The Carter Presidency: an exchange

A reader wants to know why I’m beating up on Jimmy Carter, who did some good stuff while in office.

My comparison of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy to James I’s dithering about the Palatinate led to a dialogue with a reader, posted here verbatim (with permission, of course, but without the reader’s name at his request).


Is there a point to taking gratuitous potshots at Carter? Why not aim for party unity and good feelings?

Sometimes I say things because I think they’re true, and not to serve any short-term political purpose.

The election is over, and I see no point in pretending not to despise Carter &#8212 not least for his attempts to make as much trouble as he could for the Clinton Administration, especially in Haiti, where he did his level best to keep the Tontons Macoutes in power.

Did you notice how much help Carter was in the Martin campaign? Neither did I.

If you have some substantive defense to offer of Carter’s policies (in office or since) I’m always willing to publish readers’ comments.

Here is a partial list of good things Jimmy Carter did in office

1. The Vietnam draft amnesty

2. Killed the B-1 Bomber

3. Airline, railroad, interstate trucking, and telecom deregulation

4. Strong antitrust enforcement

5. The first president to support gay rights (opposed the Briggs initiative)

6. Renewable energy subsidies and energy conservation

7. Progressive laws on banking, the environment, worker safety, affirmative action

8. Normalization of relations with China

9. The Camp David Accords

10. The Panama Canal Treaty


12. Appointed far more progressive judges than Clinton. I won’t name names, but Clinton’s district court nominees are a mixed bag that includes many conservative corporate defense lawyers. I would much prefer to be in front of a random Carter or Ford appointee.

Carter also appointed Paul Volcker to run the federal reserve, who then for the good of the country but to Carter’s detriment sharply increased interest rates. While I wouldn’t say I despise Ted Kennedy, I wonder if Carter might have won if he had not been forced to move left to defeat it and instead stayed above the fray during the primaries stockpiling money to use against Reagan.

I don’t know anything about Haiti so I can’t comment there. I also don’t know if Carter is still popular enough in Georgia to have been helpful to Jim Martin. Also, at 84, I’d give him a pass on campaigning for every Georgia candidate who might use his help.

In any event I listed a lot more reasons above to love the guy than you have to despise him, especially given that he’s on our side.

I didn’t say he was a bad guy generally, though having worked in the bureaucracy when he was President I thought he was pretty much a turkey as far as running the government went. He did, as you say, some good stuff. My point was narrower: that his profound belief that he could rule the world with sheer goodness was, and is, folly.

Yes, having backed EMK in 1980 I now profoundly regret it. Four more years of Peanuts would have been a lot better than what we got. On the other hand, it wasn’t Kennedy who turned off the national Christmas tree to protest the Iranian seizure of our embassy, nor was it Kennedy who decided to mount a rather far-fetched rescue mission and then, in deference to Cyrus Vance, sent the mission in without enough reserve helicopters. If Carter had been less pre-occupied with the theater of his own virtue he would have been a better human being, and a better President.


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Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: