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His nobility of purpose came across as preachy self-righteousness

Pat MurphyJimmy Carter – who recently entered home hospice care at the age of 98 – was an unlikely occupant of the White House. You might even call him an accidental president. While circumstances play a role in the rise of all political leaders, Carter’s 1976 ascension was facilitated by extraordinary external events.

If the 1969 automobile accident at Chappaquiddick and the consequent drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne hadn’t tainted Senator Edward Kennedy’s reputation, Kennedy would’ve been the obvious Democratic presidential candidate in 1976. Notwithstanding his acquired mastery of the nominating process details, Carter wouldn’t have stood a chance.

And if the WaterFgate scandal hadn’t discombobulated the normal Republican selection process, Carter would’ve faced a more formidable general election opponent than Gerald Ford. As it was, he only bested Ford in a squeaker.

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Carter came to the presidency with huge Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. But almost from the get-go, he struggled. And four years later, his re-election bid crashed and burned in a landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan. Afterwards, he became something of a non-person in his own party. There were no “Carter Democrats” seeking to pick up the mantle and extend his legacy.

None of this appeared foreordained when Carter took the oath of office in January 1977. As a moderate southerner, he seemed well positioned to repair the traditional Democratic coalition that had fractured in 1972’s left-wing McGovern debacle. Carter was smart, well-intentioned, hard-working and detail-oriented. There’d be no executive sloppiness on his watch.

But if political competence involves the ability to persuade others or bend them to your will, he came up short in Washington’s world of separated powers. His nobility of purpose could easily be experienced as preachy self-righteousness, which isn’t a great way to manage the compromises necessary in an environment of independent actors with big egos and differing agendas.

Although large, the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate didn’t owe their incumbency to him as his 1976 victory had generated no coattails. So they didn’t feel beholden. And unlike his successor Reagan, he had limited ability to mobilize the general public as a source of pressure.

There was also a mismatch on fiscal matters. Carter cared about deficits and was keen on introducing concepts like zero-based budgeting to federal fiscal management. This wasn’t a natural fit with the preferences of many powerful Democratic players, Edward Kennedy being a particular example. Spending was their natural disposition.

Then there was the issue of priorities. Carter had lots of them, perhaps too many. As the maxim goes, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority – the system overloads and risks seizing up. Carter, however, had great difficulty taking friendly advice on this aspect of legislative management.

Oddly, Carter’s outsider status didn’t inoculate him from Washington’s conventional wisdom that Reagan would be a weak 1980 opponent and thus easy to beat. It didn’t necessarily cost him the election, but it likely hobbled his campaign.

Liberal commentator Meg Greenfield flagged the problem in a July 1980 Newsweek column. Noting the general penchant for creating a caricature of Reagan and then running (unsuccessfully) against it, Greenfield concluded this way: “Reagan the candidate and the platform he is running on both raise huge unanswered questions … But his candidacy and what it embodies are worth arguing with. They are not a joke. My guess is that Carter is going to have to fight him, to stop waiting (and praying) for the big goof, to engage Reagan on real-issues terrain. He is not going to be able to win by means of a protracted, satirical put-down.”

Carter was generally well-liked in Canada. Both Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau dealt with him as prime minister and thought highly of him.

Some other international peers were less enthusiastic. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a fan, and French president Giscard d’Estaing had his doubts. Comparing Thatcher and Carter, he summarized the difference: “She knew what she wanted to do, and she tried to do it. Jimmy Carter didn’t.”

It would be unfair to characterize Carter’s presidency as an unmitigated failure. For instance, the Camp David Accords, ushering in peace (albeit cold) between Israel and Egypt, were a real accomplishment. And Carter’s work ethic and meticulous attention to detail were instrumental to the outcome.

Often, though, he seemed like a man overwhelmed by events and out of touch with the American psyche. Presidents like that don’t get re-elected.

Sometimes brains and good intentions aren’t enough.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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