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The renaissance of Jimmy Carter and what it means for 2020

Jimmy Carter addresses the Queens County Democratic Party

Jimmy Carter addresses the Queens County Democratic Party dinner on October 14, 1976. Photo Credit: Newsday/David L. Pokress

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.

Why?

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 who navigated post-1968 primary-election changes with savvy, prioritizing early contests, especially the Iowa caucuses. Carter took a populist-infused politics of love to these early states, attracting a new coalition of conservatives, moderates and liberals that fueled his meteoric rise.

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." When, the following spring, Carter sought to repair lingering damage by bringing campaign advertising guru Gerald Rafshoon into the White House as communications director, Washington journalists collectively balked at sophisticated image-craft and news-management techniques, scorning the administration's "secretary of symbolism."

By the launch of Carter's 1980 reelection 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.

After Carter's defeat by former Hollywood B-list actor Ronald Reagan, journalists and party insiders such as Joseph A. Califano Jr., who had been one of the Cabinet secretaries Carter dismissed, proclaimed Carter's administration a "failed presidency," a label Reagan was only too happy to echo and associate with Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, Reagan's 1984 opponent.

This judgment made sense to Americans living in the mid-1980s, given the inextricable link between Carter's presidency and memories of stagflation, gas lines and images of the hostages in Iran, crises the president seemed powerless to solve.

And yet in recent years, scholars and other chroniclers of Carter's 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 unexpected 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. And for Americans under 45, Carter is more likely to be associated with humanitarianism and good deeds than his seeming ineptitude.

Sensing the shift in Carter's political fortune, presidential hopefuls casting themselves as Washington outsiders are trying to harness his public appeal.

This second wave of peanut-farmer chic signals a transitional moment in U.S. party politics. After all, Carter cannot be easily mapped onto the current political fault lines any more than he could 40 years ago. His campaign was perhaps the first and only success of campaign finance reform. And while conservative in many ways, Carter invited democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, his choice in the 2016 presidential race, to the Carter Center in 2017 to collectively critique the role of financial contributions from wealthy donors in U.S. political campaigns, contending that the United States is now virtually an oligarchy.

Moreover, though the evangelical Southern Baptist who promised never to tell a lie denounced President Trump for being "careless with the truth," he also has offered limited support for the 45th president, who mimicked Carter's run against the establishment (albeit with a radically different tone - the politics of rage) and won. Now, in advance of the 2020 race, widely praised as a visionary for championing universal health care, energy and environmental conservation and bureaucratic reform, the emerging Democratic "role model" has cautioned the party against veering too far to the left.

In short, the revival of Carter on the heels of Trump's election signals that Americans may be yearning for more than the traditional ideological left or right politicians.

But even if the Democratic nominee can mimic Carter's appeal, the question will be whether he or she can steer the country on a new political course, as many thought the 39th president would. Doing so will require avoiding the cause of his ultimate downfall - the outsider president's struggle to work with those inside the Beltway, especially members of his own party and the reporters stationed there.

This failure, more than his response to any domestic or international crises, will prevent Carter's name from ever being included on any consensus list of great presidents. Establishing robust working relationships with Washington insiders might have sustained the Carter administration through unexpected crises, the events the Carter faithful claim doomed his presidency. Instead, Carter's White House remained aloof and distant from the Washington establishment. This left Carter confronting a media unwilling to extend him the benefit of the doubt, and fellow Democrats less inclined to subordinate their priorities to offer a helping hand.

Interestingly, Carter's failings 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.

Carter's presidency also will probably continue to receive more positive reappraisals because our cultural moment seems to so oddly resemble the one that landed him in the White House. Perhaps then the biggest question is whether the next Jimmy Carter can learn from his failings.

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.

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