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Honesty in The Oval: A Simple Man in a Not So Simple Time

America’s 39th President has many defining characteristics, best encapsulated in the belief that the country could serve as a force of good in the wotrld and a source of integrity amidst seemingly insurmountable challenges. Under a war-weary, disillusioned citizenry, President Jimmy Carter attempted to foster peace abroad through principled bipartisanship. Today, we remain at an inflection point in our political quarrels and, while fundamentally divided on America’s role in the world, there are lessons to learn from Carter’s administration. His contemporary domestic disputes thwarted consensus across party lines regarding foreign policy priorities, but Carter’s cordiality and bipartisan coordination are worth an appraisal. His legacy is marred in unfortunate circumstances and his unluckiness is a matter of perspective; yet, the “Peanut President” laid a blueprint for restructuring a foreign policy framework, aiding the next generation of American leadership.

On numerous occasions, President Carter worked across the aisle, sometimes at the trepidation of his party. In 1977, President Carter worked alongside Republican Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson to promote strategic arms control agreements with the bullish Soviet Union. While both Carter and Presidium Brezhnev emphatically signed the Second Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT II) to restrain the buildup of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), the Senate rejected SALT II due to questions on Soviet reliability. Some used SALT II as a political football in an era of shifting geopolitics, blaming Carter for weakening the competitive edge of U.S. security. Yet, for the first time, Americans saw the potential for de-escalation and a solution to a possible nuclear armageddon. Despite this, the treaty provided a foundation for future negotiations, with several provisions of SALT II inscribed into the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Often described as a “peoples’ president,” Carter used his personality to promote peace abroad, even outside of the hegemonic battle of the Cold War. The Camp David Accords and the Framework for Peace in the Middle East represent this initiative. The peace agreement between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was made possible not only by Carter’s involvement, but also by his engagement with Republican legislatures back home. Carter's affability brought the leaders to the table and marked the first time an Arab state recognized Israel’s right to existence. Thus, the Accords established a constructive dialogue, leading to arguably one of the most significant achievements in U.S. foreign policy regarding peace in the Middle East.

Succeeding Presidents benefited greatly from Carter’s accomplishments, which set a precedent for U.S. efforts abroad. The Accords proved to policymakers that it was possible to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs even in regions beset by chronic conflict. Moreover, it was a significant propellant in President Reagan’s attempts to negotiate an end to the Iran-Iraq War and broker a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon in 1982. Similarly, Carter’s efforts proved America’s willingness to take a moderator role toward peace – a rare feat during a time of antagonism in a contentious region. In the 1970’s pacts including the Sinai Separation of Forces Agreement and the Israeli-Syrian Separation of Forces Agreement established buffers between neighboring states following hostile interactions like the Yom Kippur War and Arab-Israeli War. While it was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who championed these agreements and showed success in this realm was feasible, it was Carter who proved it was repeatable. Ultimately, the Accords paved a path toward relative stability and peace, which gave room for economic development.

At times, Carter’s unwillingness to engage in political maneuvering or compromise on his principles, left him isolated. His prioritization of human rights abroad conflicted with the Democrats of his era, who preferred a pragmatic and realpolitik approach to American diplomacy. Also, one cannot ignore the shortcomings of the Carter administration, either internationally or domestically. On occasion, he came off as self-righteous, often lobbying behind the backs of his successors. In spite of this, he worked closely with Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush on humanitarian projects in the years following his presidency.

As described by Former Guggenheim Fellow Aaron Wildavsky and USC Schaeffer Center Professor Jack Knott, Carter represented the first “process president.” He placed a “greater emphasis on methods, procedures and instruments for making policy than on the content of policy itself.” In his campaign, his passions lay in “how things were done, rather than what should be done.” Former Presidential Advisor Stuart Eizenstat observes Carter’s ethics legislation as immovable, even in an ethically challenged Washington. He was an activist – not a philosopher of policy goals. Today, most presidents’ policy agendas fit into ideological boxes, but the core problem of the Carter administration was his unwillingness to bear consistency.

Some acknowledgment should be placed on the notion that his advocacy and leadership on human rights, energy, the environment, and fiscal responsibility were ahead of his time. In some respects, he was a president whose proposals were too forward-thinking for their time. To Miller Center Historian Robert A. Strong, Carter was “a player out of position” in an era captivated by great power politics. Carter longed for peace in the world, but he was intensely focused on the risks to democracy. His preoccupation with ‘the little guy’ and massive disaffection with bureaucracy postponed these ambitions. Despite this, Carter remained true to his principles and dignity, unwavering to foes in the energy sector and nuclear disarmament. In politics, this may be malpractice, but it can also be a lesson for future practitioners on the necessity of forethought and humility.

In Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, legendary songwriter Bob Dylan famously cites Carter as the embodiment of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”

“Think of him as a simple kinda man. Like in that Lynyrd Skynyrd song; he takes his time, doesn’t live too fast, troubles come but they will pass. Find a woman, and find love, and don’t forget there’s always someone above. There are many sides to him. He’s a nuclear engineer, a working carpenter and also a poet. He’s a dirt farmer, and if you told me he was a race car driver I wouldn’t be surprised.”

In many respects, Jimmy Carter’s folksy, unpolished style, appeal to working-class Southern voters and warm charisma personified the music of Jacksonville's rock band. It was this character that ultimately brought world leaders to the table and Americans to the voting booth. Carter’s ability to wear many hats created this “everyman” persona and made him an agreeable figure in American politics whose ideas have outlived his administration. His identity and commitment have allowed Time to forgive his political shortcomings and to reflect on what lessons to learn from his leadership style.

“Camp David Accords and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State,

Hess, Stephen. “Jimmy Carter: Why He Failed.” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016,

“Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President.” Cable News Network (CNN), 9 Sept. 2020, Accessed 23 Feb. 2023.

“Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II).” The Nuclear Threat Initiative, 14 Oct. 2021,

Strong, Robert A., et al. “Jimmy Carter: Impact and Legacy.” Miller Center, 17 July 2017,

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. Harper & Row, HarperCollins. 2009.


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