Jimmy Carter In Perspective

It’s former president Jimmy Carter’s 90th birthday today. And for those of us who have been watching him a bit longer than most, it’s gone by pretty fast.

I was a kiddie volunteer (not that I did anything other than talk) for Carter in his first gubernatorial campaign in 1966, so I guess I qualify as a long-time Jimmy-watcher (I should note that Georgians, whatever they think of the 39th president, invariably and with a touching sense of intimacy call him “Jimmy”). In the distorted context of Georgia Politics Circa 1966 (an election cycle that eventually made Lester Maddox governor, via a state legislative party-line ballot in which Carter voted for the ax-handle segregationist), Carter was considered a “liberal,” and was actually compared a lot to JFK. Carter missed the runoff he would have likely won by about 2,000 votes, and almost certainly lost thanks to Republican crossover votes for Maddox. When he ran again in 1970, it was against a corporate attorney who gained an even stronger liberal reputation as a former Georgia governor who didn’t fight desegregation and largely built the state’s modern higher education system, Carl Sanders. So while Jimmy didn’t race-bait (though his campaign manager Hamilton Jordan was accused of doing so), he did run over to Montgomery to obtain a blessing from George Wallace, and in general ran the kind of “populist” campaign that in the Deep South of that day always had a racial subtext.

But at the same time, Carter was a South Georgia pol and a fervent Southern Baptist who had every incentive to act like a wool-hat boy, but never did, and after he made a ringing inaugural address repudiating segregation, he did indeed turn the page for his (and my) state.

His political genius, which may sound like a laughable term to those who remember nothing but his 1980 re-election defeat, was to understand that just as Georgia’s Democratic Party needed racial redemption, only a southerner could redeem the South as part of a post-Jim-Crow national Democratic Party. More immediately, Democrats needed someone to cleanse the party from the terrifying influence of Wallace, and Carter not only beat the old demagogue in the primaries, but secured his endorsement, creating a bizarre but powerful southern-based coalition including Daddy King and Jim Eastland–a sort of last hurrah for the New Deal Coalition in its broadest outlines.

But even as Carter took office, the remorseless forces of the Great Ideological Sorting-Out of the two major parties were unraveling his political accomplishments and making him an impossible president. I don’t know for a fact if there was a moment when he was still being supported by conservative evangelicals like Jerry Falwell while being abandoned by Democratic liberals, but it is clear the two elements of his 1976 coalition violently broke communion by 1980. Add in the horrific objective conditions he inherited–structurally entrenched “stagflation” and a final realization that the American Empire had limits–and the amazing thing is that he came as close to re-election as he actually did.

I have nothing to say about Jimmy’s much-admired post-presidency than hasn’t been said a thousand times, other than to observe that even when Americans have disagreed with him, which they most definitely have, they respect him. And that’s true down in Georgia, where to the surprise of many observers Carter hasn’t been a drag on his grandson’s gubernatorial campaign–48 years after his own first bid for that office–but rather a reminder that there was a time when Georgia politics weren’t quite so formulaic and predictable. And that’s a very good thing.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.