Call it historical perspective, call it acquired wisdom, call it simple nostalgia, but most things tend to look better in the rear view mirror. Take the hapless Jimmy Carter administration for example. Arguably, among the (many) negative things Carter will be remembered for are runaway inflation, the Iran hostage debacle, and questionable deregulation of the transportation, communication, and financial industries.
Vilified by the Republicans and mocked by the Democrats, Carter reached the point where he was regarded by his own party as such a political liability that they (in the person of Ted Kennedy) tried to torpedo him in the 1980 primary. Not something you do to a successful incumbent.
But despite the bad memories, Carter accomplished some fairly important things during his single term in office -- things that, given the near-paralytic gridlock that defines today's politics, seem all the more impressive in hindsight. Here are ten of them.
1. Created the Department of Energy. The DOE provided the administration with the bureaucratic chops to formulate and implement what could have been a comprehensive, long-term national energy strategy. Had Carter's aggressive gas mileage standards continued to be pursued by subsequent administrations, we would today -- 30-odd years later -- be dramatically less dependent on Saudi oil.
2. Created the Department of Education. Despite howls from anti-government groups who opposed yet another federal agency, the decision to carve out Education from the already over-burdened Department. of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) was a bold and necessary one.
3. Supported SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks). It sounds trivial today, but in the 1970s a nuclear non-proliferation pact, even a flawed one, was seen as an important step in forging a lasting peace with the USSR. A generation ago, people were genuinely frightened of a nuclear holocaust. Although Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the agreement, the U.S. Congress, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, refused to ratify it.
4. Brokered the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. By initiating the Camp David Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (which led directly to the landmark treaty), Carter laid the groundwork for improved Israeli-Arab relations. That good relations in the region never materialized wasn't Carter's fault.
5. Installed solar panels in the White House. This was not only a practical gesture, but a symbolic one as well, demonstrating to the world that America was serious about conserving energy, and that conservation does, indeed, begin at home. Alas, Ronald Reagan believed solar panels made the United States look pathetic and needy, and had them removed.
6. Boycotted the 1980 Olympics. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter boycotted the Moscow games, a decision that earned him ridicule and scorn, even though Japan, West Germany, China, Canada, et al, supported his decision. Boycotts are unpredictable. Some work, most don't. Still, who knows what would have happened if the world had boycotted the 2004 Olympics to protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? It might have made a difference.
7. Granted amnesty to Vietnam draft-dodgers. Even though Carter issued these unconditional pardons on January 21, 1977 (his first day in office), the political fallout was severe enough to cost him votes in the 1980 election. Controversial as it was, this gutsy call helped move the country forward, providing closure to one of the most divisive issues in American history.
8. Established diplomatic relations with China. Officially transferring U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China seems like a no-brainer today, but in the year 1979 it was a singularly progressive move.
9. Pushed for comprehensive health care reform. Carter's plan was bigger, better, cheaper and -- right out of the blocks -- had a greater chance of passing in its original form than either Clinton's or Obama's plan, but inertia, timidity, and old-fashioned politics (both Democratic and Republican) ultimately killed it.
10. Returned the Panama Canal to Panama. Another gutsy move that surely cost him votes. By ceding the canal to tiny Panama, the mighty U.S. looked confident and magnanimous.... instead of paranoid and petty. Although Carter was able to secure bipartisan support, of the 20 senators who voted in favor of the treaty, and were up for re-election, only 7 were re-elected.