Trump repeats Carter’s feat in 1976

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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Nearly a year ago, I was among more than 1,000 people who lined up in the rain outside a Costco store in Henrico County to get a book signed by former President Jimmy Carter.

The book, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” looks back at many events in Carter’s life, including his presidential campaign 40 years ago.

In a recent Politico article, historian Josh Zeitz contends that Carter in 1976, like Donald Trump today, was an insurgent outsider. Each rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment to defeat a crowded field of candidates and win his party’s nomination.

And both were resisted by party leaders. Before there was a #NeverTrump movement in the Republican Party, there was the “Anybody But Carter” effort aimed at stopping him from winning the Democratic nomination.

Both attempts, Zeitz suggests, were doomed from the start because Trump and Carter tapped into the mood of the times. In Carter’s case, the nation still was reeling from the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation and revelations about the conduct of the Vietnam War under Democratic and Republican administrations.  The public was disillusioned with Washington politics and longed for someone who could be trusted.

Enter the former Georgia governor who pledged, “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never make a misleading statement. I’ll never betray the confidence that any of you had in me. And I’ll never avoid a controversial issue.”

The comparison between Carter and Trump, of course, breaks down when you move beyond campaign strategy. The men are almost opposites in personality.
In contrast with Trump’s brash statements and theatrics, Carter always has been direct but low-key. Effective in speaking to small groups, he never developed Trump’s ability to inspire a large audience, in a convention hall or on television.

In contrast with Trump’s three marriages, Carter has been married for 70 years to his wife, Rosalynn. They are equal partners in many endeavors, including The Carter Center, a nonprofit they founded in 1982 to promote human rights and alleviate suffering.

In fact, during his campaign against Republican President Gerald Ford, Carter tried to alter his image as a pious Baptist Sunday school teacher by granting an interview to Playboy. In explaining Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he admitted that, like other men, he had lusted after women. Within days of the article’s publication, his poll numbers dropped 15 percentage points.

Trump also has one big advantage that Carter did not share. The real estate mogul has been a household name for decades, developing a reputation in books and countless television appearances as a high-level dealmaker. 

Carter, on the other hand, began his presidential campaign with virtually no public recognition outside his home state. Zeitz notes that when Carter told his mother, Lillian, he planned to run for president, she asked, “President of what?”

Carter climbed out of obscurity by winning the Democratic Iowa caucus, which had begun only four years before. That victory served as a springboard to wins in New Hampshire and Florida, where he vanquished Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Carter’s early momentum allowed him to sweep later primaries as opponents dropped out of the race.

But running an effective campaign doesn’t ensure a nominee will be an effective president. Carter can claim some major accomplishments during his administration, but he failed to keep the public’s confidence in his leadership.

One aspect of Carter’s presidency, however, remains an unqualified success, the Camp David Accords. The event foreshadowed Carter’s role as a humanitarian and peacemaker after he left the White House.

In his book, Carter recounts the 1978 peace negotiations he conducted between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the presidential retreat in Maryland.

The book reveals one critical piece of the story that I had not known.  On the 13th day of negotiations, talks broke down with Begin refusing to yield on some issues. The prime minister, Carter and Sadat agreed to return to Washington, admit their failure and plan to resume talks sometime in the future.

Just before he left, Begin asked that Carter sign photos of the three leaders for his grandchildren. Without prompting from anyone, Carter’s secretary called Israel and got the children’s names. Carter inscribed each child’s name on the photos as he signed them and then walked over to Begin’s cabin.

“I gave him the photographs, he turned away to examine them, and then began to read the names aloud, one by one,” Carter writes. “He had a choked voice, and tears were running down his cheeks.”

The two men sat down and began to talk. “After a few minutes, we agreed to try once more, and after some intense discussions we were successful,” Carter says. Begin and Sadat were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

A simple act of kindness resulted in an historic Mideast treaty that still stands today.

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