic and Republican) ultimately killed it.
10. Returned the Panama Canal to Panama. This was another gutsy and controversial move, one that undoubtedly cost him votes. By ceding the canal to tiny Panama, the mighty U.S. looked confident and magnanimous…rather than paranoid and selfish. Although Carter was able to secure the necessary bipartisan support, of those 20 senators who voted in favor of the canal treaty (and were up for re-election), only 7 were re-elected.
Obviously, commentators, consultants and pundits can say whatever they like. They can play it as straight up as it gets, or they can play it as bitterly cynical or as abjectly self-righteous as they choose. None of it is going to matter. But one thing is certain to be true: Jimmy Carter will be remembered as one of the most misunderstood American Presidents in history.