The former president on the long shadow of the Iranian hostage crisis, the current president's ability to lead the American people honestly, and whether we're capable of real sacrifice
The greatest disparagement of the Carter presidency is the argument that it was, at its core, a fluke.
That an unremarkable governor from the South ran for president at a moment when the nation, ashamed and disheartened by the Nixon years, was in search of something good and decent. That an ambitious man from a small town who reminded us what was great about our country started his bid in Iowa, and campaigned there for nearly a year, in the same election that the national media first began paying attention to the caucus system.
While other candidates remained preoccupied with the more traditional New Hampshire primary, Carter pulled almost 30 percent of caucus-goers in Iowa, enough to place second, nine points behind "undecided." He captured national headlines. The field of Democratic candidates would never catch him. His Republican opponent, the incumbent Gerald Ford, was no match for the history he was stacked against. Carter won the presidency with hardly a single policy proposal.
Carter, while in office, offered a prescient understanding of America's overconsumption and foreign oil addiction. He installed solar panels on the White House roof, which Reagan would later pull down, after promising to dismantle the Department of Energy while on the campaign trail. Carter also instituted tax breaks for wind energy and new standards for auto-fuel efficiency, and, as a result, fuel efficiency for cars doubled from and 1985, from 13.5 miles per gallon to 27.5.
"I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel," he told the nation from the Oval Office in his July 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech. "From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980s."
"Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption," he told the nation. "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns."
The speech gave Carter an 11-point bounce in approval rating, a figure that's almost unimaginable as the result of a single address today. But the electorate would reject Carter's assessment a year later, instead choosing to heed Reagan's words: "I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people."
We met at the Carter Center in Atlanta, a circular set of buildings--round rooms, round hallways, round columns--that makes a rather ironic home for Carter and his library, given the dominant narrative that his presidency went nowhere. When I walked into the office at exactly the scheduled meeting time--Carter has a notorious affection for punctuality--the old president was standing at a tall window, his hands burrowed in the pockets of brown wool pants, as he looked out over a small pond and grove at the center of the compound. He wore a collared blue cotton shirt and sat on a hand-carved double rocker as we spoke. Across from us was a full-size replica of the intricately carved Kennedy desk from the Oval Office.
It looks a bit out of place in Carter's quaint and tranquil office, perhaps in the same way Carter was seemed a bit out of place where the original desk stood.
What's the single decision you made as president that you most regret?
I would say the hostage rescue effort in Iran in April of 1980. It was a perfectly planned, highly secret, somewhat complex procedure that everybody agreed to do. And in order to extract all of the hostages plus all the rescue team from Iran, we had to have six functioning helicopters. So I ordered eight helicopters and two of them had to fly from an aircraft carrier about 600 miles across areas of Iran and Oman and land in a desert, which we had already explored.
One of the helicopters, with no reasonable explanation since then, turned back to the aircraft carrier, which left us seven. Another one was forced down in the desert by an unexpected sandstorm, which left us six, which was fine. And so our whole rescue operation assembled there in the desert. And then one of the helicopters developed a hydraulic leak and couldn't fly. So I had to abort the rescue operation. We couldn't have afforded to extract five-sixths of our people and leave one-sixth of our people in Iran to be executed, so we had to terminate the exercise.
So it was not sending a large enough squad of helicopters?
If I'd sent one more helicopter, there's no doubt in my mind we would have had a successful operation. The Iranians never knew we were there until after we all left. But we would have had the hostages rescued, I would probably have been reelected, and so forth. So that was a bit of a turning point.
Gary Sick, your national security advisor for the Middle East, and a number of others have written convincingly that Reagan's campaign staff were conspiring against you to keep the hostages held for fear you'd win reelection if they were released. Do you believe that? Does that resonate with you?