William Rivers Pitt | Jimmy Carter and the Happening of History

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In 1979, President Jimmy Carter deregulated the US beer industry, making it legal for people like my friend Phil to buy hops, malt and yeast to brew their own suds. This led to the explosion of microbreweries across the country – there are almost 4,000 of them now – and gave me a small glass of joy. I have sampled a fair share of their wares over the years while blessing the fates, as I soothed a parched throat, for not being doomed to Bud Light for the term of my natural life.

This is but one small dog-eared corner of the impact Jimmy Carter has had on this nation, and the world. The term of his administration was clobbered by incredible, terrible circumstances. He was in office only four years, but the confluence of history and aftermath that came together during his time is the distilled essence of the astonishment that was the end of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st. Though he was swarmed by the chaotic maelstrom of the time, and ultimately undone by them as a politician, Jimmy Carter has witnessed more in his life – during and after his presidency – than can be adequately quantified.

To many people, Jimmy Carter is a failed cipher on the list of former presidents, an impression often reinforced by the facile historical shorthand deployed by the “news” media. In fact, his was among the most consequential administrations of the 20th century, not just for Carter’s actions, but for the genuinely astonishing and often harrowing events that occurred during his time in office. A number of mighty rivers crashed together to create a tidal wave that washed away the country that was, and created the country that is.

Carter inherited the wreckage of twin disasters – Watergate and Vietnam – that had fundamentally altered the attitudes of the citizenry. Today, we grapple with voter apathy and a general sense that too many things have gone too wrong to risk caring anymore. Not long before Carter took office, the US watched a crooked president be chased from office, and watched US servicemen pushing helicopters off an aircraft carrier and into the sea as they fled the conflagration in Vietnam.

After that, every president was a crook, and the government was not to be trusted. It was not fertile ground in which to grow a successful administration, and the impact of those attitudes still ring loudly to this day. Every president since has been required to contend with this, but Carter had to deal with it before them all, while those wounds and bruises were still fresh. He did what he could – promising an honest administration and granting unconditional amnesty to Vietnam draft-evaders, for openers – but some holes are simply too deep to escape.

He inherited a recession-riddled economy, a crisis that had been building for years, thanks in no small part to 25 years of war in Vietnam (a phenomenon the US has again been enduring due to 24 years of war in Iraq). The recession was exacerbated and deepened by an energy crisis that saw fuel shortages, high prices and long lines at gas stations. Again, the sense that the US was falling into failure expanded. Carter took a number of steps to deal with the problem, including extolling the virtues of energy independence by way of alternative sources like solar, going so far as to have solar panels installed on the White House roof (which Reagan immediately had removed upon taking office). Still, the crisis persisted.

In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania suffered a partial but significant nuclear meltdown that had people literally running for their lives. Some 140,000 people took to their heels, the rest were urged to stay indoors, and schools were closed. It was a truly terrifying event, the cleanup for which was not completed until 1993, at a cost of $1 billion. Once again, an event that left the populace with a doomed sense of failure landed in Carter’s lap.

Of the two most impactful events of Carter’s administration, one is widely known and the other little understood. The first, the Iran Hostage Crisis, began with the sacking of the US Embassy in November of 1979. A group of Iranian students took the building and held 52 people for 444 days. Grueling images of their captivity were broadcast on the nightly news for the duration of the event. Carter labored mightily to secure their release, including ordering a rescue attempt that ended in disaster, but to no avail. The hostage crisis has defined US relations with Iran to this day, and not for the good.

The hostage crisis, for all practical purposes, ended Carter’s presidency. Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign ruthlessly used the crisis against him, which led to the actual end of his administration in the rout that was the 1980 presidential election. Reagan won 44 of 50 states, and Jimmy Carter was done. Reagan’s impact on government, politics, the economy, media, war and the ascendancy of corporate power are, to this day, all around us. Carter’s defeat in 1980 quite literally changed everything, again.

Another event which took place in 1979, however, resonates today with equal force. Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, decided it was time for the Soviet Union to endure its own Vietnam. In an act he bragged about in a 1996 Le Monde interview, Brzezinski undertook a program to undermine the government of Afghanistan, then a Soviet satellite state. The purpose was not to take over Afghanistan, but instead, in his words, “dare the Soviets to invade.”

They did, and Brzezinski armed, funded and trained the mujahideen in order to bleed the Soviets. After the Carter administration left office, Reagan and his people took that ball and ran with it, going so far as to hire the son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate named Osama bin Laden to aid in the effort. In the end, the Soviets were defeated and crawled home, and not long after, the USSR ceased to exist.

The story – one of Cold War God-playing and unintended consequences – was only just beginning. With our geopolitical goals met, the US departed Afghanistan, which collapsed into a state of utter chaos. A civil war raged for years, out of which came the Taliban ascendant, al-Qaeda established, and bin Laden a national hero. Not long after, the terrorist attacks began, culminating in the fullness of time with the attacks of September 11. After that came another war in Afghanistan, another invasion of Iraq, and years of fruitless strife that helped topple the US economy. One long thread of blowback, from 1979 to today, that all began with Zbigniew Brzezinski making a phone call from Jimmy Carter’s White House.

Amazingly, this is only a partial list of the acts and events which transpired during Carter’s administration. The Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal deal, the SALT II nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets, Love Canal and the creation of the Superfund program, the boycott of the 1980 Olympics … yet in combination with the hostage crisis, the Three Mile Island catastrophe, the fateful decision regarding Afghanistan and the eventual rise of Reagan, what we have in the Carter administration is the profound transformation of this nation. Those long threads from his tenure have no end as yet.

Jimmy Carter is called “The greatest ex-president in history,” thanks to his philanthropic efforts through the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity, his diplomatic efforts for peace which earned him the Nobel Prize in 2002, his work on international disease prevention and election observation, and more. He is outspoken when circumstances warrant, and his words resonate with hard-earned wisdom. It seems as if Carter hasn’t sat down once since he left office.

Former president Jimmy Carter is no saint, despite his many good works. He ran one of the dirtiest, most racist campaigns in memory to secure the governorship of Georgia in 1970. His tactics in that race were unconscionable, and regardless of how far he has come since in changing his thinking, they will remain an indelible part of his legacy. While none can say with any honesty that “He should have known” regarding the Afghanistan decision, the fact remains that it haunts us deeply to this day. He was a politician, with a politician’s cunning – you don’t become president by wearing a halo on your head – and he made a politician’s mistakes. Some of them, as they always are, were whoppers.

Carter was diagnosed with cancer a short time ago. Though the prognosis for recovery is said to be excellent, the combination of “cancer” and “90 years old” can be nothing but troubling. A good deal of retrospection has taken place upon that announcement. Carter is greatly respected now, and was greatly disrespected back then. The change in attitude has been remarkable.

In the end, the fact that his administration is today dismissed as some sort of afterthought is amazingly foolish, and a disservice to the people. An explosion of history took place during his time in office, the echo of which resonates loudly in the lives of every citizen of this nation, whether they know it or not.

They should know it, and I hope they come to figure it out. That wasn’t an afterthought. That was when everything changed.