Carter in Oscarland: The Rehabilitation of the 39th President

As ‘Argo’ puts Carter in the spotlight, historians have begun to recognize him as a flawed, but visionary president, writes Douglas Brinkley.

Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures, via Getty Images

Only a few weeks ago, Lincoln was assumed to be the surefire winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Not since Gregory Peck in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird has an actor performed with the unforgettable gravitas of Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln in the months before his assassination. But a funny thing happened when the horses turned the bend at the Golden Globe Awards. Argo, based on a CIA-led rescue mission in 1980 that smuggled six American diplomats out of Tehran at the tail end of Carter’s presidency, suddenly has all the Oscar momentum. And, in a serendipitous way, Hollywood is according some newfound respect to the Man From Plains. It is a happy coincidence that Argo came out within months of Carter’s grandson, James Carter IV, releasing Mitt Romney’s idiotic (and now infamous) “47 percent” speech in Boca Raton, Fla. This political leak, combined with the release of the film, has turned the ex-president into a new cult favorite among many Democrats who had previously been disenchanted with him over some of his recent views on Middle Eastern affairs.

While it is true that there is no such thing as a Carter Democrat, historians are starting to see our 39th president as a flawed yet visionary leader. Everyone knows he should have won a Nobel Peace Prize back in 1979 for negotiating the historic Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. And he has received a lifetime of kudos for injecting human rights into our diplomatic parlance. His post-presidential work with the Carter Center fighting guinea-worm disease, river blindness, and other plagues has likewise turned him into a global humanitarian folk hero. But a number of other aspects of Carter’s White House tenure are starting to likewise be favorably remembered.

In both his second inaugural address and his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama evoked climate change as the ultimate challenge of the 21st century. But it was Carter who first crusaded for the U.S. to wean itself off of its dependence on oil. As president, he signed into law the National Energy Act and the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (both of which championed conservation and domestic energy supply development). Long before it was trendy, Carter preached the gospel of alternative energy. He even created the U.S. Department of Energy, in part to inspire new wind-solar-fuel-cell alternatives to oil and coal. Stones were thrown his way in response. One of the first things Ronald Reagan did upon assuming the presidency in 1981 was to tear down the solar panels that Carter had installed on the White House’s roof. Carter—Mr. Clean Energy—had become the butt of innumerable jokes. But, in hindsight, he was right to worry fiercely about our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels.

What’s also making Carter’s rehabilitation interesting is the “I didn’t know that” factor. Carter, for example, almost doubled the size of the National Park Service as president. Only Theodore Roosevelt and FDR were his equal in the conservation realm. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 alone created or expanded 15 National Park Service sites and 79.5 million protected acres. If it weren’t for Carter, wild Alaska today would be despoiled beyond recognition. Carter also deserves credit for establishing Channel Islands National Park in Southern California, the favorite marine paradise of many in the movie industry, and for protecting the Dakota Badlands from ruin. Additionally, his Superfund law has led to the cleanup of dozens of toxic waste sites throughout the country. In my estimation, the greatest environmental speech ever delivered to Congress was Carter’s stunningly prescient May 23, 1977, message.

And Carter was the avatar of mass transit. The railroad industry was collapsing from regulatory roadblocks, price controls and trucking lobby influence on Capital Hill when he became president. Carter's deregulation saved America's trains from bankruptcy. Perhaps, even more importantly, Carter deregulated the telecommunications world, spearheading the cable TV, cellphone, and Internet revolutions.

Contrary to GOP claims, Carter was no pacifist. His very insistence on global human rights made the Soviet Union far more worried than Nixon’s détente. Throughout the 1970s Carter badgered the NATO allies to rearm. He demanded a solid commitment from every member to increase their defense budgets by 3 percent a year. This is exactly what President Obama needs to do right now. Europe must contribute more resources to its own military defense. When the Soviets started deploying SS-20 missiles, it was Carter who countered by proposing that NATO cruise and Pershing missiles be based in Western Europe. And far from slashing American armed forces in Europe, Carter deployed an additional 35,000 troops to boost the American NATO contingent above 300,000, which more than compensated for the cuts the Nixon and Ford administrations had made under détente. Besides modernizing NATO, Carter approved deployment of both nuclear cruise missiles and the Pershing II IRBMs—intermediate-range nuclear forces—in Europe.

And how many realize that it was Carter—not Nixon—who first officially recognized the People’s Republic of China? They certainly know it in Beijing. All over Asia, Carter is considered one of the most respected U.S. presidents in recent history. Likewise the Panama Canal Treaty, much lambasted in 1977 for costing Democrats seats in Congress during the midterm elections, is now viewed as the opening salvo of a new democracy movement in Latin America. The canal is now being doubled in size—a major boon for the American shipping industry.

Carter’s face won't be chiseled on Mount Rushmore someday. Few presidents are. But wise decisions that he made—like issuing an executive order granting amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in 1977—are starting to come into sharper focus. And say what you want about Carter’s bungling of the Iran hostage crisis; eventually each of the 53 captives came back alive (not just the ones featured in Argo). He wisely refused to be goaded into an unnecessary Middle East war. Although I’m pulling for Lincoln to win the Oscar, it will give me great pleasure to know that if Argo wins, Jimmy Carter will be smiling a fine elder statesman smile that doesn’t seem discomfiting anymore.