This summer, Democratic candidates are making well-publicized trips to Plains, Georgia (population 776), to embrace the legacy of the town’s most famous resident: Jimmy Carter. For decades, such a move would’ve been shocking. It was axiomatic among political strategists that associations with Carter’s “failed presidency” were toxic. But today, a seat in Carter’s Maranatha Baptist Church Sunday-school class again has become one of the hottest tickets around.
Amid presidential scandals, social upheaval and economic uncertainty, today’s cultural moment contains eerie parallels to the one in which Carter was elected. And Democratic presidential hopefuls are eager to cast themselves as Washington outsiders, just as the peanut-farmer-turned-president once did.
As journalists Bill Barrow and Gabriel Debenedetti recently observed, this modern pilgrimage to Plains is part of a broader, unprecedented renaissance for the longest-living chief executive in U.S. history, once a pariah even in his own party. Left unexplored, however, is whether the eventual Democratic nominee can avoid the pitfalls that torpedoed Carter’s presidency — especially an inability to work with the establishment.
Upon his narrow victory in 1976, Carter was hailed by the leading, consensus-minded Washington reporters as a media genius for staging one of the most astonishing feats in U.S. history — the “miracle” rise of an anti-establishment outsider.
But Carter’s honeymoon was short. Reporters began picking apart the administration’s image-craft tactics at the first signs of a White House in “disarray.” Shortly after Carter’s first 100 days in office, Watergate-inspired watchdog journalists uncovered a “pattern of corner-cutting and dubious banking practices” used by Bert Lance, one of Carter’s closest confidants and the newly appointed Office of Management and Budget director. Opinion-setters like New York Times Washington bureau chief Hedrick Smith pounced, insisting that Carter’s “new morality” echoed “some of the old.”
By the launch of Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign in August 1979, the consensus among leading reporters was one of a floundering presidency. They saw his infamous “crisis of confidence” speech in July 1979 followed by the dismissal of four Cabinet members — intended to signal an official shift in the direction of his administration — as symptoms of weak and ineffectual leadership in the face of domestic and international crises. The nightly news specials the following year that focused on “America Held Hostage,” reminding audiences of precisely how many days the Iranian hostage crisis had dragged on, reinforced this narrative of weakness and ineptitude.
And yet in recent years, scholars and other chroniclers of Carter’s one-term presidency have shifted their focus from his failures to his little-heralded successes: the Camp David peace accords, the establishment of the Education and Energy departments, the creation of the modern vice presidency and the deregulation of transportation, just to name a few. And they all also return to a prominent historiographical theme — that, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin once put it, Carter was “a good and decent man.”
Collective memory of public figures tends to mirror present needs and wants, making the post-truth world of the Trump presidency a perfect moment for newfound appreciation for the Sunday-school-teaching, Habitat for Humanity-building Carter. The 39th president’s renaissance is rooted in the unfulfilled desires of millions of Americans for honest leaders committed to delivering “government as good as the American people,” as Carter promised on the campaign trail.
Sensing the shift in Carter’s political fortune, presidential hopefuls casting themselves as Washington outsiders are trying to harness his public appeal.
Interestingly, Carter’s failings in office did not prompt a reappraisal from voters about the virtues of outsider candidates. Americans have arguably chosen the outsider in most presidential elections since, from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Trump.
Amber Roessner is an associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism & Electronic Media and author of “Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign,” forthcoming in spring 2020. This article is excerpted from a longer version published by the Washington Post.