This week read Jimmy Carter, a short bio by Julian Zelizer. Some thoughts on the first president I can, if barely, remember:
–“In March 1953, the family moved to Schenectady, New York, where Jimmy took classes in nuclear physics at Union College and prepared to become the engineering officer for the USS Seawolf, the second nuclear submarine. All of these years as an engineer helped to shape Carter’s approach to tackling issues. He developed a technical and managerial, as well as a nonideological, mind-set to problem-solving that would inform him throughout his career.”
Which was entirely the problem. Carter was an engineer by temperament, but he was elected as a pious, humble, peanut farmer. He was a walking symbol, tossed up by Seventies nostalgia. When things got bad, he reverted back to his technocratic mindset and then couldn’t understand why people disliked it.
–Amy Carter was not the Carters’ only child. In fact, her oldest brother was 21 years her senior. He was a pure Boomer, she was pure GenX. Amy was actually a symbol for children of the Seventies. We were all compared to Amy circa 1977.
-Carter was a very appropriate president for the Seventies. He represented the flux of the decade. A Republican accused him of trying to combine two contradictory ideas, the Southern good ol’ boy and the post-Sixties liberal, but the promise of Jimmy Carter was maybe they weren’t contradictory, maybe there could be a synthesis. Maybe you could have an evangelical semi-liberal Democrat who invoked Bob Dylan. The lines hadn’t hardened yet.
-People forget that the first part of the Carter administration went pretty well. The economy bounced back from the ’73-’75 recession. Hedonism was in fashion. The Cold War was on low flame. He arranged the only real advance in Arab/Israel peace the world has ever seen. You could make a case that the years 1975 to 1978 were some of the best America has ever known, a reasonably golden period.
-But the reason folks forget is that after 1978 things went dramatically into the toilet. Iran fell, chopping global oil production off at the knees, which engendered a new energy crisis. That torpedoed the economy and brought back stagflation, inspiring Fed Chief Volcker to resolve to choke off inflation once and for all by raising interest rates past all previously considered ceilings. Khomeini came to power, the hostages got taken, their rescue failed. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan
And all of these events were completely outside Jimmy Carter’s control. If Jerry Ford had been re-elected, he’d have been in the exact same vise. Ronald Reagan should have thanked his lucky stars he didn’t get nominated/elected in ’76, because everything would have played out the same. Instead, he got to come in as a savior, and benefited from the natural cycle of change.