I guess it is no surpise that the “Carter/worst-president” meme is getting new traction these days (see, e.g., link). He is, after all, the guy who broke the rule of ex-presidential omertà to identify the man who really is the worst president (link). And of course, as perhaps an even graver crime, he’s had the presumption to challenge the prevailing shibboleths about power in the
Still, there are voters old enough to be grandparents who were not old enough to vote when Ronald Reagan trounced Carter in 1979. And for them, we need always to repeat: Carter is not the worst president ever. He wasn’t even a very bad one. He was a mediocre president who has always, in office and out, paid more attention to trying to get it right than he has to his image.
I won’t plow over all the old ground again, and in particular, I won’t waste a lot of time trying to insist that good intentions trump lousy results—Warren Harding, after all, seems to have been a nice enough man, but a calamitous president. Richard Nixon was a Darth Vader of a human being but in the end, not quite as bad a president as people make him out to be.
My particular point is that some of the points on which Carter appears most vulnerable to his critics are those on which he was behaving precisely as the right-wingers would want him to behave.
Exhibit #A: One of the truest charges against Jimmy Carter is that he was a moral arrogance, touched with a streak of mean-spiritedness. Yet of all our presidents, Carter has the best claim to recognition as a born-again Christian. Born-agains (Carter and others) have contributed a lot that is good to American political life. Republicans like Henry Hyde and Sam Brownbeck have put their convictions to work on issues like human rights abroad in a way that mere pragmatists would not have thought to do. Yet arrogance and mean-spiritedness appear to be almost inevitable corollaries of this kind of belief—you take what you can get.
Exhibit #B: Almost nobody seems to want to remember these days that it was Carter, not Reagan, who set us on the road to deregulation. Trucking, natural gas, airlines: all these were products of the Carter years.
Exhibit #C: We talk about “The Carter inflation.” In fact, the inflation we saw in the Carter years was the result of policies that long preceded him. It would be at least as just to call it “The Johnson inflation,” or “the Nixon inflation” (and remember this?). In fact, what most people remember as “The Carter inflation” might well be remembered as “The Volcker inflation”—the stiff, sharp, shock, administered by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Carter’s appointee. This is precisely the kind of “shock therapy” that robust free marketeers find so attractive when it is administered to the poor and vulnerable in, say,
I think there is a good reason why people don’t remember characteristics like this from the Carter years. That is: neither side really wants to hear about them. The right has no incentive to remember him as a good Christian, and they certainly don’t want to give him credit for free-market economics or monetary prudence. The left for its part, is at least ambivalent on all three counts: for them, Carter’s born-again-ness was one of his least attractive qualities, and deregulation and monetary stabilization don’t really count as achievements in their circle anyway.
We are left, then, with a president who was certainly not one of the “greats,” but one whose record is probably more complex and interesting than his critics want you to believe. Just like Dwight Eisenhower, say. Or Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter as the greatest Republican president ever? Of course not. But you could make a far better case for this particular simplistic catchphrase than for the one that seems to be goin’ round.