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Carter, James Earl ‘Jimmy’ (United States of America)

Reference work entry

Introduction

James Earl Carter, Jr was the 39th president of the United States, serving one term in office after defeating incumbent Republican president Gerald Ford in the 1976 election.

Early Life

Popularly known as ‘Jimmy’ Carter, he was born on 1 Oct. 1924 in Plains, Georgia to James Earl Carter and Lillian Gordy Carter, a staunch Baptist family. The young Carter attended Georgia Southwestern College and the Georgia Institute of Technology before graduating from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1946. The same year he married Rosalynn Smith. After 2 years serving on battleships, Carter spent 5 years working on nuclear submarines before resigning his commission in 1953 after his father’s death and returning to run the family’s peanut farming and warehouse business in Georgia.

While transforming the family business Carter also embarked on a public career, serving as chairman of the Sumter county school board as well as the county hospital authority and acting as the president of the Plains Development Corporation and the Crop Improvement Association. He entered the political arena in 1962 when he won election as a Democrat to serve on the Georgia State Senate. Carter was successfully re-elected 2 years later with his terms in office characterized by a conservative approach to spending and a liberal view of social issues.

In 1966 Carter failed in a bid to become Governor of Georgia when he came third in a Democratic primary. This experience left him depressed and he became a born-again Baptist before launching another bid for Governor in 1970. This time he was successful, defeating Carl Sanders before attracting national attention by his vigorous opposition to racial discrimination—Carter ensured the state’s offices were opened to blacks—and reorganizing the state government by condensing some 300 agencies and offices into 22 new, more streamlined units.

After the end of his term as governor in Jan. 1975, Carter immediately began to focus on winning the Democratic nomination for president. Campaigning as an anti-Washington candidate with no links to the Vietnam War or Watergate, Carter vowed to deliver honest, open government. His campaign gathered momentum and he saw off all his Democratic party challengers despite his low national profile and lack of major financial backers. He chose Walter F. Mondale as his running mate.

Career Peak

From the beginning of his presidential campaign against Republican rival Gerald D. Ford, Carter was the front-runner, a position that was bolstered by his well-received performances in three televised debates with the incumbent president. Despite a late charge from the Ford campaign Carter was elected president after winning 51% of the popular vote and gaining 297 electoral college votes to 240.

From his inauguration on 20 Jan. 1977 Carter made a conscious effort to project a more open, less formal style of presidency. But if Carter’s image as a Washington outsider helped him gain election, it hamstrung his relations with Congress and the Senate. Despite Democratic majorities in both houses he failed to win support for many of his programmes. Proposals concerning tax, welfare reform, hospital costs and national health insurance all floundered. Like his predecessor Carter also struggled to contain inflation and unemployment. By 1980 inflation had risen to 12% from 4.8% in 1976 and unemployment was running at approximately 7.7%.

Carter had success with other domestic policies. The civil service was overhauled and he also initiated, with mixed success, a series of measures aimed at energy and environmental conservation. In 1979, with the dollar losing value in response to a petrol shortage, Carter successfully implemented many portions of a far-ranging energy programme that sought to limit wasteful uses of energy and introduce alternative sources such as solar power into the mainstream.

The centrepiece of Carter’s foreign policy was his commitment to human rights. Carter also proved an effective diplomat, signing two treaties with Panama which guaranteed the neutrality of the Panama Canal, brokering an agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978 (known as the Camp David accord) and establishing full diplomatic relations with China in 1979. Furthermore in 1979, Carter and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed a strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) in Vienna, although approval from the Senate for the treaty was not forthcoming and it was put on ice after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979—an invasion that also led to Carter insisting that the US team withdrew from the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

The most severe problem Carter faced in office was the seizure of US hostages by radical Iranian students who stormed the US embassy in Tehran on 4 Nov. 1979. After trying for over a year to secure the hostages release, he oversaw the failure of a secret US military rescue mission. With the hostages still unreleased Carter was easily defeated in the 1980 presidential election by Republican rival Ronald W. Reagan, gaining just 49 electoral college votes to Reagan’s 489. The hostages were finally released on 20 Jan. 1981, the day of Reagan’s inauguration.

Later Life

After the end of his term Carter returned to his hometown of Plains. He has written several books and has continued to play an active role in foreign affairs, visiting Nicaragua, Panama, Ethiopia, North Korea, Haiti and Bosnia on peacekeeping and diplomatic missions. He has also established, with his wife Rosalynn, the Carter Presidential Centre in Atlanta. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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