Thirty years ago this week, on January 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter of Georgia was sworn in as the 39th President of the United States. In celebration of that anniversary, more than 100 of the top veterans of his administration, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, and some of the journalists who covered the Carter Presidency gathered this past weekend at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA to look back, take stock and look forward.
Michael Bechlosss, the historian, said in one of the panels that it takes at least 25 years, preferably more, to get any perspective on a presidency. It reminded him, he said, of the famous comment of the Chinese leader, Chou En Lai, when asked what he thought of the French revolution. “Too soon to tell,” Chou said.
It may be too soon to make a final judgement on Carter, but with three decades of hindsight, his Presidency certainly looks more impressive than when he left office in 1981. His accomplishments in foreign policy — returning the Panama Canal to Panama, negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt at Camp David, normalizing diplomatic relations with China — are now seen as breakthroughs. His domestic achievements — deregulation of air travel, trucking and banking, his energy policies — established him as the first post-New Deal Democrat, the forerunner of the centrist policies later adopted by Bill Clinton.
Panel after panel drew harsh comparisons between Carter’s record and that of the current Bush Administration. But it was Fritz Mondale who made it most stark. “We told the truth,” he said, “we obeyed the law, and we kept the peace.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser, who has been one of George W. Bush’s sharpest critics over the war in Iraq, forecast more trouble between this Administration and Iran. He contended that there is a small but influential group of neo-conservatives around the President who are determined to launch a military strike against Iran before the end of Bush’s second term. The likely scenario, Brzezinski said, is a skirmish along the Iraq-Iran border that becomes a pre-text for U.S. airstrikes inside Iran.
“That,” Brzezinski said, “could get us into a region-wide war that could last for 20 years.”