A Legacy of Service and Redemption

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Historian Randall Balmer reflects on Jimmy Carter’s exemplary post-White House life.

Jimmy Carter speaking at the UN
Former President Jimmy Carter speaks to reporters after meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York in 2007. (AP Photo/David Karp) 

As the nation looks to Plains, Ga., where Jimmy Carter is receiving hospice care, Randall Balmer has been reflecting on the indelible mark America’s 39th president, and winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, will leave on the world.

“His great contribution to the presidency was integrity,” says Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion and the author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.

“If you think about presidential history over the last 50 years, you have bookends. You’ve got Richard Nixon on the one hand, and Donald Trump on the other. Richard Nixon’s prevarications triggered a constitutional crisis. And according to independent sources, over the course of his four-year presidency, Trump made 30,573 false or misleading statements.”

When Carter, now 98, ran for president in 1976, he promised that he would never knowingly lie to the American people.

“People have all sorts of opinions about his presidency, but no one has credibly accused him of breaking that campaign pledge,” says Balmer, who also believes that no other president has made a more lasting, positive impact after leaving the White House.

“It’s unprecedented,” Balmer says. “And he told me that if he had won his re-election bid in 1980, he would not have been able to devote such time and passion to his post-presidency.”

By founding the Carter Center, which is affiliated with Emory University, Jimmy and former first lady Rosalynn Carter launched their lifelong pursuit of global peace, conflict negotiation, and the protection of free and fair elections, says Balmer.

Jimmy Carter at a Habitat for Humanity worksite in Haiti.
Former President Jimmy Carter visits a Habitat for Humanity project in Leogane, Haiti, in 2012. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery) 

“The Center has also succeeded in eradicating several tropical diseases, and the Carters have built or had a hand in building something like 5,000 Habitat for Humanity houses,” he says.

While public service springs from the Georgian’s Southern Baptist roots, Balmer says Carter’s faith has driven a progressive agenda not universally shared by other evangelical Christians.

“When I showed him a draft of something I wrote, in which I had described him as a ‘progressive evangelical’—and ‘evangelical’ is not a term that Southern Baptists typically use to describe themselves—he said, yes, that was appropriate,” says Balmer. “What I mean by that is that his faith was modeled on 19th-century evangelicalism, which was very much concerned about those on the margins of society.”

Campaigning at Dartmouth

Many pundits were surprised when the progressive southerner won a crowded New Hampshire primary on February 24, 1976. But Carter had been plowing that ground for at least two years. In March 1974, Carter, then the campaign chair for the Democratic National Committee, visited the Granite State and spent time on the Dartmouth campus along with Rosalynn and his longtime political strategist and aide Hamilton Jordan.

According to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, archived in the Rauner Special Collections Library, the little-known governor from Georgia gave interviews to campus radio reporters, spoke to a government class, ate lunch with students from the Peach State, and held an impromptu evening open house in the dormitory room where he and Rosalynn where staying. More than 30 students dropped in.

The next day, the magazine reported, at an open forum attended by about 100 students, Carter fielded questions “about the energy crisis, Watergate, his political plans, and Lester Maddox,” the staunch segregationist whom Carter replaced as Georgia’s governor in 1971.

“He’s a clown,” Carter said about Maddox. “His popularity is gone.”

Carter’s popularity, in contrast, was on the rise. According to articles in The Dartmouth, also archived at Rauner, he made two more visits to campus in 1975. Another, planned in 1976, was snowed out.

On Nov. 2, 1976, Carter defeated President Gerald Ford and won the White House.

But four years later, his re-election chances were dimmed by serious setbacks: a sputtering economy, the hostage crisis in Iran, and the near-meltdown of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant. To make matters worse, Balmer says, the same evangelical voting bloc that had helped one of their own get elected turned on the beleaguered Carter.

“He was actually facing a conspiracy on the part of evangelical leaders. What got them motivated was the fact that during his administration, the Internal Revenue Service was trying to enforce anti-discrimination laws at evangelical schools, including Falwell’s segregationist academy in Lynchburg, Virginia, and more visibly at Bob Jones University.”

Meanwhile, then-Dartmouth President John Kemeny took the helm of the commission investigating the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

Announcing the appointment at a press conference, Carter said Kemeny possessed “one of the most brilliant and incisive minds in this country.”

Jimmy Carter and members of the Three Mile Island Commission
President Jimmy Carter walks with members of the Three Mile Island Commission, including Dartmouth President John Kemeny, center, in October 1979. (Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress) 

The Kemeny commission made a number of recommendations, including re-structuring of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, stricter standards for regulation of the nuclear industry, better training for operating personnel, more careful monitoring of equipment, and the creation of a systematic public information program for use during a radiation-related emergency.

Rauner archives also contain communications from Kemeny’s office stating that to avoid any hint of partisanship, especially during the upcoming re-election campaign, Carter should not be invited to campus until the commission had completed its work.

After losing in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, Carter embarked on a longer, more global path of public service, about which the former president of Emory University, James Laney, has said, ‘He’s the only person in history for whom the presidency was a stepping-stone.’

“That perfectly captures Jimmy Carter and his post-presidency,” says Balmer.

Redeeming a Reputation

Although Balmer says Carter was unfairly attacked by political enemies and some members of the media, in recent years historians have begun to take a more positive view of his legacy. “He never deserved all the opprobrium that was directed at him, while in office or after he left,” Balmer says. “He lived long enough to see that reconsideration and re-assessment, and I’m pleased about that.”

Randall Balmer
Religion professor Randall Balmer is the author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. (Photo courtesy of Randall Balmer) 

Balmer last met with Carter in Plains in 2014, as the biography was nearing completion. He watched Carter teach Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church, and then accepted the Carters’ invitation to follow them back to their home, where Carter presented him with a copy of his devotional book Through the Year With Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President.

Balmer later wrote about the moment in Religion and Politics:

“‘I couldn’t find a new copy,’ Carter said as he handed me the book, so he had cadged Rosalynn’s copy from the nightstand. ‘I figured I could get you another book,’ he said with a tentative smile as he glanced in her direction. ‘You’re on page 70.’”

Rosalynn Carter’s bookmark still marked that page, Balmer recalls.

“It was on the meditation titled ‘Patience in Love.’”

Charlotte Albright