Jimmy Carter at 96 — an ‘old school’ Democrat

Today (October 1) Jimmy Carter turns 96. We’ve only had two Democrat presidents since him, but much has changed about his party since 1981, when he stepped down and was replaced by Ronald Reagan.

I finished reading Jimmy Carter’s White House Diary a couple years ago. I had read Ronald Reagan’s Diary about his time in the White House shortly before. I enjoy reading the news straight from the person in office without someone else editorializing. It adds a bit to their humanity, and you get to hear a little about their day-to-day life as individuals and then remember that this is history in the making. You really feel like you’re getting a front row seat. I learned a lot more from reading Carter’s diary than Reagan’s diary, probably in large part because I was more familiar with Reagan’s time in office and his accomplishments.

It was interesting to compare the areas in which politics and the nation have changed since then. Some things have changed a lot.

The first couple of years he talks a lot about foreign policy and the day-to-day grind. It doesn’t sound very political at all; just his day-to-day tasks. 

Here are a few observations or thoughts I had throughout the book:

  1. It occurs to me throughout the diary that by today’s standards, Carter would be considered a conservative Democrat, or at least a very moderate Democrat. Here are several reasons I say that:

-He talked a lot about cutting needless spending and projects. 

-He specifically said at one point that he felt more at home with conservative Republicans or conservative Democrats than liberals, even though liberals backed him and supported him more.

-The much more liberal Ted Kennedy opposed him in the 1980 Democrat primary. 

-An adviser tells Carter that the Northern liberals are having a harder time with him because he’s from the South and a devout Christian.

-He talked about the need to reform entitlements and Social Security. Although in some ways he seems conservative, his instincts and inclinations are still those of a Democrat, even by today’s standards. In a footnote, Carter said Social Security should be addressed today by increasing payments from wealthier people and maybe cutting benefits to wealthier people. This is the instinct of a Democrat, whereas a Republican would be more inclined to say to increase the retirement age. Nonetheless, it does show someone who actually pays attention to budgets.

-He is overall pro-life and against abortion, but he says he didn’t plan to get in the way of Roe vs. Wade. He didn’t seem to be that upset about abortion. 

2. It occured to me while reading the diary that we really haven’t had a truly liberal president until Barack Obama. Jimmy Carter would be a more conservative Democrat, whereas Bill Clinton would be a more moderate Democrat. From 1968 to 2008, there were only two Democrat presidents: Carter and Clinton. Clinton was a member of the “New Democrats,” a group of Democrats who didn’t necessarily want a smaller government but a more efficient government. Clinton passed DOMA, a strict welfare reform, a crime bill, and a free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. But enough about Bill Clinton. 

3. Carter doesn’t talk much about economics or domestic affairs compared to foreign affairs. I think it’s great that he was so knowledgeable about foreign affairs, but I have to wonder if people paid better attention back then to foreign affairs. It doesn’t seem to matter much today. Also, Carter probably should have spoken about domestic issues, since inflation and the economy ended up being a big problem for him. At the end, he says that he enjoyed foreign talks more than domestic because he didn’t need as much Congressional approval for foreign affairs.

4. There was nowhere near the partisan anger that we witness now. Gerald Ford and even Barry Goldwater supported Carter on his Panama Canal proposal. Carter specifically says that there wasn’t the same animosity, and that the parties could often work together without fear of their bases betting too mad at them.

A few other random interesting items:

-Carter continued to teach the Bible during Sunday School and talked often about the Bible. It was heartwarming to hear a president (a Democrat no less) talk about preaching from John 4, Romans 8, Luke 9, and II Kings, and to talk about getting jewelry for his wife with Ecclesiastes 9:9 written on it. It was good to hear him suggest to a Communist leader that he should become a believer, and then also suggest that the leader offer more religious freedom. 

-Carter seemed very compassionate about the plight of the poor and of minorities who had been oppressed. He mentioned at one point that he was concerned about laws that seem to be harsher on drugs that poor people used more than drugs that rich people used. He thought the death penalty was more likely to be used against poor blacks than rice whites. And yet, he seems to get along very well with Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd, who had famously filibustered the Civil Rights Act about 15 years earlier and had been a KKK leader. Carter never uttered a word of concern regarding this fact about Byrd. Carter’s relationship with Byrd seemed to deteriorate as Byrd seemed to support Ted Kennedy in the Democrat primary.

-He wrote more about the Camp David Accords and his work with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat than about anything else in the diary. Carter seemed more frustrated with Israel than any of the surrounding countries in the Middle East that traditionally wanted to destroy Israel. He seemed to like Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but he continued to act as though it was Begin that was being the most difficult one in working out a peace deal. At one point, he candidly says Israel is the most obstinate country in the Middle East. And yet, it was Sadat, not Begin, who one day threatened to leave and give up the entire deal. Carter had to talk him out of leaving. Throughout the diary, Carter continues to talk about his frustration with Israel’s continued settlements in the West Bank. Yet he leaves out the fact that Israel’s neighbors had actually tried to destroy it just a decade earlier. Carter does mention that it seems the UN doesn’t do anything other than denounceIsrael, but then he criticized Israel himself. It seems strange to me that someone who loves the Bible and has read the Old Testament doesn’t have a little more of a predisposition to see things from Israel’s point of view. It almost seems like he’s blind to the rampant anti-Semitism. 

-Despite this, there is a very touching moment when Carter decides to take Sadat and Begin to Gettysburg. While there, the three of them are solemnly looking over the battlefield. Begin begins to quote the Gettysburg Address — and he quotes the words verbatim!

-Carter complained a lot about the press. He sounded like President Donald Trump does today. He skipped the White House Correspondents Dinner, and he constantly criticized the press and says they are untruthful and unfair. When the presidential election heats up against Ronald Reagan, he makes it sound like the press is being easy on Reagan and hard on him!

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