Trust Me: We All Liked President Carter Then Too But…

By now, most of you have likely heard of Jimmy Carter’s recent announcement that he has cancer which has spread to his liver and to his brain. Carter, who is 90 years old, is undergoing radiation and other therapy, and faces an uncertain prognosis. However, he wryly noted in this press conference, hosted at the Carter Center six days ago, that this might be a “propitious time” to cut down on his busy schedule.

If you watched Carter discuss his illness during the press conference, you could not help but admire the courage and sense of humor he exhibited. When asked about the outpouring of affection that has come his way since his illness was revealed, Carter mentioned that he had received well wishes from all the former presidents, as well as President Obama and the Secretary of State, adding slyly that they hadn’t been calling him recently until his illness. He seemed, as much as anyone can be when facing a potentially terminal illness, completely at peace with whatever the outcome might be.

During the question-and-answer portion of the press conference, he was asked if in light of his illness he might reflect on his accomplishments. While he acknowledged that winning the presidency was important, not least because it gave him the platform for his post-presidency work with the Carter Center, it was the latter experience that was the most gratifying aspects of his life (with the important exception of marrying his wife Rosalynn!) Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work through the Carter Center.

Perhaps inevitably, he was asked if there was anything he would have done differently in his life. He acknowledged that he wished he had sent one more helicopter on the Iran hostage rescue attempt. As you will recall, that mission failed due to mechanical failures and accidents involving the helicopters sent to ferry the hostages back home. In his response, Carter suggested, to much laughter, that if the rescue operation had succeeded, he would have won a second term as president!

We should not be surprised that Carter is showing such grace in the face of such a terrible disease. I have remarked in previous posts that his is maybe the most successful ex-presidency we have seen, with perhaps the exception of John Quincy Adams’ post-presidential years in Congress.* Carter’s work through the Carter Center and his other philanthropic endeavors has touched lives across the globe, and he has set a precedent that other ex-presidents have sought to emulate. No wonder Carter often makes the list of most admired people.

But, given his defeat in the 1980 presidential election after serving only one term, it is easy to forget that even while serving as president he was held in relatively high esteem by the public for his personal qualities. As I’ve noted in previous posts, political scientists Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams and Jeremy Pope used responses to American National Election surveys in which Americans were asked about their views of presidential candidates to create two broad categories describing respondents’ overall views of the candidates’ personal attributes. As this chart from Fiorina’s New York Times op-ed piece discussing the research shows, Carter had the highest net positive evaluation of any of the two major party presidential candidates in 1952-2000 time period the authors studied. At the same time, his opponent Ronald Reagan had the second lowest rating, “bested” only by Bill Clinton’s dismal personal ratings in 1996. Even while president, then, voters praised Carter’s personal characteristics, if not his performance as president.

The lesson, as I discussed in a previous post that attracted not a little attention among pundits, is that in presidential elections, voters’ evaluations of national conditions and the experience and issue stances of candidates typically matters much more than do considerations of personal qualities, including honesty and trustworthiness. Indeed, running in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, candidate Carter vowed that he “would not lie to the American people.” Sometimes he might have taken that promise too far, as when acknowledging in a Playboy interview that he “looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.” Of course, Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976, which one might attribute to voters’ rewarding him for his candor.  However, the gap between Ford and Carter on personal qualities, as measured by Fiorina et al, was smaller than that between Carter and Reagan in 1980.  In the 1980 election, Carter’s perceived honesty was not enough to overcome dismal economic conditions and prevent his defeat by a candidate who wasn’t held in nearly such high personal regard.

And that’s worth remembering in the face of the almost daily barrage of stories trumpeting Hillary Clinton’s evident lack of trustworthiness. Clinton may yet lose this race. But if so it’s likely that perceptions of her trustworthiness won’t be the primary reason why.

*Several readers have suggested that William Howard Taft, who served as the 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency, might be included on this list.  I would also add Herbert Hoover, who chaired two important commissions studying the reorganization of the executive branch during his post-presidential years.

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