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The un-celebrity president: Jimmy Carter shuns riches, lives modestly (washingtonpost.com)
235 points by siberianbear 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 103 comments

Like Cincinnatus, returning home after the war and taking up his plow.

Two things have always struck me about Jimmy Carter:

1 - He was willing to nominate Volker to Fed chair even though he knew Volker's plan of raising interest rates massively would cost him (Carter) re-election. I believe he would have survived even the Iran crisis but for that, but it was the right thing to do. Reagan got all the credit for it since it started under Carter's watch and finished under Reagan's.

2 - he has such a reputation for Polite gentility and self sacrifice (see above) yet his maneuvering through the primary season and at the democratic convention was masterful -- he was dispassionate but brutal in putting the (political) knife into rivals, and was happy to do so publicly. That genteel/man of the people schtick extended to his use of the pronunciation "nukular" even though he had worked for Rickover and attended to the navy's nuclear school!

A complex guy whether you like him or not.

Carter's speech in 1979 was prescient: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jimmycartercrisisof... "We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure. All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path -- the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem."

Too bad we (US Americans) collectively picked the wrong path...

But thankfully some of us did go down the right path individually and in small groups. And so, for example, forty years later, solar power is now cheaper than coal, and electric cars are increasingly cost effective, and we know how to build super-insulated passive-solar homes in cold climates that do not require a furnace, and so on. We could have had that all decades earlier with a lot less suffering and pollution and other expenses from externalities -- and maybe had fusion power and thorium power too by now. But at least we made progress because of individuals with the same spirit of grace-full humanity, community-mindedness, persistence, and cooperation that Jimmy Carter demonstrates.

It would be un-American to pick the right path.

> Volker's plan of raising interest rates massively would cost him (Carter) re-election. I believe he would have survived even the Iran crisis but for that, but it was the right thing to do. Reagan got all the credit for it since it started under Carter's watch and finished under Reagan's.

It's hard to take this as anything but partisan spin.

These issues are never black & white and there is hardly consensus on what you wrote.

There are many who believe his raising interest rates to nearly 20% where fundamental in resulting unemployment to 11% & causing a recession.

Note to say those people are right either.

Just that it's complicated, there are compounding factors & many POVs.

Some other positions:




I don't see how that can be partisan, and I'm not even sure in which direction you might mean.

But my comment was about Carter: he took an unpopular decision because he thought it was in the best interest of the nation, whatever the personal cost. And indeed, as I said, Reagan got the credit. Even if you think Volcker was wrong, or even made things worse, my comment still stands.

That National Interest link you sent is about the "Volcker rule", a 21st-century position decades after he was Fed chairman and having nothing at all to do with the topic (and the article from The Week mentions that people these days think of Volcker more for that).

The article from The Week supports the point as well (that says that Volker's action put an end to the stagflation that resulted from years of not doing anything about the problem), and says Reagan did precisely the wrong thing.

The Economist article does tepidly raise the idea that Volcker may not deserve the level of credit he gets ("Would those [non-Volcker] factors have been sufficient to take the air out of growing inflationary pressures? Perhaps not."). The consensus is of course that it worked; I do think that topic deserves more analysis.

It is really worth reading the Hunter S Thompson essay on Carter's "Law Day Speech". I think it was in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '76. It is extremely insightful.

The Iranian hostages were released the day of Reagan’s inauguration. Reagan would have bombed Iran. Carter’s diplomacy were just about effective as Obama’s lines in the sand. Sometimes diplomacy through a gun barrel is needed.

Reagan, whose government later sold weapons to Iran while talking up an embargo to keep Iran away from the Soviets and to potentially help release hostages from Lebanon? Got a source on that claim?

Actually internal Iranian records from that period show that the occupation was actually a pain in the neck to maintain on operational and diplomatic grounds, though it was worth waiting until Carter left as a great fuck you to him in response to him having (unsuccessfully) sent in a special forces team.

As Theodore Roosevelt said, speak soft but make sure you carry a big stick.

Jimmy Carter is without question one of the all-time great ex-presidents. Whatever the successes or failings of his administration, he's used his time since to improve the world, and is honest, uncorrupt, and suitably (ex-)presidential.

Yes, I agree.

Funny you should say that on the anniversary of the Gwangju uprising, where Jimmy Carter sent the military to go massacre students protesting the US-installed military dictatorship in South Korea

Can you please provide a source for this info?

I can't find Jimmy Carter's name in this research: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwangju_Uprising

Your claim that, "Jimmy Carter sent the military to go massacre students" is not supported by that article. It was an interesting read, though.

> According to declassified U.S. documents I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Carter administration gave prior approval to Chun to use the army to quell the wave of unrest that shook South Korea in the spring of 1980. The hundreds of State Department and Pentagon cables contradict the official U.S. claims that the Carter administration was surprised by Chun's resort to force and had no advance knowledge he was deploying paratroopers trained to fight in North Korea against his own citizens.

Again, your claim that, "Jimmy Carter sent the military to go massacre students" is not supported by that article.

You appear to have a reading comprehension problem.

Jimmy Carter did not send the military. It was local South Korean military/junta that did so.

He's a bit opinionated to be considered "ex-presidential". He was pretty sour grapes with the Reagan administration and generally had plenty of opinions about each of the subsequent ones.

Having opinions about things doesn't mean one isn't "ex-presidential". Of course he has opinions about things, and has decided to voice them. What makes someone "presidential" (or ex-"presidential") is the way one conducts themselves and voices their opinions. Not the lack of opinions nor the lack of voicing them.

I don't know. Now that I am old enough to see how people praise Bush or Chirac even though `they are the worst presidents ever` I can't help but wonder what it was really like under Carter.

Man you're speaking directly to me right now. Reading people on reddit drone on about "TRUMP REALLY MAKES YOU WISH FOR BUSH JR. AMIRITE?" makes me think I'm taking crazy pills.

Nothing I've seen Trump do so far is even in the same bad/wrong hemisphere as the patriot act. I eagerly await his attempt, it should be a doozy.

Plenty of opinions?? God forbid!

Maybe what we need is fewer ex-presidents willing to at most give milquetoast read-between-the-lines statements of vague disapproval at the systematic undermining of our institutions and values.

I decided to submit this because I have always been fascinated with Jimmy Carter. What a genuine, decent person. But history has judged him as one of the worst presidents.

I was in third grade when Carter was running for re-election against Ronald Reagan. Our teacher gave us an assignment to create a campaign poster for your favorite candidate. I chose Jimmy Carter, and added the campaign slogan, "I will gladly trade peanuts for the American hostages" (referring to to Carter's history as a farmer and to the Iran hostage crisis [1]). I thought I was really clever at the time, but now I think I was just being a stupid smartass.

Whenever I have seen Carter in the press since his presidency, it always seems like he is going something unambiguously good, like building houses with Habitat for Humanity or trying to negotiate peace agreements between unfriendly countries as an unbiased mediator.

I think we won't have this great man with us for much longer. The world will be a worse place when he departs.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_hostage_crisis

"But history has judged him as one of the worst presidents."

I think he had a bit of bad luck with the economy of his time and also with the Iranian hostage situation. If freeing them had worked he would have been a superhero. Or he could have done it like Reagan with Iran-Contra: talk tough in public but secretly pay off the Iranians.

Carter succeeded in freeing the Hostages. Carter's negotiations lead to the release of the hostages on the day Reagan was inaugurated. Iranians were deliberatively delaying the release because Carter was literally the the face of great Satan for them.

Either that, or Reagan made a deal with Khomeni to delay the release of the hostages.


It’s an interesting theory but that article points out that the Senate did an investigation as well as many many news outlets in search of supporting evidence and none was ever found.

That’s not to say it didn’t happen, but it hasn’t been proven by any means.

The Iranians were likely eager to have the crisis end as well...they gained nothing while becoming a global pariah. They probably also understood that if they were to end the crisis by killing the hostages, Reagan would have authorized the use of nuclear weapons on Tehran.

> Reagan would have authorized the use of nuclear weapons on Tehran.

Before you say things like this maybe you should ask yourself something like "Is this my personal opinion I invented on the spot without any evidence."

> I think he had a bit of bad luck with the economy

That's pretty much the way it goes with every president, good or bad luck, even though very little is the result of a small four-year window - it started well before that.

But history has judged him as one of the worst presidents.

I wonder if that is a fair judgement or whether he was just the victim of the economic cycle and external forces.

In many ways, "history" has changed with revelations from the CIAs actions in Iran, Reagans actions in Iran (before and after), and more, especially to those of us reading instead of basing it on partisan hackery.

Perhaps one of the better statements we can most accurately make is that his administration was pretty poor at covering things up, spinning - perhaps to the extent of lacking the confidence Americans required.


> especially to those of us reading instead of basing it on partisan hackery

And make no mistake: the partisan hackery is strong in criticism (more commonly, vacuous dismissal) of Carter. I know a Republican who calls him "that man", a la FDR's detractors.

Not stopping the overthrow of the Shah (and then admitting him to the United States) may have been a mistake because of the hostage crisis that unfolded and also created geopolitical instability that continues to this day.

> Not stopping the overthrow of the Shah (and then admitting him to the United States) may have been a mistake because of the hostage crisis that unfolded and also created geopolitical instability that continues to this day.

Fighting to defend a dictator the West effectively installed to suppress a populist movement was unlikely to have a better outcome than the Shah being ousted.

People in the West seem to forget the Iranian Revolution was _extremely_ popular in Iran.

Why was it popular?

Because the Shah was a corrupt and oppressive regime that was hated by the Iranian people. The Iranian Revolution wasn't the first time he was forced out of Iran either.

This delusion that Iran could be "ruled" by the Shah as a positive outcome needs to stop. It isn't borne out by the facts and it would have ended up collapsing eventually. Popular leaders don't need organizations like SAVAK to torture its own people.

The geopolitical instability was set in a long time before then, probably after the second world war, possibly all the way back to the 7th century.

He was a victim of the Iran-Contra scandal. Something that the USA has failed to deal with to this day.

Every president is the victim (or beneficiary) of the economic cycle and external forces.

What makes a president memorable is what they do when they’re dealt a “bad hand.”

I marvel at what a terrible hand Obama was dealt when he entered office. I don’t support everything he did, but I’ve got to give the guy props for getting anything done. I miss “No Drama Obama.”

Obama may not be quite the boy scout that Carter has been, but my expectations are that he’ll become an elder statesmen of the republic that we’ll cherish similarly.

Great wars make great generals.

People aren't great in and of themselves. They are great within an environment.

So everyone is a "victim" of externalities.

No, he's a nice man but a poor leader.

He had lots of really nice things to say about Chavez and Castro when they died, for instance. Even if you're left wing, you need to acknowledge they did some pretty awful things to their people as leaders.

He had lots of really nice things to say about Chavez and Castro when they died, for instance.

Lots of really nice things? What he said about Castro: "We remember fondly our visits with him in Cuba and his love of his country."

It's an odd thing to be fond of visiting with a man with the justified infamy of Castro. He is responsible for human rights violations, escalation of the cold war in the Western Hemisphere, crippling the Cuban economy and any number of other things. But I guess he loved his country. Except for the people he exiled to the U.S. I guess.

"He is responsible for human rights violations, escalation of the cold war in the Western Hemisphere, crippling the Cuban economy"

Those would indeed be funny accusations for an ex-POTUS to make.

Well, he could have not cozied up to dictators and avoided the whole issue.

> But history has judged him as one of the worst presidents.

As polarization has increased, views of former presidents have become more partisan and whether you hold this view now more closely tracks political affiliation.

> I chose Jimmy Carter, and added the campaign slogan, "I will gladly trade peanuts for the American hostages" (referring to to Carter's history as a farmer and to the Iran hostage crisis [1]). I thought I was really clever at the time, but now I think I was just being a stupid smartass.

I really like that story! You'd be a few years older than me, but we would have gotten along well as kids/stupid smartasses...:)

> But history has judged him as one of the worst presidents.

Nah, not if you talk to any craft brewers or beer enthusiasts. They are basically inches short of having his portrait hung in every craft brewery and pub due to his H.R. 1337 bill. If it wasn't for political partisanship, this might have already happened.

I appreciate the submission.. it was a soothing, peaceful read. :)

If you're interested in where Carter came from, I can't recommend An Hour Before Daylight [1] highly enough. The man's a great writer, and he grew up in a fascinating time and place.

You've also got to give a lot of respect to someone who could have made themselves much wealthier, but said "No."

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Hour-Before-Daylight-Memories-Boyhood...

Nice! Also available as an audiobook on Hoopla through the library for free. Just downloaded it.

Lots of people take off work to be with their family. Lots of people work for non-profits as a career. Great teachers are notoriously underpaid. Though most of them don't write memoirs.

Most of them were not elected President of the United States.

Jimmy has his priorities straight. A humble man who tells the truth. And knows what is most important in this life. Hint: it's neither wealth nor power.

I get you, but rhetorical power is just another form of power. Carter maximizes the power of his truths by eschewing wealth and direct organizational power.

It's true (pretty much by definition) that rhetorical power is a form of power. But it's a further, cynical step to conclude that if someone acts in a way that confers rhetorical authority, they must be doing so just for the sake of that authority. You're assuming away the possibility that someone might be genuinely acting, at least in part, from principle.

I disagree that it's cynical. I think maximizing the power of your ideas and principles is laudable, and can have great returns. Tying ethics to tangible reality increases the value and urgency of ethical behavior.

He is already a wealthy man though. Being wealthy is not just about driving a flashy car, its about having the mental security that if shit hits the fan, you would be taken care of.

That's pretty much anyone with a pension, decent insurance, and friends.

I guess everything's relative and you can define "wealthy" at whatever level you want, but Carter could be living in a mansion and flying private jets, and chose not to.

How has no one pointed out after 8 hours that this man who “shuns riches” receives a pension that puts him in the 97.7th percentile of income[0], a fully funded office, medical benefits, and no housing costs other than property tax? For a majority of America, that would be riches beyond belief. Let’s not forget he plays golf with billionaires.

I’m sure Mr. Carter donates a substantial portion of his income and lives rather modestly by choice, but most people don’t have that choice.

Edit: slight numerical correction, source.

[0]: https://dqydj.com/income-percentile-calculator/

I’m not really sure where you’re going with this.

The point of the article, it seems to me, is that he has consciously chosen a modest, communitarian life, even though he could certainly arrange for more lavish surroundings.

Is your argument that he’s paid too much? If so, what do you think is reasonable compensation for one of the most stressful jobs on earth?

My point is that we have a system of government that is for and by the rich, where billionaires tell the millionaires in government what they want, and then they get it. Your opinion does not matter to them [0].

Someone receiving a $206K/year pension, according to the 4% safe withdrawal method, is the equivalent of having $5.1M in a retirement account, except this is better, because it doesn’t run out. Most people won’t see that much money over their entire careers. This is not someone we should hold up and say “this person shunned riches,” because it’s not true.

[0]: https://www.upworthy.com/20-years-of-data-reveals-that-congr...

Sure, he has access to money—-no argument there—-and his life will always be comfortable.

On the other hand, how can you say that he’s not shunning riches, or at least their trappings? They live in Plains, Georgia. Their big Sunday dinner is casserole and one Solo cup of “bargain Chardonnay” with the neighbors. They turned down living quarters in favor of a pull-out couch in their office. It’s not at all the stereotypical lifestyle of someone with millions in the bank. Hell, parts of it make my lifestyle (academic scientist) seem opulent—-we at least have IKEA wineglasses!

The article discusses his pension and, if you reread it, points out that he does not in fact get medical benefits from his tenure in government.

Yes, he gets medical benefits from Emory University. It’s irrelevant. Who cares where he gets them from? The point still stands that he has unimaginable riches compared to the vast majority of Americans.

Again, how much do you think he should he get? He also had power—-and responsibilities and stress—-that are unimaginable compare to the vast majority of Americans.

And for what it’s worth, the median household income is around $60k. Three times that doesn’t seem crazy high.

If you're not talking about the rewards from his government service, then it's hard to figure out what your point would be, because the vast majority of Americans do in fact have health coverage.

But what does that point have to do with this article, which details how differently Carter lives compared to other former presidents? I think it’s self-evident that Carter, being one of the fewer than 50 men in the history of the U.S. to be elected president, has an existence generally unimaginable the the vast majority of Americans.

That’s precisely what’s wrong. How can people who have “unimaginable existences” represent me?

I get that you have an axe to grind here, and are going to have at it with a will, but let's not be intentionally obtuse. The act of being the President itself is an existence most people can't really experience. It is inherent in the office. It would be absurd to suggest he immediately resign from the office of representing the people because he instantly is no longer one of the people. It's an inherent issue with representative democracy.

The article does not purport to represent you or the general readership of the Washington Post. It says right in the title that it is about former President Jimmy Carter, and presumably, people are interested in reading about other people's lives, even ones that are profoundly different from their own.

And what does that have to do with the article?

It’s merely the example in front of me right now. Donald Trump or any of the people listed here (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_current_members_of_t...) would do just as well.

One thing is to receive a benefit given by your prior public roles (serving society).

Another thing is to actively pursue money at the expense of everything else.

Your comment looks rather short-sighted in this regard.

He lives in a house that is worth less than the armored SUV parked outside his house.

And drinks cheap alcohol/food, and not for a photo op.

What more do you want him to do?

Probably because it doesn't matter.

Sure, he may receive a handsome pension for his service as the highest official in the land along with other benefits but what's the alternative, having other world leaders bumping off our former presidents (looking at you Saddam) because they decided to enter public service and can't afford world-class protection for themselves/family?

I had the same reaction, though in comparison to other former presidents it could be considered accurate. I did find it interesting that he doesn't receive federal health benefits, having only 4 years of the required 5 years service. (He does receive them through Emory University.)

The premise of this article is that Carter is an “un-celebrity” who choose to avoid profiting from his presidential past, not that he’s living on the streets as a pauper.

He's not the exception. Our presidents who leave office and amass enormous wealth (as well as celebrities and wealthy people Americans want to vote into office) are the global exceptions. Most "civil servants" in other countries serve their terms and go back to their regular jobs. The real story would be why America is the cultural anomaly.

Truly, we in the U.S. need to look at ourselves for what we have wrought and currently suffer under.

We claim to want these things, then attack those who manifest them.

We preach understanding and forgiveness, then refuse to exercise it in understanding limitations others face -- external as well as internal -- and working with them to improve things.

No society's perfect. But, America has managed to raise sloth and hypocrisy to new levels.

As I've aged and observed, I've come to think of us more and more, as and become a bully nation.

Of course, a man like Carter doesn't "fit" into that. Which is a credit to him.

Or, depending upon your perspective, his ultimate failing.

(Something I associate with all too well.)

Modest living sets individuals and their ideas free.

The tennis court at former President Jimmy Carter’s private home is swept twice a day, his pool is cleaned daily and his grass cut, his flower beds weeded and his windows washed on a regular basis — all at taxpayers’ expense

Relatively modest.

From a few lines below in that article:

“President Carter would be glad to reduce the frequency of routine maintenance at the discretion of the Park Service,” Ms. Congileo said.”

The back story is that he donated the house to the National Park Service. And, as even the Republican who oversaw that said, the cost is essentially a rounding error.

I'm fine with "relatively" as an assessment of Carter's lifestyle, but I think that's not germane to my point. The principle that living (relatively) within your means allows you to take bigger risks is way bigger than Carter.

Carter doesn't need to stay in good graces with organizations that might pay him to speak. That gives him greater freedom to follow his thoughts regardless of who they might offend.

We remember him in Panama for signing the treaty that gave us back the Canal and the surrounding military bases. He's the only US president I would shake hands with

You should check out "Panama's Rusty Lock."

I loved the quip about the presidential cooler that they use to store leftovers.

President Carter is the kind of down-to-earth person I would want to hang out with, while at the same time using his position to build thousands of homes and fight river blindness and give vaccines to millions of people.

I wonder if another person like him will ever ascend to lead the United States.

I generally try to vote for the presidential candidate who grew up with greater economic hardship. It tends to be a pretty decent predictor of character. (Admittedly, a pool selected for those who did and who rose to become candidates)

No comment on the opposite...

Regressing one step further you could also vote in the primary for the same criteria (within reason).

An admirable man. He is doing great work today.

His leadership came at a tough time, and he did not bring prosperity. The country did much better under his successor, Reagan.

We all have potential for good, in our own ways.

He has yet to apologize for going to Venezuela and legitimizing the re-election of Hugo Chavez, who was violently repressing independent media and rounding up dissidents, by calling the Venezuelan election process "the best in the world".

The downvote brigade in this thread belies the appreciation of a kinder, more civil approach to public life.

Easy for a lame-duck to say...

The most "un-celebrity"? I'd say carter is the most "celebrity" ex-president we've had in a long time. He has used his celebrity to advocate for his charities ( habitat for humanity for example ) and for human rights ( same sex marriage, race equality, etc ) and political issues ( north korea, iran, etc ).

If you equate celebrity with making it rain in clubs, then I guess carter is "un-celebrity". But the guy has been the most visible ex-president in media. Think that makes him the most celebrity ex-president in history.

I just read a story about Obama and Arethra Franklin yet you think Carter is the most visible ex-president?

OK. Second most celebrity is fair. Why downvote a valid opinion, folks?

I didn't downvote you but my guess: because your "opinion" included facts that were so obviously incorrect that they could only be the result of tremendous amounts of bias that make you unable to correctly judge reality. Which makes your "opinion" not a useful contribution on a site that (tries to) value correctness.

If you were able to express your opinion without resorting to tremendous amounts of hyperbolism that make it trivially easy to imagine you as a frothing-at-the-mouth partisan you probably would have been able to more effectively convey whatever it was you wanted to get across to the readers at HackerNews.

That wasn't my post.

The most "celebrity" ex-president is definitely Obama. Netflix series, Beyonce concerts, you name it - that family eats it up.

Yachts and private islands with Branson...

His privilege is showing. Just like only 10% of the America is rich, only 10% of the world has at most a lower class American standard of living.

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