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The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century

The lens of “The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century” ­conference provided a means to ­examine Jimmy Carter’s presidency at just the right distance, when the shift from journalism to history begins.

Presidential historian and conference guest ­Michael Beschloss claims that history needs 25 years before it can sort out the effects of an administration. And the conference, which ended 25 years to the day after Carter left office, hit that mark.

“I think to some extent this conference reflected a few of the qualities of the Carter administration,” said John Maltese, conference director. “I thought of openness, accessibility and diversity. And I think that, in a sense, we’ve been able to reflect some of those things in this conference.”

In three days former officials, journalists and historians dissected the workings of Carter’s policies at home and overseas, offering a new way to see his presidency: a success obscured by a bitter fourth year.

Panelists from both political parties met and talked openly about Carter’s legacy, sometimes ­disagreeing on the legacy of the Carter administration and what it can teach current politicians, but always in a respectful tone.

“If there’s a lesson that comes out of this conference, I hope it is that we can one day return to an age when people can have differences of opinion and talk to each other instead of just shouting at each other,” Maltese said.

The passions Carter carried into the White House are still burning, and that progress can be seen through the Carter Center. These efforts also provide challenges and lessons, said UGA President Michael F. Adams.

“I come away from this conference convinced that the divide that exists in this country and in the world between the rich and the poor, which has been highlighted in almost every session, may be the most challenging issue of this century,” said Adams at the Jan. 21 session “Summing Up: The Carter Legacy and Post-Presidency.” 

“With the various challenges the Carters have presented to us, I want you, particularly those of you who are students, to see this one clearly,” he said. “It’s one of our great challenges.”

Carter’s final address at the conference was a call for peace and negotiation, two hallmarks of his tenure.

“This is the greatest nation on Earth. We can be received by all leaders and all citizens with open arms. And they are so hungry for the fire, light and leadership of this great nation. They want the simple things that every American would agree on: They want their children to be educated and they want their babies to survive, they want some help if they have a disease,” he said.

“I think we can be on the threshold of a new greatness. We are the greatest nation on Earth, and I’m very grateful for the people who let me be governor and president and let me play a role in that.”

Carter: United States should epitomize human dreams

Surrounded by images of his past, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter used his inaugural anniversary keynote address to talk about the future.

Speaking before a capacity audience Jan. 20 at the Classic Center, Carter recalled two engagements he made in 2000 in which he was asked to speak about the greatest challenges the world would face in the new millennium.

“There was no doubt in my mind that the greatest challenge would be the growing chasm between rich and poor people,” Carter said. “Not only the chasm inside countries but also the one between the richest nations that are growing richer and poor countries that are growing poorer.”

Carter also contrasted the state of the world today to what it was like when he was president.

“The world situation—the basic premise of existence for the world—is different now from what it was 25 years ago,” he said. “At that time almost every international decision we made in Asia, Latin America and Africa was affected by the Cold War. In countries like Mali and Brukina Faso, Mozambique, Haiti, Cuba, El Salvador, we were competing with the Soviet Union for influence, friendship, trade and commerce as well as political influence and strength.

“Today one superpower—the United States—has military expenditures that are just about equal to the total military expenditures of all the other nations in the world combined,” Carter said. “We have unprecedented economic power and authority with other nations. What can we do with this power and influence? I think it’s time for our country to address that question.”

Carter also shared his thoughts about the future role of the U.S. in world affairs.

“As a superpower, I would like for our country to be the strongest protector of international law,” he said. “Other countries would know the United States will be on their side if they bring their plight [to the world’s ­attention].

“I would like for our country to be the champion of human rights again and the epitome of hope for people who are persecuted and deprived of a decent life.
“Peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, law, ­alleviation of suffering.

“I would like to hear everyone on Earth say the United States epitomizes these human dreams,” Carter said.

“I think that would make a good outline for the next presidential inaugural speech.”

‘No road maps’

The conversation among panelists at the first plenary roundtable discussion veered  from the groundbreaking role former Vice President Walter Mondale and President Jimmy Carter forged for the modern vice presidency to the consensus that Vice President Cheney has overstepped his political boundaries—so much so that  later that day, one scholar said a backlash could lead to a regression in vice-presidential responsibilities, making the position little more than the ceremonial figurehead it once was.

Jay Hakes, director of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, moderated the Jan. 19 morning roundtable discussion among Mondale, Stuart Eizenstat and Richard Moe.

Mondale recounted how his mentor, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, had been insulted and ignored throughout his term, saying that the office was like being in “a black hole”—and yet still encouraged Mondale to run.

“The modern vice presidency began Jan. 21, 1977, when we took office, in the sense that for the first time, the vice president. . . became (Carter’s) most trusted adviser,” said Eizenstat, former chief domestic affairs adviser.

Mondale was the first vice president to have an office in the West Wing, gaining unprecedented access to the president. Together, they created an 11-page memo outlining the concept of the modern vice president.

And when Carter sent word that a request from the vice president should be considered a request from the president himself, that “sent a signal that this was a different day,” said Moe, former chief of staff for Mondale.

“We were making this up,” Mondale said. “There were no road maps.”

Mondale reiterated that he always valued Carter’s trust and was always careful when speaking in public, which led into the first tirade of the day against Cheney.

“I think Cheney has stepped way over the line,” he said, adding that Cheney set up something like a parallel national security council that operated on its own, “undermining and bending the information the president should hear about.

“I think Cheney has been at the center about cooking up all this farcical estimates” regarding national risks and weapons of mass destruction, Mondale added. “I don’t think that serves the president. The president has to get the facts. . . the vice president should never be in a position of pressuring the process on which the president must depend.”

Later that day, during the panel “Carter and the Modern American Vice Presidency,” participants cited Cheney’s behavior as a hazard to the privileges Mondale first enjoyed.

Cheney has abandoned the Mondale model of loyal subordinate and adviser, and has become a driver of administration policy, argued Lawrence R. Jacobs, the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair of Political Science and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota.

“This is extremely serious,” he said. “It is the vice president who is now acting as the president in certain areas.”

Jacobs added that a backlash against Cheney may have future administrations changing the vice presidential position to limit its power, or else future presidents may pick running mates more likely to be mild-mannered figureheads.

Moe, who was also a panelist in that session, disagreed: “I see the Cheney experience as an aberration,” he said.

Panelist Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at St. Louis University, said that the importance of the vice presidential debates would ensure that presidential hopefuls pick strong candidates rather than those better fitted to simply ceremonial positions.

Panelists: U.S. needs to develop other fuel sources

The U.S. uses energy more efficiently today than 30 years ago, but there is a current need to focus on developing alternative fuel sources and reducing dependence on foreign sources of energy, according to Stuart Eizenstat, former chief domestic affairs adviser.

Eizenstat was part of a three-member panel that discussed domestic policy relating to energy and the environment as part of the conference.

The other two members of the panel, former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker and David Hawkins, director of the National Resources Defense Council Climate Center, both expressed similar sentiments during the panel session “Energy, Conservation and the Environment.”

Energy policy and its subsequent impact on the environment, which was a major issue during the Carter presidency, has reappeared as a pivotal issue today.

“Global warming is a problem that was recognized during the Carter administration. . . but then it was ignored,” said Hawkins about the intersection of energy policy and the environment. “Since 2000 and 2001, it has been ­basically a retrograde operation. We’re now coming out of that, recognizing that we need to do something about it. . . The issue of oil dependence and global warming is a classic example of the need to integrate energy and environmental policy.”

Although the panelists held varying viewpoints on many of the issues discussed, the underlying tone of all three panelists’ responses showed that there is still room for improvement in creating environmentally sound energy policy.

Foreign exchange

Jimmy Carter’s foreign affairs policies were politically costly, but advantageous over the long range, a group of panelists at the Carter conference said.

From giving away the Panama Canal to engaging unfriendly world leaders, Carter’s policies benefited America and the world, said Robert Pastor, the former director of Latin American Affairs on the National Security Council.

“People say that Carter is the greatest ex-president. . . and I don’t think there’s any question that’s true, but that comment is sometimes used to try to diminish his presidency,” Pastor said.

“He normalized relations with China, he did the Panama Canal Treaty, he transformed the view of America and our impact on human rights, democracy turned the corner in Latin America during his administration, multilateral treaties with other countries were passed overwhelmingly. . . ” but the American people tend to view his presidency as a failed administration, he added.

The panel served as a forum to discuss why people then and now saw Carter’s policies as weak and how those decisions look now, with the benefit of hindsight. With foreign affairs, especially with the Middle East, playing a significant role in present-day politics, comparisons between Carter’s approaches and the Bush’s approaches came up often.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s foreign policy adviser, offered a comparison between Carter’s dealings in Panama and the current policy on Iraq.

“We tend to see ourselves as playing a significant role in Iraqi freedom, but we don’t try to see it from their perspective. The Iraqi perception is that the 20th century is a century of their struggle against colonialism,” he said, recalling how the Iraqis struggled against foreign rulers, such as the British, in the past 100 years.

“Although we live in a post-colonial age, for the people that are involved, we are waging what is essentially a colonial war. That’s terribly important to understand if you want to be effective on the world stage. We understood that in Panama. I don’t think we understand that in regard to Iraq,” he said.

Former first lady sheds light on private thoughts behind public face

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter delivered the keynote address at a luncheon held in her honor Jan. 20 as part of the conference.

Displaying warmth, humor, humility, a steely resolve and, occasionally, tears, Carter recounted the high points of her life as first lady of both Georgia and the U.S., shedding light on the private thoughts behind the public face.

Exactly 30 years ago to the day, she recalled watching Jimmy Carter recite the oath of office for the presidency. Observing those in attendance, she noted the trust and faith they had in her husband.

“It was a humbling experience,” she said.

Later that afternoon, she found humor in her new surroundings at the White House. Told that she could pick up the phone and talk to anyone in the world, the new first lady picked up the phone and asked for Jimmy.

“Jimmy who?” replied the operator.

As first lady, Mrs. Carter surprised many when she eschewed the traditionally narrow role in favor of more active duties as advocate and government representative. She also revealed a quiet determination on the subjects of mental illness and child immunization—two of her pet projects as first lady and then later through her work with the Carter Center, established in 1982 in Atlanta after the Carters left the White House. Her interest in mental health issues developed during her husband’s campaign for governor.

“When I was campaigning, people talked to me about their problems,” she said. “Many had a family member with mental illness. I was moved.”

At a roundtable discussion devoted to her work on mental health policy held Jan. 19, participants paid tribute to Mrs. Carter’s hard work and dedication.

Carter served as honorary chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health during her husband’s administration. When she began attending Cabinet meetings, and when she traveled to Latin America in an official capacity, she discovered that both the American public and the rest of the world were critical of her expanded role as first lady.

“I was just doing what I had been doing all my life in my marriage with Jimmy Carter—being a partner,” she said.

A range of voices

NBC anchor Brian Williams launched the town hall meeting with former President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter with his own question: Which one thing would you disclose to the audience for the first time ever?

Williams, who was moderating the event, gave the Carters an hour to think about it, at the end of the meeting returning for a response.

His wife at his side, the president told a story of his 1978 meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David. Carter had brought the two men together to pursue peace between their warring nations.

After three days, Carter told the audience, it was clear that the men would do nothing but argue. Carter separated the two leaders and went back and forth between them in an attempt to negotiate an agreement.

Without telling Carter, a frustrated Sadat decided to return to Egypt, and called a helicopter to take him to the airport in Washington.

“I was stricken,” Carter said. “Sadat had been my friend.”

Carter changed from his casual clothes into a suit and tie, went into a back room, knelt and prayed.

“I asked God to help me,” Carter said, his voice breaking. He went to Sadat’s cabin, where the suitcases had been packed and were ready to be picked up. He told the Egyptian leader that if he left, “our friendship was severed forever.”

Sadat walked to a corner of the room, then came back and said, “I’m staying.”

It was a powerful and poignant end to what was perhaps the most anticipated event of the three-day symposium. At the Carters’ request, the town hall meeting was free and open to the public. More than 1,000 people turned out for the event, held in a room that could seat just 600. Many watched the conversation on closed-circuit television at UGA. It also was televised live on C-SPAN. For more than the scheduled hour, both Carters fielded questions ranging from their work with the Atlanta-based Carter Center for human rights to the recent controversy over Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid.

A man who identified himself as a Holocaust survivor chided Carter for using the word apartheid, because he felt it implied that the Israeli motives were racist.

“The Israelis are not motivated by race, but by greed for Palestinean land,” Carter responded.

Alan Godlas, a UGA religion professor, asked why there was so much conflicting information about the war in Iraq, and whether the media covering the president was to blame.

“I don’t think the news media did their job,” Carter said. “Congress didn’t either.”

Student panel discusses policy decisions with former president

UGA Honors students turned the tables on former President Jimmy Carter during the conference, analyzing his policy decisions and recommending ways they could be used to shape future foreign and domestic policy.

Economics, energy, nuclear nonproliferation, Islamic radicalism, Middle East policy and human rights were the issues the students studied and evaluated over the past few months to ready themselves for their panel discussion, which Carter specifically requested be a part of the symposium.

Carter was a participant in the session, moderated by Thomas P. Lauth, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs. The former president first listened attentively as six of the students summarized their findings, both praising and criticizing the Carter administration’s policy decisions.

Among the students’ recommendations for current and future presidential administrations:

• Resurrect efforts begun under the Carter administration to create a renewable and sustainable energy industry to promote conservation and alternative fuel use.
• Re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran to support the country’s democratic population over a fundamentalist regime, using trade as an incentive to persuade the government to improve its human rights record.
• Renew efforts to bring peace to the Middle East by bringing together leaders from Israel and Palestine.
• Reaffirm the commitment of the U.S. to human rights domestically and throughout the world.
The student panelists were given the opportunity to ask Carter questions.

Helen Smith, a senior from Charlotte, asked how he would address the situation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where suspected terrorists are being held without charges or legal representation.

“Close it down,” Carter said without hesitation. “It has been an abomination and a disgrace to our country.”

Journalists discuss Carter’s political rise. . . and fall

The Carter administration provided a perfect mix of an underdog story, uncontrollable events and big personalities to ensure a political epic, a group of journalists said in the “Press and Presidency” panel session. The discussion covered Carter’s tenure in national politics and the media engines that propelled him into and out of office.   

“The beginning was almost magical,” PBS reporter Judy Woodruff said. “You had somebody come out of nowhere. There was almost a love affair between many in the press and this little-known governor from Georgia who had risen to power.”

But it didn’t last. Just four days after the Iran hostage crisis began, ABC News premiered Nightline, which on a nightly basis displayed a tracker counting the days since the scandal began.

“I remember on the night before the ’80 election, the lead story wasn’t the presidential election, the lead story was the hostage crisis anniversary. I think that was a nail in the coffin,” said moderator Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC.

A political story like Carter’s, which boasted a prominent rise and sharp fall, is the kind that many media outlets savor, said Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek.

 “I don’t think the press is ideologically driven. We’re conflict driven and change driven. . . . And that can produce some difficulties,” he said.

This Carter phenomena set the stage for later political stories, Meacham added. He pointed to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who also has garnered massive amounts of media attention.

Maybe Obama should be careful. Carter ended the session by referring to a recent study concluding that for the 48 months he was in office, only one month produced more positive coverage than negative.

“It was my first month,” he said. “After that. . . well, you know.”