Some would say that Gerald Ford's presidency existed in the shadows of disadvantage. He was never elected, even as a vice-presidential candidate. Though he'd served twenty-five years in the House of Representatives, he was barely known on the national scene. And though he offered amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers and in regard to Watergate proclaimed, “Our long national nightmare is over,” his popularity and career were undoubtedly damaged by the pardon he extended to his predecessor and by veterans' resentment toward his forgiveness toward those who dodged military service.
In the 1970s, quasi-religions and cults became popular, sometimes with tragic outcomes. In 1978, Jim Jones convinced followers to move to Guyana and commit mass suicide. More than 900 members of the People's Temple perished after consuming a grape drink mixed with cyanide and Valium.
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Carter, with his genuine toothy smile, was a peanut farmer and former navy man who had studied nuclear physics. Overcoming the question of “Jimmy who?” he touted his outsider status to a public tired of scandal-ridden politics. It didn't hurt that Carter was a born-again Christian who positioned himself as a better remedy for an ailing economy. When he ran against incumbent Gerald Ford, he won the 1976 presidential election.
But President Carter's administration inherited record inflation at a time when people's wages were not keeping pace and jobs were being lost (a condition termed “stagflation”). Unemployment in large manufacturing towns such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh became a problem. Carter's biggest obstacle in turning around the economy became the energy crisis. Crude oil prices had continued to rise, leading to a shortage of gasoline, rationing, and long lines at the pumps. Japanese automobiles flooded the market, appealing to Americans in search of better fuel efficiency. Essentially, Carter's status as an outsider helped him to win the office, yet he struggled without an inside track to promote his ideas and legislation. In addition, his micro-management style may have gotten in the way of his success.
One area in which Carter certainly excelled was hosting President elSadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel in talks at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, for Mideast peace accords. A state of war had existed between the two nations from 1948 to 1978 when Carter intervened.
Unfortunately, that foreign policy flair didn't extend to the nation of Iran. Years before, the CIA had used covert aid to help restore Muhammad Reza Pahlavi as the shah of Iran in order to protect its interest in this volatile region. But the shah's regime lost its religious roots and became corrupt and autocratic. Conservative Muslims led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini opposed the Iranian government, inciting a revolution that deposed the shah and sent him and his family into exile. When the shah sought asylum in the United States, the ayatollah demanded his return, along with the billions of dollars the shah had allegedly hidden abroad. Tensions grew. On November 4, 1979, a mob of Islamic students attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking sixty-six members of the staff as hostages. Though thirteen were soon released, the other fifty-three remained hostages for 444 days. Negotiations did not secure their return, nor did a failed U.S. commando raid the following April. Carter ordered an airborne rescue attempt in April 1980 that failed miserably. On day 445 of the Iranian hostage crisis, the hostages were released, but only as Jimmy Carter's presidency ended at noon that day.