Leslie Griffin Reviews Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter: The White House Years (Thomas Dunne Books, 2018)

Stuart Eizenstat on President Carter’s Morality: Episodes From an Administration

 Leslie C. Griffin*

Stuart Eizenstat’s 999-page book, President Carter: The White House Years, promises to “redeem his presidency from the lingering memories.”[1] The book has put President Jimmy Carter back in the news. Eizenstat was present for most of Carter’s political career. He started with Carter’s gubernatorial campaign in 1970 Georgia and then served as domestic policy director in the Carter White House.

Eizenstat concludes Carter was a “good and productive” president who produced a lasting record of accomplishments. [2] He has prepared a powerful critique and praise of his former boss, offering the “negatives along with the positives” that make Carter’s record worth re-considering.[3]

The moral aspects of the story are especially interesting to me. Everyone has always connected Carter with morality. We learn at times in this book how his advisor thinks Carter’s commitment to morality worked in presidential practice. It turns out it was good sometimes, and bad others. Eizenstat thinks Carter was a great moralist, but could have been a better politician. As he writes,

Jimmy Carter did not have the grace of John Kennedy, the congressional wizardry of Lyndon Johnson, the strategic vision of Richard Nixon, the charm and clarity of purpose of Ronald Reagan, the foreign-policy experience of George H. W. Bush, the supreme political skills of Bill Clinton, the toughness of George W. Bush, or the eloquence of Barack Obama. But he brought to the Oval Office his own unique intellect, inquisitiveness, self-discipline, political courage, and resilience in the face of setbacks. He disregarded the political costs of trying to make the nation and the world a better place in ways that transcended his presidency and often did not come to fruition until he left office.[4]


Throughout the book, we see the Carter who repeatedly “disregarded the political costs” of his moral choices. Eizenstat gives recurrent examples of the “quintessential Jimmy Carter, doing what he considered ‘the right thing’ regardless of the political consequences”.[5] To those of us who care about morality, it sounds like a good thing to be a stubborn and tenacious president who believed the American people would reward him with their votes for doing the right thing, and not for considering the political aspects of his job.

The book, however, tells us the lesson was more complex because Carter’s “insistence on immediately tackling the tough challenges, regardless of political costs and competing priorities, was at once his strength and weakness”.[6] Seeing things that way provides some practical lessons about presidential ethics. Eizenstat wants us to understand that “it is hard to think of a president with so many unheralded and indeed pathbreaking accomplishments who nevertheless got so little political credit for the kudos”.[7] For example, Carter saved both New York from bankruptcy and thousands of union jobs; nonetheless Mayor Koch turned against Carter and the UAW endorsed Ted Kennedy for president.

Recently, the Washington Post ran an article[8] that confirms some of the lessons of Eizenstat’s book. Unlike other presidents, who acquired a lot of post-presidential assets and now cost a lot of money to support, Carter is back in his old home, in Plains, Georgia, living much more simply than the others. He says “[i]t just never had been my ambition to be rich.” He and his wife, Rosalynn, cook their dinner at home, and he even does the dishes! Carter flies commercial planes, and was seen recently shaking hands with all the people sitting down on the plane as he boarded his flight. Eizenstat is quoted in that story, saying Carter “didn’t feel suited to the grandeur [of the White House]. . . . Plains is really part of his DNA. He carried it into the White House, and he carried it out of the White House.”

We learn from the book that morality may be good over the long run. But it is frequently a mistake to ignore the political implications of a political job, as Carter did repeatedly. You at least pay the cost of that choice when you run for reelection.


My Interest in Carter


My background explains my perspective on Jimmy Carter. I have a long interest in President Carter because of my academic interest in ethics. I wrote an article in 1989 about the problem of dirty hands, which asks if politicians can be moral.[9] Christians have long debated that question. Some say to stay out of politics and be morally pure. Others recommend going into politics. But then they disagree again. Go into politics and be immoral.  Go into politics and follow a political morality that is different from personal morality. Go into politics and apply a common morality to personal and political choices.

The use of violence helps explain the differences. Should Christians stay out of politics because they may have to order the use of force? Or should they be politicians, who use force immorally or morally, still disagreeing about what the morality should be?

Carter’s life experience shows that, as a good Christian, he had debated whether to go into politics and what morality to follow there. At the time he was president, it looked like he believed that the same moral principles should regulate personal and political life. I admired politicians like Jimmy Carter for their characters and didn’t understand when others criticized their conduct. I believed that Carter was always trying to figure out the right thing to do, meaning that he was trying to keep his hands from getting dirty, and that was a good moral choice.

Stuart Eizenstat tells a more complex story, showing that Carter’s morality failed—and succeeded. It may have failed because he reflected much more on morality than on politics. From Eizenstat we learn a more complicated story than many of the ones told to date. Commentators have already raised the possibility that this book and time will enhance Carter’s record. Eizenstat at least tells a story that morality might work in the long run, as long as reelection is not the politician’s primary goal.

Post-Carter, and due in large part to his influence, the country’s government became more religious. Americans elected several presidents who campaigned on their Christian faith and championed pro-religion policies as president. Carter had opened the door to so much faith by being so publicly religious, even though, as a Southern Baptist, he personally believed in the separation of church and state.[10] The book raises questions about such a religion-based administration. From history’s perspective, it looks good that Carter was so moral. But his actions did make it possible for his successors to be even more directly religious. That approach may divide the nation into blocs of religious believers united by faith instead of a whole nation bound to a common constitution.

Eizenstat’s book is not surprising. It confirms what we suspected, namely that Carter’s moral and religious commitments were often more important than his political ones. Repeatedly Carter went forward with action despite its political costs. The book shows that lasting accomplishments can come out of a commitment to ethical principles. It leaves open the questions of whether compromise and political focus could accomplish even more. That is really the problem of dirty hands, of course, asking if a president can be morally and politically successful at the same time.


Eizenstat’s Stories


            The Moral President


Unsurprisingly, Eizenstat’s Introduction establishes Carter as a man of “essential integrity”,[11] who had a “stern morality,”[12], was “uncomfortable with compromising what seemed to him so obviously the right course”,[13] and “ran an honest administration”.[14] That morality was Carter’s strength as well as his fault. Eizenstat rebuts the idea that Carter was “weak and hapless’”,[15] instead arguing that Carter’s one term was “one of the most consequential in modern history”.[16] We learn from page one forward that Carter’s morality was both a virtue and a vice. It inspired many of his choices. But it also persuaded him to pursue them in the wrong way. Although Carter had been politically shrewd enough to—surprisingly—win the 1976 election, he did not act as a politician once elected.

Why not? Probably because of morality. On morality, Eizenstat says, Carter was “a man of almost unyielding principle,”[17] who “could break before he would bend his principles or abandon his personal loyalties”.[18] As president, he made what he thought was the right choice, based strictly on the merits of the question. He thought the people would agree with his choices and back him politically because his choices were correct. Unfortunately, Eizenstat explains, presidents should be “politician[s] in chief” if they want to be reelected.

One of Carter’s greatest moral weaknesses was in pursuing too much, instead of just enough or too little. Carter himself later said he would have had a more impressive image of accomplishment if he had focused on fewer issues. But he did not. He picked many important issues, and, according to Eizenstat, succeeded on some of them. But for many of his choices, success appeared only long after he had left the presidency, defeated in his efforts to win a second term.

One of Carter’s weaknesses was “compartmentalizing of decisions”.[19] He focused completely on the details of his policies. He knew the details as well as anyone, instead of leaving such information to his cabinet members or staff. The details method replaced a more usual political method of getting some voters on board and other people to do the work. As Eizenstat concludes, “His insistence on knowing everything about an issue before he made a decision was his quintessential method of governing”.[20] Carter knew more than many other people about an issue. For that reason, he didn’t encourage personal relationships with members of Congress or promise to be there when they needed him. Instead, he was almost always focused on the right thing on paper and as an idea.

The detail emphasis made Carter very different from his more political vice president, Walter Mondale. Mondale knew from his long congressional experience that the president does not get deference because he has the best ideas. Mondale looked at politics differently, and understood why the president thought people would not listen to him. Why should they listen if he was not thinking of the political situation? The vice president understood what the president did not, namely that members of Congress do not sit around waiting to admire the most detailed moral ideal from the president. They are much more practical and political than that. Still, Mondale was never elected president, and Jimmy was.

Eizenstat concludes Carter’s detailed choices led to successes on energy, Camp David, and the Panama Canal Treaty. But they also led to many losses, especially with Iran and the Soviet Union.


The Good News.


Energy. In Eizenstat’s mind, energy is one of the topics that shows Carter’s strengths and weaknesses. Eizenstat is still disappointed that Campaigner Jimmy Carter promised an energy program within 90 days of becoming president, and then as president went after it as an early goal of his presidency. Energy is like many topics in the book; in the long run, the policy was incredibly successful, even to this day, but as president he paid a “severe political cost”[21] for it.

In the energy chapters, Eizenstat demonstrates that Carter’s “pure and principled version of government”[22] did not match that of his colleagues, especially the members of Congress who viewed the world differently. Unlike other presidents, Carter was not for deal-making, horse trading, or bargaining to try to get Congress to vote with him. As noted above, he believed they should vote with him because he had the right program. The fact that Carter “would not play Washington’s roughhouse politics”[23]made political accomplishments, including the energy program, more difficult for him to achieve.

The energy loss and victory, at the same time, were typical of many of Carter’s accomplishments. Oddly enough, Eizenstat writes that Carter “struggled more than any other president with energy, accomplished far more, and suffered politically for it”.[24]  He also says Carter “was wounded but he had won.” Eizenstat attributes the U.S. energy revolution, and the current success of our energy situation, to the success of Carter’s four years:


The energy wars he fought for four years are also a metaphor for the Carter presidency: great accomplishments achieved by unartful means and at great political cost. Carter paid a frightful political price for leading the country to a coherent energy policy. No one realized more than Carter himself the political cost of his focus on energy; “It sapped our strength,” he told me. Courageous as he was in pressing ahead, he barely got credit. Many of the benefits to the country of his energy programs were felt only after he left office, as they are even today.[25]


That story describes a win, but a limited one. And yet it is the same story Eizenstat repeats about Carter’s very dangerous political opposition to many congressional water products, where he was inflexible, and yet, in the long run, successful. As one of his aides said about Carter: “He just thought things were morally wrong. It wasn’t just economically or environmentally bad; they were morally wrong and I think he just thought people who were supporting these pork-barrel projects were corrupt people”.[26] Carter’s goal was not to help the corrupt.

The repeated energy story is that Carter had the moral vision to accomplish long-term goals but did not seek much political support for doing so.


Camp David was just the same. Eizenstat counts Camp David as another Carter accomplishment, a peace between Israel and Egypt still unbroken all these years later. Eizenstat thinks this agreement was “without precedent”[27] in American history, and describes this situation as “Jimmy Carter at his best, with one goal, a few key actors, and a complex problem to solve”.[28]

Jimmy Carter’s religion influenced him to choose Middle East peace as one of his commitments, with the president explaining his “strong religious motivation to try to bring peace to what I call the Holy Land”.[29] And, in yet another striking description of Carter’s character, Eizenstat describes “a characteristically Carteresque stance of I’d-rather-be-right-than-reelected, he also told us that he felt so strongly about peace in the Middle East that he was willing to lose the presidency to achieve peace for Israel”.[30] And, of course, he did lose the presidential election in 1980, with the lowest percentage of the Jewish vote ever received by a Democrat. Some of them did not like that he had preached that the Jews had killed Jesus. Many Jewish voters continue to criticize him, especially after the 2006 publication of his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, which was also critical of Israel.

Carter’s goal for peaceful success also affected the way he ran the negotiations. He focused on the foreign policy aspects of the situation, and ignored American Jewish domestic politics even while he was discussing the future of Israel. He thought he could insulate foreign policy from domestic politics, achieving his moral goals of peace and not merely protecting political rights.

As in the energy situation, whatever success he achieved was due to his usual attention to detail. Carter read everything about the land, its history, his negotiators, and their aides. No lawyers did his negotiating for him. He knew enough to do it himself, and to keep going even when any resolution looked impossible. His work, not his aides’ commitments, led the way.

Yet even this arguably successful decision had many flaws. Eizenstat concludes the Camp David work itself was not bad, but much was “left undone”.[31]  Carter had wanted a much bigger agreement, with more parties involved and with a settlement for the Palestinian people. Yet the peace was only a “cold peace.” And, most strikingly, Carter received only 40% of the Jewish vote in the 1980 election, the lowest of any modern Democrat.

Once again, something that looks long-term successful may not bring any help in the short run. Camp David was mentioned when Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, not while he was president.


The Panama Canal Treaty is another huge, lasting accomplishment built on Carter’s commitment to principle. The treaty gave Panama control over the canal that was then held by the United States. “He was not the first president to try, but he was the first to succeed, and once again he paid a political price for doing ‘the right thing’”.[32]The right thing was to come to a different arrangement on the Panama Canal. The treaty was also a step toward a human rights policy in Latin America, which many years later was viewed as having saved thousands of Latin American lives.[33]

With Panama, in contrast to other votes, Carter actually did his unliked presidential job of calling Senators to line up their pro-Treaty votes. “No president in modern times disliked this kind of horse-trading more than Jimmy Carter, yet here he realized that a defeat of his first major foreign-policy venture would be so serious, and the consequences of a loss so grave for America’s prestige, that he had to swallow his distaste”.[34] About half the pro-Treaty Senators were not reelected either. But Carter’s hard work helped to persuade them to take the drastic, pro-treaty step. Here doing something he did not like resulted in the eventual passage of the treaty. So apparently Carter would do political work when it was absolutely required for the success of a foreign program.

Panama was one step in Carter’s bigger human rights policy. Eizenstat identifies Carter as the “first American president to apply human rights to U.S. foreign policy as a novel organizing principle”.[35] Yet human rights were a mixed bag for Carter as president. Human rights looked too idealistic to Carter’s critics, who thought of him as a “naïve moralist”.[36] Eizenstat, however, views him as “at once a moralist and a realist”.[37] The moralist won on Camp David and Panama Canal.


Those were the successes. Other episodes were much less positive.


The Bad News.


The Soviet Union demonstrates both sides of the moral president who was committed to human rights and wanted peace. Early in his administration, Carter emphasized human rights, and made them a significant part of his foreign policy. Rights were intertwined with his dealings with the Middle East, the Panama Canal, and the Soviet Union.

The human rights policy was tough on the Soviets, with Carter expressing support for known Soviet dissidents. Eizenstat concludes every president from Truman to George H.W. Bush did something about the Soviet Union, but Jimmy Carter’s “has been least appreciated”.[38] Eizenstat believes the human rights program exposed the weakest parts of Soviet society, and that post-presidency documents show Carter’s human rights policy inspired Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel and Poland’s Lech Walesa to fight for the freedom of their countries. Eizenstat draws a positive message about Carter’s rights policy: “But human rights add a moral element that is consistent with American values and remains to this day an important ingredient that was missing in the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger model and that of the Trump administration, as well. When presidents after Jimmy Carter ignored human rights concerns, they opened themselves to criticism for failing to reflect values that are an element of America’s attraction and a source of its power”.[39]

But the legacy on the Soviet Union and human rights is mixed. Only a month after the hostages were taken in Iran, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, proving national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s harsh perspective on the Soviet Union was more accurate than Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s more optimistic one. Suddenly, in December 1979, Carter had to be even tougher on the Soviet Union. He was. He put economic sanctions on them, reinstated the American draft, and cancelled American participation in the Soviet Olympics.

In other words, like so many parts of his presidency, sometimes the moral human rights policy worked but other times it did not.


The Iran Hostages. The hostages were captured in Iran in November 1979, after Carter decided to admit the ill Shah of Iran to the United States. When Eizenstat woke up in April 1980, and learned of Carter’s failed effort to rescue the hostages from Iran, he wrote, “For all practical purposes the election was over”.[40] Eizenstat believes that the Ayatollah Khomeini outsmarted the Americans, who did not yet comprehend radical Islam. Eizenstat thinks American intelligence officials were far behind in understanding what was going on with the shah, Iran, and the Islamic revolution.

It is still interesting to read that Carter was the last in his administration to think that the sick Shah should be admitted to the United States. As Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, told Eizenstat, “The president was the last holdout, fearing another attack on the embassy. Carter was the only person who was ‘skeptical and did not want to let him in,’ . . . and the president was the only person in his inner circle who actually predicted the outcome: ‘What are you guys going to advise me to do when they overrun our embassy now and take our people hostage?’”.[41]

How different the presidency might have been if Carter had followed his own instincts on the shah’s admission, as he did in so many different situations. Post-seizure, however, he lived by his own ideals, which both his aides and outsiders often criticized. Brzezinski would have bombed Tehran, but Carter wouldn’t think of it. Brzezinski had thought of Carter as “gutsy,” but on the hostage issue he said Carter “had this preoccupation with ‘quote-unquote “peace”’”.[42] Zbig believed the peace commitment was based in Carter’s religion, so that he could be tough, for example, in his Middle East negotiations “because peace was the objective”.[43] Soon after the seizure of the hostages, Carter told the hostages’ parents that he would do nothing to endanger their children, even though others were willing to risk the hostages’ death through military means. Carter retained his commitment to peace from their seizure until the end of his presidency.

Carter even told one aide that Khomeini wouldn’t kill the hostages because Khomeini was religious.[44] The aide pointed out in response that Khomeini’s religion was different from Carter’s. On this issue, Eizenstat draws a conclusion we have heard before: “But he simply placed the safety of the hostages higher on his scale of priorities than the damage to American prestige and his own political standing”.[45]Carter stopped travelling for his presidential campaign against Senator Ted Kennedy, thinking it was better, and more presidential, for him to stay in the Rose Garden and keep an eye on the hostages. Later in the campaign, a last-minute offer from Iran, as he was running against Republican Ronald Reagan, also caused Carter to stop campaigning due to the crisis.

This issue depends on how you look at it. The hostages did get out alive, but only after Reagan had taken office. Carter was driven to that result by a huge moral commitment to the hostages’ safety above all else. In the recent Washington Post story[46], even Carter said, “I may have overemphasized the plight of the hostages when I was in my final year, . . . But I was so obsessed with them personally, and with their families, that I wanted to do anything to get them home safely, which I did.”

The real damage may have been in the failed rescue mission rather than in the seizure itself. Even Eizenstat believed, as it occurred, that the failed seizure would cost Carter reelection.  We are left to wonder what would have happened if the hostages were successfully rescued. Or if Carter had never admitted the shah of Iran into the United States.


Good News Turned Into Bad News or Bad Into Good?


“The Consumer Populist”.[47] Those of us who lived through the Carter era remember Carter for dealing with a horrible economy, He was cursed, in particular, with terrible inflation. Carter spent a lot of his time trying to cure the economic hurdles that this country faced. Those were the days of the gasoline shortages, with resulting long lines at the gasoline stations. Indeed, on the economy, Eizenstat concludes, “He was now doing what he had hoped to avoid: fight inflation through a slowdown or even recession, to the dismay of the core Democrats. It is one reason he was not reelected”.[48]

Nonetheless, Eizenstat concludes Carter was “the most consumer-friendly populist in the nation’s history”.[49] Apparently a lot of the consumerism came from Carter’s deregulation of much of the government, which was not a traditionally Democratic thing to do. That is not really surprising, of course, as he was never a traditional Democrat. A lot of this deregulation was undertaken because Carter had to conduct a huge fight against inflation.  Eizenstat argues that Carter chose competition, not regulation. Once again, deregulation had “lasting benefits that became evident only after he left office”.[50]

After he left office, however, Reagan and industry fought the consumer movement so it was never as big again. “Consumerism never recovered from Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980”.[51] So, once again, Carter’s accomplishment is only partial victory and later loss.


The Famous Malaise Speech, July 15, 1979. Carter never used the word malaise in that famous speech. The speech itself received wonderful praise from commentators and the audience itself, the American people. However, there were some odd things connected with it, which leave it marked in history as a negative rather than a positive accomplishment.

Carter cancelled a planned energy speech that was supposed to occur early in July. He went on retreat, and faced severe criticism there from invited outsiders. Nonetheless, after this weird retreat, he gave a great speech that doesn’t use the word malaise and that seemed to get great reactions from the American people. Malaise appeared in the newspapers because it was leaked from the White House, and it still sticks with the speech. But Carter himself never uttered “malaise.”

The malaise speech could have been a positive event. But then Carter upset it with “his own unforced error”.[52] “The president literally stepped on his winning lines” in that speech.[53] Eizenstat called it the “Achilles’ Heel of the Anti-Politician”.[54] In other words, soon after the speech was over, Carter disrupted his successful speech by firing cabinet members. Mondale was so upset with the speech and the firings that he almost resigned. Once again, his political judgment seems better in retrospect than Carter’s ever was.

Of course, Mondale was never elected President of the United States, losing to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election.


Other Important Issues: Health, Race, Gender, and Religion


Eizenstat is sad today that the Carter administration did not pass health insurance. He believes this failure was consistent with Carter’s early plan to emphasize energy instead of health. On health care, there was a series of negotiations and disagreements with Senator Ted Kennedy. Especially given Carter’s constant concerns about the bad economy, he was reluctant to pass a huge, expensive, health program. Kennedy, in contrast, wanted a much bigger program that would meet all his health care goals.

Eizenstat looks back with regret, but it is a good reminder to us of what happens when compromise is not available. Eizenstat says “the missed opportunity haunts me to this day”.[55] According to him, the “demise of the Carter plan was a political tragedy for the president and a health care tragedy for Americans”.[56]

Carter had an important, but mixed, record on race, gender and religion. Carter had known both Martin Luther Kings, Senior and Junior, when he was governor of Georgia. He long supported African American rights. African Americans continued to back Carter, who took their side in the past and did so through the presidency.

Governor Carter originally received a lot of attention for his governor’s inaugural speech, when he said—untypically for a Southerner—“I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over. Never again shall a black child be deprived of equal rights to education, health or social services”.[57] Time magazine put him on its cover for this unusual stance, and that helped elect him to the presidency. As governor, he also put a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the governor’s mansion. Moreover, only his family and one other man had opposed a vote to bar African Americans from worship in his home church in Plains, Georgia.

On race, Carter’s Justice Department was involved with the famous affirmative action case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.[58] Carter and his aides did not like the Department of Justice’s first brief, which supported Bakke, the white man who was denied admission to the university. Carter and his aides did not like the DOJ’s second brief either. Eventually DOJ lawyer Drew Days developed a brief more positive to affirmative action, which the administration supported. In a 5-4 decision, the Court allowed some affirmative action. But, Eizenstat points out, racial events like this enabled Ronald Reagan to play the race card against Carter during the 1980 campaign.

Unlike Reagan, President Carter also battled segregationists from the White House. By 1976, the South was full of segregated private religious schools created to keep students from Brown’s integrated public schools. North Carolina’s Goldsboro Christian Schools [GCS] and South Carolina’s Bob Jones University [BJU] were representative of the segregation academies and universities.

Carter provoked the segregationist churches in two ways. First, in the Supreme Court his Justice Department defended the IRS’s ruling that GCS and BJU were not entitled to tax exemptions and deductions because they discriminated on the basis of race. The Carter administration’s position won the case in 1983, even though President Reagan had decided to support BJU instead of the IRS. Second, Carter’s IRS Commissioner, Jerome Kurtz, enforced the tax exemption and deduction rule against all racially discriminatory schools, including religious schools. According to the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, “[i]t was the IRS trying to take away our tax exemptions that made us realize that we had to fight for our lives.” The three original organizations of the Christian Right—the Moral Majority, Christian Voice, and Religious Roundtable—were all formed during the Carter administration to defend segregated schools. They then added numerous other items to their agendas.

Carter’s record on gender was more divided, with women disagreeing whether he adequately supported women’s rights—or not. Carter—or at least Rosalynn Carter—endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Carter also appointed numerous women officials in his administration. He notably changed appointments to the judiciary, naming the largest number of women ever. Although there was only one woman judge when he was elected, by the end of his presidency there were forty, more than five times the amount of all his predecessors. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg later gave Carter credit for opening the doors to women like herself. Although he promised to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court, probably Shirley Hufstedler, he never had the opportunity. President Reagan kept Carter’s promise when he named Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981.

Some women critics, however, think Carter should have done more to support ERA. They also criticized him about abortion. Although he—reluctantly—supported Roe v. Wade,[59] he notoriously also accepted the Court’s refusal to fund abortion, announcing in a public speech that “life is not fair.” That reaction was seen as a blow to women’s rights. Carter also had recurring problems with NOW’s Eleanor Smeal and Representative Bella Abzug about just how far his support of women’s equality went.

Ironically, this most religious president turned many religious voters over to Ronald Reagan and his Republican successors. As noted above, the religious voters were angry with Carter for taking away tax-exempt status from racially discriminatory schools, as in the Bob Jones case. Carter was also accused of being a secular humanist who wrongly supported LGBT rights, opposed government funding of religion and government prayer, and supported abortion. In 1980, 2/3 of the white evangelical Southern Christian vote went for Reagan. In the end, Reagan won 480 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. As Eizenstat concludes, the “marriage of Christian evangelical and secular conservatives became a significant force behind the Reagan landslide and remains a crucial part of the Republican coalition today”.[60] In the long run, a separationist president led to a more religious government. Reagan’s successors, both Republican and Democrat, have continued the pro-religious trend. Such faith-based politics have become the norm since Jimmy Carter campaigned for the presidency as a devout Christian in 1976 and then disappointed Evangelicals who found his policies too liberal.


Conclusion: What Should We Think of Carter’s Morality?


Eizenstat’s book is not surprising. It confirms what we suspected, namely that Carter’s moral and religious commitments were often more important than his political ones. Not always. As the book points out, Carter “could turn on a dime when the campaign season began”.[61] But most of the time, he was not thinking of politics or reelection.

Repeatedly Carter went forward with action despite its political costs. Consider energy, Camp David, the Soviet Union, Iran, or abortion, where he fought for his positions without caring about the political impacts. Occasionally Carter undertook better political actions—like calling the Senators about the Panama Canal Treaty—in order to reach his goal. But not always.

Eizenstat concludes Carter “was not guided by the Bible in making his decisions, but his faith helped sustain him during the traumas of office”.[62] His faith also seemed to provide Carter’s lasting commitments to peace, truth, justice, and ethical and moral values, no matter what the political cost. Carter does not believe his successors are always governed by those principles.

The book shows that lasting accomplishments can come out of a president’s commitment to ethical principles. However, it leaves open the questions of compromise and political focus. On health insurance and Iran, for example, Carter might have been more successful if he had sought a more compromising, middle-ground plan of action. The book shows that a one-term president can accomplish a lot by sticking with his moral principles and basing his accomplishments upon them. It also suggests, however, that Carter might have achieved more if he had both willingly compromised and been aware of the political impacts of his actions. His successors–Reagan, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama–seem to have been much more politically astute than Carter was. Maybe Bush 1 was not, and so did not win reelection against the very-politically-astute Bill Clinton? The book leaves us debating that question.

The book also raises questions about a religion-based administration. From history’s perspective, it looks good that Carter was so moral. But his actions did make it possible for his successors to be even more directly religious. Politicians like Carter, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama frequently began their analysis of difficult policy questions with their moral and religious insights and then translated those perspectives into public policy, whether directly or indirectly. At this effort, too, it seemed that his successors were much more politically smart about how to use religion than Carter was. Sometimes they hid their religion, even when it was influencing them. These three were reelected, and instinctively seemed to have a better sense of how their actions would play—or not—politically.

In my view, however, in the long run, religion-based politics has been more divisive than unitive, frequently favoring selected groups’ religious interests over constitutional values. Our current political and legal system, which seems to favor the actor’s good political insight, is in danger of encouraging everyone—presidents, legislators, citizens, and even judges—to apply their personal vision of life to the political problem. That approach may divide the nation into blocs of religious believers united by faith instead of a whole nation bound to a common constitution. The book convinces me that the question about morality’s appropriate role in politics is still open.

And that active Christians continue to disagree about the problem of dirty hands, as they have for centuries.








*  William S. Boyd Professor of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Law. I am grateful to David Tanenhaus for his thoughts on this essay, and to Christine Corcos and Hedgehogs and Foxes for help with publication.

Copyright © Leslie C. Griffin 2019

[1] Stuart E. Eizenstat, President Carter: The White House Years (NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2018), at 1.

[2] Id.

[3]Id. at 5.

[4] Id. at 84 (emphasis added).

[5] Id. at 469.

[6] Id. at 558 (emphasis added).

[7] Id. at 469.

[8] Kevin Sullivan & Mary Jordan, The Un-Celebrity President: Jimmy Carter Shuns Riches, Lives Modestly in his Georgia Hometown, The Washington Post, Aug. 17, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/08/17/feature/the-un-celebrity-president-jimmy-carter-shuns-riches-lives-modestly-in-his-georgia-hometown/?utm_term=.26b20a338c22.

[9] Leslie Griffin, The Problem of Dirty Hands, 17 Journal of Religious Ethics 31 (1989).

[10] Interview by Ralph Blodgett with Jimmy Carter, in The Church and the State, Liberty, Sept./Oct. 1976, reprinted in Jimmy Carter, 1 The Presidential Campaign 1976 974-76 (1978); see Carter Reassures Jews, Facts on File World News Digest, 1976 Digest, at 410 n.3.

[11] Eizenstat supra. note 1, at 5.

[12] Id. at 14.

[13] Id. at 3.

[14] Id. at 14.

[15] Id. at 1.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 1-2.

[19] Id. at 85.

[20] Id. at 86 (emphasis added).

[21] Eizenstat, supra note 1 at 141.

[22] Id. at 183.

[23] Id. at 187.

[24] Id. at 238.

[25] Id. at 239 (emphasis added).

[26] Id. at 259-260.

[27] Id. at 259.

[28] Id. at 527-528.

[29] Id. at 416.

[30] Eizenstat, supra note 1, at 419 (emphasis added).

[31] Id. at 551.

[32] Id. at 555 (emphasis added).

[33] Id. at 584.

[34] Id. at 569.

[35] Id. at 578.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. at 594.

[38] Id. at 657.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at 804.

[41] Eizenstat, supra note 1, at 761.

[42] Id. at 775.

[43] Id.

[44] Id. at 776.

[45] Id. at 782.

[46] Sullivan & Jordan, supra note 8.

[47] Eizenstat, supra note 1, at 354.

[48] Id. at 337.

[49] Id. at 354.

[50] Id.

[51] Id. at 355.

[52] Id. at 694.

[53] Id. at 695.

[54] Id. at 677.

[55] Eizenstat, supra note 1, at 818.

[56] Id. at 833.

[57] Id. at 29.

[58] Regents of the U. of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).

[59] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[60] Eizenstat, supra note 1, at 869.

[61] Id. at 647.

[62] Id. at 39.