James Earl Carter (Epilogue).
Summary: President Carter ran out his final year in office from the confines of the Oval Office as he worked night and day to free the hostages in Iran. After 444 days, they were released on the day his successor was inaugurated. It was a bittersweet and undeserving end for an all-too-brief tenure. The final installment of our series examines the events of 1980 and offers some final reflections on Jimmy Carter the man, and his legacy.
Listen to the full episode here.
Chapter Nine: Glimmers of hope. A quiet end.
Carter’s approval is 55%.
Candidate Jimmy Carter had accused President Gerald Ford of running a Rose Garden campaign in 1976. The slight here is that Ford was using the trappings of the Oval Office and the Rose Garden bill signings to leverage the power of incumbency; the idea being that the more Americans view the president in presidential settings, the harder it is to imagine them out of office. And it’s a real thing.
What Carter couldn’t have foreseen was his own Rose Garden campaign year. From the moment the hostages were taken in November of 1979, Carter committed himself 100% to their safe return to the United States. As we know now, of course, they did all indeed return. On the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
While Jimmy Carter and team worked night and day devising plans to save the hostages, the Republicans were organizing. Somehow, after a disastrous 1979, Carter still came into the next decade with relatively decent approval ratings. But there was a sense that everything could turn on a dime given the turbulence at the end of the year. Not to mention, inflation was continuing to creep along with unemployment figures.
With Carter tethered to the White House, the Republicans were barnstorming across the country with plenty of political ammunition to throw at a defenseless Carter. It didn’t help that it wasn’t the only race he was running. In order to face the Republicans, he had to hold off a challenge from the well-known Democrat in the country seeking to extend the Camelot legacy.
So, with his eyes trained on the Middle East, perhaps the biggest domestic decision to come from the Oval Office in January still related to foreign policy. The decision to boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Brzezinski’s obsession with standing tough against them, led Carter to make the rather quick decision. Aside from this, the first part of the year was dedicated almost exclusively to freeing the hostages.
April: Operation Eagle Claw.
Carter was adamant from the first moments of the hostage crisis that he wouldn’t consider any retaliation against Iran that would imperil the lives of the hostages. But, as the days turned to weeks and turned to months, his military and foreign policy advisors began to wear him down to consider an incredibly risky operation to retrieve the captive Americans.
Nearly every plan was shot down by the president, as they each carried great risk to both military personnel and the hostages. Every assessment placed before him carried high levels of potential casualties. Only one made it far enough for Carter to consider, and eventually he gave it the green light. Operation Eagle Claw.
The operation was notable for bringing together every branch of the armed services. The terrain, the distance, the complications. Securing the hostages required every mode of transport and included embedded operatives from the intelligence community. Everything about the plan signaled risk. Divisions among Carter’s foreign policy team were customary by this time, and the loudest voice in opposition to any such plan was from Cy Vance. Vance, who had been working overtime twisting diplomatic channels from King Hussein of Jordan to the PLO, had burned out and took a few days in April to recover from gout. In his absence, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who would later serve as Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, sat in on the briefings when it was decided to green light Eagle Claw.
Christopher left Vance in the dark.
The operation was doomed from the start. At the rendezvous point in the desert, only a few of the helicopters and large air transports made it. The conditions were a nightmare. Having spent most of the reserve fuel to get to this juncture, the helicopters were in need of refueling. In a sandstorm, the crews attempted refueling maneuvers, when things went terribly wrong and there was a collision that set the cargo plane and a helicopter ablaze. Five Air Force crew members and three marines died horrifically in the fire. The mission was aborted.
Ayatollah Khomeini called it an act of God. Back in the White House, the Carter team was despondent. Brzezinski was uncharacteristically quiet, saying later, “The president looked as if someone had stabbed him.” Jordan left the Oval Office and threw up in the president’s private bathroom. Jody Powell stared at a blank page wondering which words to write for the President. Vance handed in his resignation.
April–October: The Mariel boatlift.
Eagle Claw would be likened internally, and in the media, to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Carter, in fact, ordered the speech writing team to retrieve President Kennedy’s remarks from this time. Ironically, while all hell was breaking loose on the ground in Iran and reminding everyone of the Cuban invasion, another storm was once again brewing in Cuba.
After a bombing incident in Havana in March, thousands of Cubans sought refuge in the Peruvian embassy. President Carter, perhaps so entrenched in the hostage crisis, or perhaps just seeing people in need, declared that the United States would take in up to 3,500 asylum seekers. Until this point, the Carter and Castro teams had actually been in rather productive dialogue behind the scenes about normalizing relations. But Castro took this offhanded move by the U.S. President as a terrible offense. As Bird writes in The Outlier:
“Castro responded by brazenly announcing that anyone who wished to leave his communist “paradise” could do so by boat from the harbor in Mariel, a small town twenty-five miles west of Havana. Suddenly, hundreds of boats from South Florida manned by anti-Castro Cuban Americans began showing up in Mariel, offering to ferry Cuban refugees to Florida…Between April and October 1980, an estimated 125,000 Cubans reached Florida shores, including thousands of criminals whom Castro released from Cuban prisons”
The criminal element of the mass migration from Cuba would be immortalized in the 1984 Brian DePalma film Scarface.
June: The end of Camelot.
The Rose Garden Strategy was wearing Carter down. But for a man many considered to be a lousy politician, Jimmy Carter knew a thing or two about campaigning. And he still had believers around him. Chief among them, his wife.
Rosalynn and scores of faithful emissaries of the Carter campaign fanned out around the country while the president racked up long days and sleepless nights in an office that began to feel like a prison. The Kennedy team, which had been running a lackluster campaign that relied on boosting the Kennedy name and criticizing inflation, didn’t see it coming. Right off the bat, Carter took the Iowa Caucus. Then the New Hampshire Primary. He shredded Kennedy all throughout the south. By the time Kennedy’s stomping grounds of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York came around, it was already a foregone conclusion. While the delegate count gave the appearance of a competitive race, with the large coastal blue states going Kennedy’s way, Carter filled in the rest of the map and handily took 36 states.
And with that, the country finally closed the book on Camelot.
Carter’s approval is 35%.
The momentary boost in polling helped Carter during the convention, but his numbers flagged just as fast the following month. By this time, both inflation and unemployment were runaway trains, and all Carter seemed to have done was make things worse by appointing a Federal Reserve Chair determined to drive the country into a deep recession.
And while the Democrats were bloodying one another and siphoning off money and resources, the Republicans were coalescing around their man: Ronald Reagan.
It was thought Reagan was far too conservative for American politics. As governor and on the campaign trail, Reagan was pure right wing. And as Jimmy Carter sunk deeper and deeper into the hostage crisis, with inflation raging throughout the world, Reagan’s politics began to matter less than the optimism and perceived strength he promoted without the pressures of being in the job.
Reagan went on to best his opponents to capture the nomination, with former CIA Director George H.W. Bush coming in a distant second but sewing up the V.P. slot. It was one of the most devastating electoral victories in recent history. Reagan won 44 states in all. It was a new decade. And a new chapter for America.
Carter was determined in his last hours as president to exert “every ounce of my strength” to liberate the hostages. By noon on Sunday, January 18, Carter had signed the necessary documents.
In the final moments, the president holed himself up in the Oval Office for most of the next 48 hours. Carter did not sleep. According to Bird:
“Told that the hostages had boarded two planes and were sitting on a runway, awaiting permission to take off, Carter asked Phil Wise to place a call to Governor Reagan, who was staying across the street in Blair House. Carter wanted to give him the good news—but a few minutes later, Wise returned to say that the call had been intercepted by Reagan’s aides, who reported that the president-elect was sleeping and was not to be disturbed.”
When the two men met in the Oval Office, Carter would later reflect that the incoming president had no questions and took no notes. The only time he interjected was during a conversation about South Korea, when the president-elect said he was envious of the way South Korea was able to forcefully put down dissent. Needless to say, it was a new day.
Despite Carter’s insistence that they manage the most transparent transition possible to show good faith, the new Republican staffers had little interest in continuity. As the core remaining Carter officials were ushered out of the White House by military escorts, Jordan noticed all the photographs of Carter had already been replaced.
Days later, on the inaugural platform, Carter had only one thing on his mind. The hostages. Draft after draft of the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran had been changed to suit Khomeini’s whim. But, as usual, everything came down to money. And to the powerful cadre of bankers behind the scenes who had their own interests at heart. David Rockefeller was intimately involved in the negotiations. The same person who helped contribute to the overthrow of the embassy by pressuring the administration to harbor the Shah, was now protecting the interests of Chase Bank and prolonging the crisis.
With all of the political details out of the way, it came down to the interest rates that U.S. and European banks were willing to pay Iran on the reclaimed funds. In the end, the lawyers and bankers, as well as Khomeini, got what they wanted. Only then were the documents signed. Again, Bird:
“Sitting on the inaugural platform, Carter had asked the Secret Service to keep him informed on the status of the hostages…he was still standing on the platform when a Secret Service agent informed him that an Algerian jetliner carrying all fifty-two hostages had taken off from Tehran, bound for Algiers. Carter called it “one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Carter’s first official duty as a citizen was to travel to meet the hostages. He knew all of their names.
“I could have wiped Iran off the map.”
Jimmy Carter has held onto the belief that the hostage crisis cost him the election. In reality, it’s more likely that inflation was the ultimate culprit. There’s no question that the hostage crisis hung around his neck, but his old friend Bert Lance’s warnings that Paul Volcker’s maneuvers would mortgage his re-election chances was probably closer to the truth. Most Americans understood that any strategy other than the diplomatic means Carter employed would have ended in disaster. And that would have tarnished his legacy forever. That the Iranians chose to release the hostages on Inauguration Day in the U.S. was clearly to spit in Carter’s face. But the reality was the negotiations weren’t going to be concluded prior to the election.
One of the most infamous hostages was Michael Metrinko, who spent most of his time in Iran in solitary confinement. He was outspoken, and because he was able to communicate in Turkish, Arabic and Persian, the Iranians were suspicious of him from the start. From the release of the captives forward, the press would attempt to wrestle criticism of Carter out of the hostages, to no avail. Here’s how Metrinko responded:
Interviewer: “Do you think he [Carter] didn’t do enough?”
Metrinko: “No, I think he did a superb job in very difficult circumstances. He’s the president I respect the most.”
Jimmy and Rosalynn retreated into private life back in Plains, Georgia after flying to greet the hostages. One surprise waiting for them was that they were broke. Among the casualties to the awful economy was the president’s farm. So, there was no rest in order for the exhausted president. The couple busied themselves getting the farm back in order, but what saved them financially was book publishing deals. Of all the Carter’s faced throughout their lives. Separated during Naval deployments. A failed campaign. A winning campaign for governor and a term in the governor’s mansion. The trials of being the leader of the United States. What almost broke them was working together on writing their memoirs.
But the couple persevered. When asked last year what the secret was to their longevity and making it through rough patches, Carter offered this:
“At the end of the day, we try to become reconciled, and overcome all of the differences that arose during the day. We also make up and give each other a kiss before we go to sleep.”
Reconciliation and a kiss goodnight.
In the twilight of his years, Carter would have many opportunities to reflect on his time in office. Here’s Carter from the same interview:
“I would say that we did what we pledged to do during the campaign. We kept the peace. And we obeyed the law. And we told the truth. And we honored human rights.”
Kept the peace. Obeyed the law. Told the truth. Honored human rights. In fairness, and for better and worse, it was a lot more than that.
The final numbers as of the 1980 election.
Carter’s approval: 35%.
The statistics and images that came to define Jimmy Carter have begun to fade as the nation re-evaluates his legacy. And history has been somewhat more kind. Every president is deserving of criticism, and this series isn’t an attempt to sugar coat or rehabilitate Jimmy Carter. His economic worldview was insufficient and outmoded. He fell for the siren’s song of foreign policy and took his finger off the pulse of America. He was a micromanager, and not all of those in his inner circle had his best interest at heart.
But his accomplishments were many. He appointed hundreds of liberal judges that held the judiciary in check for a generation. He promoted the position of vice president to something more than a hollow appointment. He rooted out fraud and mismanagement. Negotiated a landmark treaty with Panama and built credibility in Latin America. Sparked the renewable energy industry. Created the concept of tying human rights to foreign aid. Negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel. Saved Social Security.
All tough choices and policy work that come with caveats. Much was unraveled in later years. Some endure. But what lives beyond all of it is the understanding that, for a brief moment in our history, a kind man—a good man—ran the nation.
So, as this good man enters the final phase of his life, with his beloved wife of 76 years by his side, a nation offers its own reconciliation and a kiss goodnight.
The New York Times: Jimmy Carter’s Unheralded Legacy