James Earl Carter, Jr., was the president of the United States from 1977 to 1981, succeeding Gerald Ford. Though he only served a single term, his was a significant presidency in both foreign and domestic affairs, and he presided over a tumultuous time in American history.
Like his predecessor, he was a gifted student and athlete and a navy officer. He resigned from the navy in 1953 immediately following the death of his father and worked on his family’s Georgia peanut farm for the rest of the decade, becoming active in local politics. In 1962 he was elected to the State Senate, and he ran for governor only four years later, losing, but winning the 1970 election. During the election, he seemed to pay lip service to segregationists, but he condemned segregation immediately upon attaining office.
He was the first southern governor to condemn segregation, and he underscored his point by appointing blacks to many state offices. A reform-minded pragmatist, he worked at streamlining state government, condensing programs and agencies while increasing school funding, especially in the poorer parts of the state.
But nothing in his governorship brought him to national attention, and when he ran for president in 1976, he was almost a complete unknown. He made his reorganization of state government the centerpiece of his national campaign, and his soft-spoken charisma, southernness, and traditional moral character (Carter had taught Sunday school for years, and his sister Ruth was a well-known evangelist) were well received in the aftermath of Nixon’s corruption and Ford’s irrelevance.
Though his opposition to segregation distanced him from the Dixiecrats, he was conservative for a Democrat and had criticized 1972 Democratic candidate George McGovern for being too liberal. Sentiment was against Ford sufficiently for Carter to win the election, albeit by a slim (2 percent) margin. He was the first southerner elected president since 1848.
As president, Carter inherited a difficult economic situation. Stagflation and the 1973 oil crisis had discouraged growth for too long, after the lengthy healthy period to which Americans had become accustomed after World War II. The 1979 energy crisis followed the Iranian revolution, when the (previously American-supported) shah of Iran fled his country and allowed the Ayatollah Khomeini to seize power. Inflation reached double digits, and although many of Carter’s fixes were probably effective, the results were not seen until after he had lost the 1980 election.
Where Carter excelled was in diplomacy. In September 1978 he brought Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat to Camp David, to continue and finalize peace negotiations that had been ongoing for months in the wake of the Yom Kippur War and the other Middle Eastern conflicts of the decade. The Camp David accords remain one of the most important developments in modern Middle Eastern relations, setting a precedent for Arab-Israeli diplomacy while segregating powerful Egypt from its Arab allies.
Carter’s foreign policy was driven by his respect for human rights, which may have influenced his decision to deny the shah’s request for help during the Iranian Revolution. Though the shah’s reign had begun with American support immediately after World War II, and his governance remained more liberal and Western-friendly than any other in the region, his social policies were still a far cry from what even conservative Westerners would support, and by the late ’70s, this gap was more pronounced than it had been 30 years earlier.
Carter did eventually grant the exiled shah entry to the United States for cancer treatment in October 1979. In response, Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Tehran and held 53 hostages for more than a year. There is widespread speculation that the final negotiations were delayed by parties seeking Ronald Reagan’s election; the hostages were released on the day of his inauguration.
The combination of the failing economy and the hostage crisis led to Carter’s loss to Reagan in the 1980 election. For years he was considered something of a joke, emblematic of a weak Democratic Party unable to contend with the 12-year Reagan-Bush era. He remained active in humanitarian work, especially in the areas of human rights and public health, and was only the third U.S. president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since the 1990s he has taken on a role as occasional diplomat, visiting countries such as North Korea and Venezuela, and was the first president to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution. He has also been active with the charity Habitat for Humanity.