Jimmy Carter: As a Nation, We're Bad at Making Tough Decisions

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


Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

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?

I never have taken a position on that because I don't know the facts. I've seen both sides. I've seen the explanations that were made by George H. W. Bush and the Reagan people, and I've read Gary Sick's book and talked to him. I don't really know.

The thing that I do know is that after they [the Iranians] decided to hold the hostages until after the election, I did everything I could to get them extracted, and the last three days I was president, I never went to bed at all. I stayed up the whole time in the Oval Office to negotiate this extremely complex arrangement to get the hostages removed and to deal with $12 billion in Iranian cash and gold. And I completed everything by six o'clock on the morning that I was supposed to go out of office. All the hostages were transferred to airplanes and they were waiting in the airplanes. I knew this--so they were ready to take off--and I went to the reviewing stand when Reagan became president. Five minutes after he was president, the planes took off. They could have left three or four hours earlier.

But what, if any, influence was used on the Ayatollah to wait until I was out of office, I don't know.

When you look back at the Crisis of Confidence speech, do you feel vindicated? And secondly, it seems to me that in 1980, voters made a choice between your assessment that outlined making sacrifice and moving this nation down one path toward energy independence and living more humbly, and another path that said we can continue this, that there's nothing wrong with the American way of life. Are we particularly bad as a nation at making the right decisions that are hard?

Yes. We are bad about making difficult decisions that everybody knows are right. I don't know how to talk to you frankly without being so self-defensive, but of the major decisions that I made as president, I would say none of them were politically attractive or positive. I harassed the American people constantly about doing something about energy conservation, and we were remarkably successful in getting laws passed and putting other things in the hands of future presidents.

Reagan, unfortunately, reversed those energy conservation measures over which the president has a lot of control, like mandatory efficiency of automobiles and the allocation of support for renewable energy sources, photovoltaic cells, windmills. He reversed all that because his premise was that America was self-sufficient, that there was no shortage of energy. We had a right to use what we wanted--not what we needed, but what we wanted--and we shouldn't be insinuating that our country was so weak that Americans had to make a sacrifice to face the future. And that attitude was totally different from what I had, and it was pretty well adopted by Reagan's successors. I think that some of these things are coming back to haunt us.

But even if we just look at consumption in terms of living the way we want versus the way we need--

I know. Now, Obama is beginning to see that some of these things need to be resurrected.

Right. But why won't he fall in that same trap? Why won't he speak honestly?

He hasn't done that yet.

But if he were to, wouldn't he be undercut--?

Yeah. Well, I don't know.

By an opposition that says we can continue our present course without making sacrifices?

I'm not sure. That wasn't the reason for my failure to be reelected. It was a relatively minor position. The main reason was, we didn't have the hostages back. And the Democratic Party was split, and Iraq attacked Iran and cut off about 20 percent of the world's oil supply, which created a 21 percent inflation rate in Europe. Well, Kennedy split the Democratic Party so that I lost by 10 percent of the Democratic vote. But I have always felt that I didn't need to be justified, to answer your first question.

I never have felt that I made a mistake in going to the American people and saying, "This is what we must do to show our resolve and we're capable of doing it," with the so-called malaise speech, which was a phrase that you know I never used. I never had any doubt about the accuracy of that speech and the necessity for that speech, so I didn't need to be justified.

Does that distance concern you? That distance between what is right and what needs to be done...

Yeah, it concerns me.

And what the American people are willing to give?

Yeah, it concerns me greatly.

Could it--is it likely that will be our undoing, that this is the flaw of our nation?

Well, I wouldn't want to predict that America is going to be undone, so I'm not agreeing with that premise of yours.

But I think it does harm to our country in not being willing to face the facts as espoused from the White House about the threat of global warming and the substantive things we need to do to make sacrifices on a temporary basis to resolve the long-term threat. And the same thing applies to health care. The same thing applies to Middle East peace. The same thing applies to control of nuclear weapons and other major issues.

This post was adapted from Brian Till's new book, Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership.

Image credit: Reuters

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