Few US politicians have led a life as unlikely as Jimmy Carter. A poor peanut farmer who became 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter was a contradiction in almost every way. He ran for governor of Georgia with segregationist support and then increased the number of African-American staff members in government by 25 percent. Despite a reputation for being a weak president, he brought lasting peace to parts of the Middle East. He famously fumbled his term in office and then went on to save millions of lives with his humanitarian work.
In short, the late, great Mr. Carter was as improbable a president as the United States will ever have. In honor of his recent passing, here are 10 suitably surprising facts about the unlikeliest president.
10 His ‘Malaise’ Speech Was Insanely Popular
On June 30, 1979, the energy crisis hit its peak. Oil prices skyrocketed. Shortages gripped the nation. Urgently called back from a holiday, President Carter responded to the unfolding crisis in the worst way possible. In a televised address on July 15, 1979, the obviously weary Carter criticized himself, harangued his audience, and claimed that there was something wrong with the American people. Today, the speech is known as his “malaise” speech. It’s widely considered one of the worst in history.
Yet our collective memory of this ill-fated speech hides one crucial flaw. At the time, it was insanely popular.
We don’t just mean it was well received by Carter’s supporters. We mean it sent his popularity soaring. Polls conducted in the aftermath gave Carter an 11-point bounce. The White House was flooded with mail from supportive citizens who agreed with everything their president was saying. Far from being tone-deaf, Carter’s speech struck a real chord.
So why is it remembered as such a disaster? For that, you can thank the media. Days after the speech, opinion pieces started targeting Carter’s assertion that the American people lacked spirit. In less than a week, they’d turned the conversation from an “all in this together” narrative into one about the president insulting his own electorate. It didn’t help that Carter asked his entire cabinet for their resignations, although he didn’t accept all of them. Nevertheless, it created the impression of someone out of his depth. It wasn’t the first time the press did a hit job on Carter, and it wouldn’t be the last.
9 His Rabbit Encounter Changed Politics Forever
If you know anything about Jimmy Carter, you know about the killer rabbit. In 1979, the 39th President was out fishing when a large rabbit began swimming frantically for his boat. Taking an oar, Carter chased the creature off with a few flicks of water. It was the sort of absolutely trivial incident that no one involved would ever normally remember . . . until the press got hold of it.
Across the nation, Carter was portrayed as a helpless laughingstock. A guy who couldn’t even win a battle with a rabbit. The Washington Post dubbed the creature “PAWS,” a play on Steven Spielberg’s shark in Jaws. A hit song was released. The incident is so infamous that comics still reference it today. Amazingly, it also changed the course of politics for the next 40 years.
In the Reagan camp, the “bonzai bunny” was seen as both a gift and a warning. A gift because it hurt Carter badly and a warning because it showed how losing control of the narrative risked sinking your entire image. Determined not to let anything like this happen to their candidate, Reagan’s team became insanely PR focused. The result was the extremely image-conscious, micromanaging press machine that we still associate with Washington today.
8 He Made UFO Conspiracies Part Of His Presidential Campaign
We told you once before about Jimmy Carter claiming to see a UFO in his Georgia days. Strange as that story was, it didn’t end there. Carter was so affected by his extraterrestrial encounter that he made UFO conspiracies part of his presidential campaign.
In 1976, as things were heating up in the race between the hopeful peanut farmer from Georgia and incumbent President Gerald Ford, Carter pledged to put UFOs on his White House agenda. His plan was to “encourage” the government to release every piece of evidence and information they had. While this included handing files over to the general public, Carter indicated that he thought scientists should be the major beneficiaries, presumably so the whole of mankind might learn something useful.
As we’re not all celebrating Carter’s role in the great UFO expose of 1977, this clearly didn’t happen. Instead, the 39th president began to backtrack on his pledge as soon as he made it to the White House. Carter was actually agnostic about aliens, and his comments suggest that he thought their source might be closer to home.
Citing security concerns, he said that he was worried about the “defense implications” of releasing the files. His comments inevitably stoked the conspiracy fires. Today, plenty of people think Carter was himself abducted before he could spill the beans.
7 He Was A Theological Genius
Just about every US president has been religious. But there’s “regular religious,” and then there’s “Jimmy Carter religious.” The former president had a level of theological knowledge more suited to an archbishop than a politician. Friends say that he could quote the Bible chapter and verse. And President Carter liked to do nothing more with that knowledge than share it.
From 1981 until his recent death, Carter was an active participant in his local Baptist church. At one point, he taught Sunday school there nearly every week. Although this dropped off in later life, he still taught several times a year even after his cancer diagnosis. The Sunday after revealing that cancer had spread to his brain, Carter was at the church again, preaching to a packed house.
It wasn’t just in his hometown that Carter liked to spread the Good Word. He regularly took part in Christian missionary programs and claimed to have personally led nearly 1,000 people to God. He even gave Bob Dylan guidance in his faith. Yet he was never so pushy as to force his beliefs onto other people and kept an open mind about issues like gay marriage right to the end.
6 As A Kid, He Was A Business Genius
It takes a special kind of mentality to become president, one that requires you to “get up and go” while most people are still sleeping off hangovers. So it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that Jimmy Carter was an overachiever as a kid. But the scale of his achievements is surprising. By the age of 13, young Jimmy Carter was a property-owning landlord.
As a child of the Great Depression, it was instilled into Carter from a young age to work hard. But while most kids would be happy getting a paper route and saving up to buy comics (or whatever the heck kids spent their money on in those days), Carter aimed his sights higher. From the age of five, he was picking, bagging, and selling his own peanuts on the streets of his hometown.
By the age of eight, he’d saved enough money to start buying bales of cotton at a discount. When he turned 13, the price of cotton went back up. The teenage Jimmy sold his entire stock for a profit, bought five houses in his town, and rented them out to families. It was this same acumen that later helped him turn his family’s floundering peanut farm into a prosperous business.
5 A Kinky Remark Nearly Cost Him The Presidency
In mid-1976, the presidential race appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Carter was popular and riding high while Gerald Ford was still taking flak for pardoning Nixon. Then Carter made a strangely ill-judged remark to a reporter. With one sentence, he nearly sank his presidential campaign.
The reporter was working for Playboy magazine, which wanted a feature on the Democratic nominee. Unfortunately, Carter was a terrible interview subject. Uptight, rigid, and unwilling to comment on ordinary things, he seemed to be sabotaging his own press. So the reporter asked Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, to make his candidate say something—anything—that might engage the magazine’s readers. Powell agreed. The next day, Carter sat down with the reporter and declared: “I’ve 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.”
The remark was meant to show that Carter’s religion didn’t make him superior and that he understood temptation. Instead, it nearly cost him the presidency. Carter’s poll ratings plummeted 15 points overnight. It sparked a media feeding frenzy and turned the Democratic nominee into a laughingstock. Had Ford been doing even slightly better before Carter’s bizarre remark, it’s entirely possible that we’d never have had a President Carter.
4 He Survived The Oddest Assassination Attempt
On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald aimed a rifle from a sixth-floor window, pulled the trigger, and changed history. Since then, presidential assassination attempts have become a fact of public life. Jimmy Carter was no exception. Only this time, the attempt had a twist that pushed it right into The Twilight Zone territory.
It all began in 1979 when a homeless man, Raymond Lee Harvey, was arrested for carrying an old, blank-firing pistol where President Carter was due to make a speech. Harvey claimed that he was part of a four-man plot to assassinate the president. While he and an accomplice created a distraction, two Mexican snipers intended to shoot Carter from the crowd. At first, Harvey was dismissed as mentally ill. Then police raided his hotel room and found a shotgun and boxes of ammunition. Now worried that Harvey was telling the truth, the police arrested his supposed accomplice. Then things got really weird.
Harvey’s accomplice was a man named Oswald (or the Latino form, “Osvaldo,” in some versions). Two men who jointly shared a name with history’s most famous assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, apparently just happened to decide they wanted to kill the sitting president. Although their plan failed, it sparked countless conspiracy theories that the men were deliberately chosen to send Carter a gruesome warning.
3 His ‘Wimp’ Image Was Created By An Accidental Headline
As someone who personally went into global conflict zones to take on and defeat fatal diseases, Jimmy Carter had a strangely unfair reputation as a wimp. His presidential legacy is one of people criticizing his lack of strong leadership and calling him a coward. Yet it’s only by an unfortunate mistake that we have this image at all.
For that, you can thank The Boston Globe. While plenty of people criticized Carter during his time in office, it wasn’t until 1980 that public opinion began to crystallize around the 39th president being a “wimp.” In March of that year, the editor of the Globe, Kirk Scharfenberg, wrote an editorial on Carter that characterized a recent speech as being “wishy-washy.” Frustrated by Carter’s economic policies, Scharfenberg then mocked up the article with a joke headline: “Mush from the Wimp.” Unfortunately, the printing staff didn’t get the memo. The next day, they printed and distributed 161,000 copies emblazoned with the joke headline.
The joke wound up defining Carter in the public’s mind. It also influenced political discourse for the next decade, popularizing an insult that would likewise haunt George H. W. Bush’s presidency.
2 He Once Averted A Major War As A Private Citizen
As the leader of a country, one of the hardest goals you can set for yourself is to avoid going to war. Since 1980, no president has succeeded in keeping the country at peace. Jimmy Carter was the last president in the White House who wasn’t involved in a conflict, which was a significant achievement. But this is nothing compared to the time that he stopped a devastating war as a private citizen.
The year was 1994, and Carter had been out the White House for nearly 15 years. Halfway across the globe, North and South Korea were locked in an extremely tense standoff. North Korea was sprinting to develop a nuclear bomb, and South Korea (along with the US) was preparing to stop it. Whether the enemy used bombers or sanctions, North Korea intended to respond with a declaration of war, which would have dragged in the US. The situation was serious. The Pentagon’s lowest casualty estimate was one million dead Koreans. Seoul would be annihilated in minutes. At least 50,000 US servicemen were expected to die.
It should have been the defining war of the 1990s. Instead, Jimmy Carter got on a plane and flew to Pyongyang as a private citizen. He met Kim Il Sung and managed to thrash out a last-minute deal that likely saved the entire peninsula. Job done, he called up President Bill Clinton and told him the war was off. It was jaw-dropping, especially as the White House had no desire for Carter to be in Pyongyang at all. Yet when he offered them peace, they jumped on it. As a private citizen, he had managed to do what no ambassadors or diplomats could dream of doing.
1 His Private Life Was All Shades Of Awesome
In the late 1950s, race relations took a sour turn in the South. In Georgia, groups like the White Citizens Council began springing up to fight tooth and nail for continued segregation. Millions of white people joined. In places like Plains, Georgia, every single white man in town joined. With one exception. A local peanut farmer quietly refused the call, even though it nearly cost him his business. Of all his friends and neighbors, only Jimmy Carter stood publicly against segregation.
It’s a story that highlights an important aspect of Carter’s life. For all the people who claimed that his presidency was a total washout, Carter himself was far from a loser. His private life was all shades of awesome.
In the late 1980s, Carter took a trip to a small village in Ghana. Stepping into the square, he saw a horrible sight. A woman was holding her own breast, swollen up to nearly 30 centimeters (12 in) across. A worm protruded from the end, writhing in the midday heat. The woman had Guinea worm disease, a hideously painful infection then affecting 3.5 million people worldwide. Faced with that awful image, Carter vowed to do something about it.
And he did. By the time he died, his foundation had nearly wiped out Guinea worm disease. In 2015, there were only 126 cases globally. By all accounts, his foundation should soon finish his work. It will be the first time that we humans have eliminated a disease since smallpox.
That’s not all the 39th president did after leaving office. The Carter Center has at least seven ongoing programs dedicated to disease prevention in the world’s poorest countries. Before old age took its toll, the former president used to go to these places himself, fighting through horrendous conditions to save a handful of lives.
And that’s really how we should all remember him. Regardless of any faults he may have had as a leader, he proved time and time again that his “fundamental decency” wasn’t just a slick PR trick. With his passing, the world has lost more than just a humanitarian. We’ve lost one of the greatest humanitarians of our, or any, generation.