Call Me Jimmy: Rethinking the Carter Presidency

Scott Kaufman – Francis Marion University

Jimmy Carter was such an unknown that in 1973 the panelists on the game show What’s My Line had no idea who he was. Three years later, though, Americans chose him as the country’s thirty-ninth president. Certainly one can credit hard work for Carter’s victory. Yet this ex-governor of Georgia brought with him a set of mannerisms and beliefs that found a receptive audience in the 1970s: a transformative decade marked by economic troubles, the growth of the “credibility gap,” and an increasingly influential conservative movement.

In this lecture, Dr. Kaufman will discuss how Carter was able to win the White House by capturing the support of a wide contingent of voters who were affected by or driving the social, political, and economic changes taking place at the time. Ultimately, however, the president proved unable to maintain the support of the coalition that had backed him in 1976, thereby paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980.

 

Professor Kaufman’s Recommended Readings:

The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. 2nd ed., by Burton I. Kaufman and Scott Kaufman

Jimmy Carter: The American Presidents Series, by Julian E. Zelizer

His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, by Jonathan Alter

The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, by Kai Bird

 

Discussion Questions:

1. Historically, it has been rare that a person running as a political “outsider” wins the presidency. Why do you suppose that is?

2. What does Carter’s record say about the challenges presidents face insofar as maintaining coalitions of support?

3. Was Jimmy Carter a president ahead of his time?

4. In scholarly rankings, the presidents of the 1970s—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter—all fall in the bottom half of those who served in the Oval Office. Does this suggest the constraints of the decade made it unlikely for any president to leave a record of success?