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The Riddle of Jimmy Carter

He seemed like the most open and honest man ever elected president. So why does his true nature remain so elusive, even to those who know him best?

Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

On a cloudy morning at the airport in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, a long motorcade of white Land Cruisers is lined up on a battered runway, motors idling. Secret Service agents listening stoically to their earpieces, clusters of soldiers in camo fatigues, tall Sudanese dignitaries in dusty suits — we’ve all been waiting out on the tarmac since well before nine, checking the sky. Jimmy Carter likes to say, “I have a fetish about being late,” and even here, halfway across the world, everyone knows that showing up early to see him arrive precisely on schedule is part of the experience, like watching Clinton eat a cheeseburger or Bush clear some brush.

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There is also something distinctly Carter about the choice of destination. Southern Sudan is seeking independence from the North, but after five decades of on-again, off-again civil war, the country has been so traumatized by killing, famine, slavery and disease that it can seem like a feral place — a failed state even before it has become a state. Though it is early in the morning and still cool, this is late winter, the dry season in northeast Africa, when temperatures rise through the day past 110 degrees. A faint scent of burning fills the air, and the distant echo of things either being constructed or torn apart; in Juba, a war-smashed city with gutted armored personnel carriers strewn along the White Nile, it’s often difficult to tell what is a building site and what is rubble.

This article appeared in the February 3, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

A white plane banks out of the clouds, and everyone on the runway immediately stops speaking and watches while it lands and taxis to a halt. The cabin door is flung open and there they are, those iconic images from a thousand newscasts: First the smile, then the wave and the climb down to the tarmac, the dignitaries striding forward for formal greetings — the familiar ritual executed with such precision that it is easy to forget for a moment that Jimmy Carter is not still the American president.

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I have come to Sudan to begin a period of months of thinking about Carter. The midterm elections are still nearly a year away, but there is already a public perception in the United States, faint but growing, that the Obama presidency is not going well. As observers assail the president for his scattered ambitions, his lack of a grand vision, his outsider’s discomfort with the ways of Washington, his fumbling economic policies, how aloof and detached he seems, his undervaluing politics because substance is more important, his having written too many memoirs, and above all for his supposed lack of toughness, the man he is increasingly compared with is Carter. In Foreign Policy, the writer Walter Russell Mead has published an article called “The Carter Syndrome,” in which he warns “the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart — and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter.” Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times, comes to a similar conclusion. Obama, he observes, seems to be looking more and more to Clinton’s presidency as a model, “because, in the end, it’s better than being Jimmy Carter.”

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Carter is the great national sinking feeling. Carter is where you end up when you lose your way. These days, the kindest thing most people have to say about Carter’s presidency is that he is the best former president, a compliment that Carter tells me doesn’t trouble him — “it does annoy my wife” — but which others in a position to know claim “galls him.” What does it say about Carter that Obama kept clear of him during the midterm elections, even as he sent Bill Clinton out to stump for Democrats? Clinton! — who had said all those nasty things about Obama back when Hillary was running against him. Carter is where the danger lurks for Obama. Democrats who voted for change in 2008 thought they were getting FDR for the global age, or JFK with better morals. Now they are more like Democrats in 1978, discovering just how uninspiring an inspired man can be.

As for Republicans, Carter has the same effect on them that George W. Bush has on Democrats: He brings out a kind of sputtering, incoherent rage, infused with a deep tincture of fear. A recent poll of prominent conservative bloggers, who were asked to rank the 25 “worst” figures in American history, placed Carter first on the list, just ahead of Obama. How has it come to this? How has Obama’s fragile moment become a reminder of the extent to which Jimmy Carter lost control of his legacy? And who really is Carter anyway?

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That has always been the rub, the core elusiveness of the man. It would be hard to find a person of comparable fame and ongoing public presence who has remained more personally remote. In 1976, candidate Carter created the impression of an honest, God-fearing peanut farmer with a loving heart who would be a purgative to American integrity in the troubled aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam. Much of what drew people to him was his smile, the most seductive American politics has ever known. It switched on like a floodlight, an intense glow that lingered, warming people long after he was gone. But four decades later, even those close to Carter are still struggling to understand what’s behind that luminous grin. There are people like that, about whom we know many things and yet who seem forever unknowable. For a man who has lived his entire life in politics, this opaqueness can serve a useful purpose. It draws us closer to him, encourages us to fill in the blanks, to see our best selves in him. But if that proves impossible, the ensuing disappointment and frustration can also produce a ferocious backlash, an untethered need to lash out at what we have been denied.

“Carter’s always been an enigma,” says Jerry Rafshoon, who served as Carter’s White House communications director. “The problem is that people can’t categorize him, pigeonhole him. Is he liberal? Moderate? Conservative? Tell me the issue! Even then it’s complicated. You can’t put labels on him. Never could. When he got into office, the liberals were unhappy with him. Conservatives, especially in the South, were unhappy with him: ‘He’s one of ours and he disappoints us!’ I used to hear complaining from all sides. I’m seeing that with Obama now.”

The rituals of arriving in a foreign country still give Carter obvious satisfaction. Although he and Rosalynn, his wife of 64 years, are usually inseparable — during his presidency she sat in on his Cabinet meetings — he has come to Juba without her. She had taken ill in Khartoum, their previous stop, and stayed behind to rest up and visit the Nubian pyramids. Carter has been under the weather himself; on the flight to Juba, he later confesses, “I threw up two or three times.” But for the most part, long-distance travel affects him as little today as it did when his conveyance was Air Force One, and he traversed the world, impervious to jet lag.

This morning, he’s wearing khakis, casual black shoes, a blue shirt and a red tie. In other words, he still dresses like a high school guidance counselor. He shops like one, too. Carter flew to Africa on a supporter’s private jet, but he buys his clothes at the Dollar General store back in Plains, Georgia. “Tight as bark on a tree” is Carter’s old friend Dot Padgett’s cheerful assessment of his Depression-era frugality.

Carter’s days rarely involve spontaneity. Through the agency of the Carter Center, the flourishing, action-oriented organization he founded in 1982 to resolve international conflicts, promote democracy and fight disease, he keeps so busy that his calendar is a legendary document covered with transverse lines, abstract art made out of advance planning. Rita Thompson, a volunteer on his 1976 campaign who now serves as a family assistant, says, “He relaxes once a year. The week after Christmas.” That’s when Carter takes a family trip with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he organizes right down to the minutes set aside for “free time.” To be late for anything on the itinerary is to be left behind, with an exception granted for Rosalynn, whose 57th-birthday present from Carter was a promise to never again nag her about “tardiness.” The other 51 weeks, Carter’s preferred pace is constant motion, flurrying from briefing to meeting to press conference, maintaining a slam-the-door-and-go tempo that keeps everyone who works for him aware at all times of where the exit signs are.

Although Carter insists that he travels as a private citizen, the truth is that he operates as a foreign service of one, going where he pleases, making his own assessments, issuing statements that can alter the course of world events. The ambiguity of this official-yet-unofficial status has irritated every American president from Reagan on. (“I didn’t like it when a certain former president — and it wasn’t 41 or 42 — made my life miserable,” George W. Bush has complained.) But it’s not hard to see why foreign leaders find the time to talk with Carter; a former American president, even one often at odds with his own government, possesses an inevitable patina of power. Up in Khartoum, Carter had met with Omar Al-Bashir, the Northern dictator whose militias have slaughtered millions, to remind him that the Carter Center was organizing impartial observers to monitor this month’s highly charged referendum on independent Southern statehood. Now, after meeting with the Southern president, Salva Kiir, Carter climbs into a Land Cruiser and heads off to pursue his other major project in Sudan: curing the great plague caused by a waterborne parasite called the Guinea worm.

Guinea worm has been an excruciating human scourge dating back to biblical times, when it was known as the Fiery Serpent, and is thought to have tormented the followers of Moses. Once someone becomes infected from drinking stagnant water, a white worm as long as three feet forms in the abdomen before slowly emerging through a burning lesion. Although rarely fatal, Guinea worm cripples those infected, leaving them temporarily unable to participate in life and exacerbating their poverty. When Carter left the White House, an estimated 3.5 million people in 20 countries suffered from the disease.

One of the great tensions in Carter is the relationship in him between virtue and ambition; it’s often hard to square his public image of piety and good works with his relentless competitive streak. This is a man who, while out turkey hunting, once claimed he could make a better turkey call than a turkey could. Carter’s protégé and campaign director, Hamilton Jordan, called his boss “the world’s worst loser.” Jordan may have had Carter’s tennis playing in mind. At the Georgia governor’s mansion, there were thorny rose bushes growing alongside the tennis court, and Carter liked working the angles to place shots that produced scarred as well as defeated opponents. In 1986, still smarting from as conspicuous a defeat as this country can provide, Carter was looking to win at something big when he was approached by an old health policy adviser, Dr. Peter Bourne.

Bourne knew he didn’t have to convince Carter of the virtues of curing disease. The former president had grown up in rural South Georgia, one of the most backward regions of the United States, where it was routine to see sores on the skin of pellagra-stricken sharecroppers; Carter understood the relationship between stigma and sickness, the circular way one keeps leading to the other. But there are a lot of illnesses in the world that bedevil poor people, and unlike Guinea worm, some of them afflict Americans. So Bourne sold Carter on fighting the Guinea worm by pointing out that only one disease in history has ever been completely eradicated: smallpox. That coup had been less a matter of science than a massive engineering enterprise, a medical Manhattan Project. Guinea worm, Bourne said, could be the world’s second eradicated disease. All that would be required for Carter to achieve such a rare and glorious victory was a sustained organizational effort — the kind of undertaking certain to appeal to an engineering graduate, U.S. Naval Academy, Class of ’47. With that, Bourne had his man.

The first personal trait most people would think to describe in Carter is motivation, how much stamina he can summon of himself to defeat a problem over a sustained period. His college sport at the Naval Academy was cross-country, and until his knees failed him in his seventies, he continued to run long distances. “I was a fanatic runner,” he tells me. “Forty miles a week for a long time.” What made Carter well suited to the sport also explains his aptitude for long-term projects, the way patience and impatience play at useful tension in him. He is always thinking about the distant finish. As a politician, Carter seemed to thrive on being underestimated. He was inevitably the long-shot candidate who campaigned so tenaciously that he simply wore down his better-known opponents. (In his 1970 run for Georgia governor, he shook 600,000 hands and visited, he claimed, every factory gate in Georgia.) During his presidency, his greatest achievement was the Camp David Accords, the historic framework for peaceful relations between Israel and Egypt that was negotiated over 12 days in September 1978, and which succeeded only because Carter shuttled back and forth between the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, staying up deep into the night, refusing to allow them to quit, singing Israeli folk songs with Begin’s delegation, refereeing moments of stalemate and outrage, inexorably coaxing them toward an agreement. In the end, when Sadat and Begin raised their arms in joint accomplishment, it was Carter’s unexpected victory.

It has been the same way with Guinea worm. Today, a quarter-century after Carter took up the cause and began deploying platoons of volunteers across the world, only 1,700 cases of Guinea worm are thought to still exist, most of them somewhere out in the vast Southern Sudan bush. “Village by village, like chewing on a rock, we make progress,” is how Carter describes the process. Once I hear him use this phrase, it seems so perfectly to express Carter himself that for a long time afterward, whenever I think of him, I imagine a man with a chunk of shale in his mouth, biting down hard.

Before heading out into the bush to visit a remote village, Carter meets with a group of health officials and volunteers at the U.S. consulate in Juba. Nothing energizes Carter more than a good Guinea-worm meeting, and this one is full of PowerPoint presentations and meticulous reports from in-country. Carter sits at the head of the table, listening to health workers who have emerged from the field, taken long showers and put on their best clothes to meet the former president and describe what they need from him to finish the job. They look like campaign volunteers, and they have the same all-in passion for the cause — they are sure that Guinea worm will be totally eradicated by 2012, if there is no more war in the region. “We will get there!” one of them declares.

The torrent of infrastructure data and case-reduction figures Carter is absorbing brings to mind the president whose appetite for briefing-book minutiae was such that his CIA director Stansfield Turner says he once approached Carter to bring him up to speed on world food supplies, only to discover that his boss had already memorized the figures for wheat production per hectare in places like Afghanistan and India. Donald Hopkins, a leading epidemiologist who helped eliminate smallpox and now directs health programs at the Carter Center, compares the former president to Jack Webb, the relentless detective from the old TV show Dragnet. “Just the facts,” Hopkins says. “He wants the bottom line, and you can’t bluff him.”

Listening to the health workers in Juba, Carter offers praise and encouragement, although in limited doses. He has never been much for approbation. “Every sort of compliment you get from him is hard not to take,” is the delicate way that Bert Lance, his closest White House adviser, puts it. Carter’s two great mentors in life were his father, a businessman and land owner, and the Navy admiral Hyman Rickover, who created the country’s nuclear submarine program and chose Carter to take part in it. Their mutual way of nurturing Carter was not to say anything about his performance unless they found it lacking. Carter’s response, according to Rafshoon, was to become a person who is “always wanting to prove it to somebody.”

The conference room at the consulate has cold soft drinks and dishes full of fresh macadamia nuts, and the surrounding compound includes a swimming pool where Carter can complete his daily regimen of at least 40 lengths. But atop the exterior walls are spikes of barbed wire, and a sign on the exit gate warns those heading out to vary their transit routes and never to travel without a cellphone. Encountering Carter in such a setting, it is difficult not to think of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, the event that abruptly alerted Americans that they were now as vulnerable as everyone else. That November, Islamic students stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran, holding 52 hostages captive for the final 444 days of Carter’s presidency. Carter himself became a prisoner of the predicament, growing so obsessed with the hostages that for months on end he remained in the Oval Office, refusing to light the national Christmas tree or campaign for re-election. His inability to make a band of flag-burning militants in a small nation bend to our will enraged an electorate whose desire to see America as an indefatigable force in the world prevented them from finding virtue in a dogged president whose determination to wait the situation out, in the end, brought every hostage back alive.

At home, Americans were also becoming increasingly familiar with an economic indicator known as the Misery Index. Oil shortages led to an “energy crisis,” double-digit inflation and high unemployment. Carter responded by appointing Paul Volcker to lead the Federal Reserve. Volcker, he knew, would raise interest rates, creating a counterbalancing recession. There would be many months of economic pain, and then, well after the presidential election in November 1980, there would be relief. Stuart Eizenstat, who served as Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser, remembers him making the Volcker decision. “He said, ‘Inflation can’t be my legacy. We must choke inflation out. I’ve tried everything else.’ If that’s weak and ineffectual, I don’t understand the definition. He took the worst medicine. It was like chemotherapy. He hoped it would work. Otherwise comes death. It worked. Volcker rightly gets the economic credit. But Carter should get the political credit.”

At the time, many Americans thought the energy crisis was flimflam. With his concerns about excessive consumption, and the perils of relying so heavily on imported oil, Carter was way ahead of his time — talking hybrids to a country not yet sold on seat belts. Carter says he spent more time thinking about energy policy than anything else, investigating alternatives like synthetic fuels, geothermal energy, wind and solar power, tax credits for energy efficiency. His initiatives cut oil imports in half, a trend that was quickly reversed by Reagan. Reducing foreign oil seemed especially crucial to Carter, he says, because scientists had already noticed “the first glimmer of global warming.” There is little doubt that the world would be a far better place today if Jimmy Carter’s energy programs had lasted.

In July 1979, Carter searched for a way to explain to an Eisenhower generation used to believing they could have it all, that there were limits in life. He scheduled an energy speech. Then, instead of delivering it, he disappeared. “The whole country did a double take,” says the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. “Nobody knew where he was. He canceled the speech. Where’d he go? Nobody knows what’s going on. All was quiet. People thought he’d gone crazy.”

Carter was at the presidential retreat in Camp David, where he spent days in reflection, weighing what to say to the nation. Then he came down from the Maryland mountaintop, looked into the camera and announced that the country was suffering from a “crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” But America could revive, if it would roll up its sleeves and sacrifice. “I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy,” he said. “What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight.”

The speech was a presidential classic because Carter had done that rare thing: He had spoken to Americans like adults, appealing to that cherished Emersonian myth of self-reliance, offering a progressive way to be patriotic. And the country responded. For a moment, Carter’s polling soared — until he followed up the speech a few days later by abruptly asking for the resignations of his entire Cabinet.

Looking on at the time, Eizenstat witnessed a display of political ineptitude that seemed “hard to fathom,” almost willful, as though Carter was a man determined to emphasize the difficulty of the times at a moment when what people wanted most from him was a diversion from all the hardship — a worthy cause, an uplifting of the heart, maybe even a laugh or two. In storage, Carter located the old “The buck stops here” sign of his favorite president, Harry Truman, and placed it on his own desk in the Oval Office. But Truman played poker and piano, liked sharp haberdashery, and sent off hasty letters defending his daughter’s terrible singing. Truman was fun. Carter, like Obama, had campaigned largely on his own personality; he had charm, but he didn’t value it. People close to him were always trying to convince you how funny he was, a sure sign that he wasn’t really very funny. Carter was the national drudge. “

After three years in office, there was no buoyancy, no optimism,” says Eizenstat. “Optimism — the great presidents have it. Clinton had it. Roosevelt and Reagan had it. President Carter, for all his skills, did not. Maybe because he is a realist.”

Carter had campaigned as a leader whom Americans could rely on because he was one of them, just folks, a humble, trustworthy and plainspoken man of faith and of the land. But once in the White House, he seemed different, less down home than a little out there. Part of it was his eccentric family. There was his God-loving evangelist sister Ruth, his Hells Angels-loving sister Gloria, his beery brother Billy and his mother, Miss Lillian, “a sight in this world,” as they say in Plains, who once reflected on her own four children: “Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin.” At the White House, Carter’s divorced son Chip could be found up on the roof getting stoned with Willie Nelson, while downstairs daughter Amy read books at the table during state dinners and roller-skated through the White House halls. When family friends Gregg Allman and Cher came to supper, the Carters watched as their guests mistook the contents of the finger bowls for clear soup, eating even the scented geranium leaves floating on the surface. Amid the chaos, Carter himself seemed an alternately stern and bemused figure, busying himself with briefing books while everyone ran wild around him. His coolness to the national press, coupled with media prejudice against Southerners, had primed many journalists to describe him as “un-presidential,” and the widely mocked report in 1979 that his fishing boat had been attacked by a fast-swimming “killer” Georgia swamp rabbit only increased public concern that Carter was too weak and too odd for the job.

The following year, voters sent him back to Georgia. “I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt,” he said in his concession speech, with the tinge of embittered vengeance that still resonates to this day. What tends to define that 1980 presidential election now is the landslide margin that ushered in the Reagan Revolution. Yet in the final few days of the campaign, polls projected a vote