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Stop picking on Jimmy Carter

He suffers from an egregiously unfair reputation. His record, though, shows he was quite a good president.

By Walter Rodgers / January 5, 2009

Oakton, Va.

In this season of new resolutions, Americans would do well to rethink their perceptions of Jimmy Carter. President Carter has suffered the misfortune of having his legacy almost entirely shaped by his political enemies rather than by objective reality or a basic sense of American fairness.

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Today, Carter is caricatured as a weak-kneed, sweater-wearing puritan who struggled with lust in his heart, presided over a malaised America, and micromanaged even the scheduling of the White House tennis courts. More recently, he's taken heat for his blunt portrayal of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

What an egregiously undeserved reputation. Carter wasn't just a "good man who got in over his head," as critics say. He was in fact quite a good president.

He kept us out of endless wars. He protected the Alaskan wilderness (Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin once told me that "Carter was the greatest environmental president the country ever had.") He promoted a visionary energy policy. He countered the Soviet military threat. And since he left office, he has persistently promoted the cause of peace around the world. The landmark Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty he fashioned remains in force today.

Against the backdrop of an unnecessary trillion-dollar war in Iraq, it is instructive to recall how Carter avoided a similar morass when he negotiated the Panama Canal treaties, for which he was excoriated by Ronald Reagan's Republicans. When he left office, he was able to say with Thomas Jefferson "[D]uring the period of my administration not a drop of the blood of a single citizen was shed by the sword of war."

In the public mind, Carter continues to be judged as "ineffectual." Yet he started that treaty ratification process with fewer than 40 votes of the 67 needed. Pentagon generals advised him it would require 100,000 troops, rivers of blood, and untold treasure if the US did not return sovereignty of the canal to Panama.

Carter was keenly aware that retaining US control of the canal, as Reagan demanded, might result in another Vietnam-like conflict. Today, looking at America's open-ended wars in Southwest Asia, Carter should be thanked for his wisdom and vision.

President-elect Obama, take note: No matter how loud the clamor for war, if your instincts tell you it's wrong, remember Carter and don't be stampeded onto unnecessary battlefields.

Carter was truly the prophet without honor in his own land on energy policy. Thirty years ago, he preached conservation and alternative energy. A profligate nation – not to mention Congress and the vested interests – ridiculed him. Today, his ideas are mainstream.