President Jimmy Carter once owned a Georgia peanut farm that came to symbolize him during the presidential race where he defeated Republican incumbent Gerald Ford, who had taken over for the disgraced Richard Nixon. Even today, his former vocation is sometimes used to paint him in a negative light.
Yet, the peanut farm for which Jimmy was derisively mocked by Washington elites became a serious target for a potential presidential conflict of interest when he assumed office. After spending decades of his life building up the family business that was the backbone of his entry into politics, Carter had to let it go into a blind trust — passing off the business to his mother, Lillian, and brother, Billy.
“Well, it was a hard decision for me to make and this is something that I’ve had to face. I’ve literally given up my own method of making a living here in Plains… But I don’t want any decision that I make as president to have any effect on my own income. The trustee will try to do the best they can and take care of my remaining family here, my mother and Billy not to disrupt their lives too much.”
However, that gesture didn’t stop the peanut farm from coming back to haunt Jimmy. Two years later, a special investigation was carried out to see if Carter had used the business as a “political slush fund.” Rachel Maddow recently revisited the scandal on her MSNBC pundit program, where she noted that any supposed wrongdoing actually just turned out to be poor planning and greediness on the part of the president’s brother.
“Republicans in 1979 spent six months and they hired a special prosecutor. They went out of their way to make sure it was a Republican special prosecutor who they hired at the Department of Justice to just tear everything apart, go up and down through every peanut shell to try to find something, anything scandalous in Jimmy Carter’s family peanut farm. It turned out, as you saw there, that it was nothing.”
While Jimmy’s “peanutgate” example may lend itself best to headlines, even the sullied former President Richard Nixon made a similar move when he took office — selling off all of his assets and buying a house, even though he was from a relatively middle-class background. John F. Kennedy, who had also amassed a sizable fortune by the time he made it to the White House, immediately ushered all of his conflicts of interest into a blind trust.
Although the Constitution prevents the conflicts of interest law from applying to the president, the man set to lead the world’s most powerful nation usually doesn’t have to be legally obligated to divorce himself from any possible overlap. In fact, former George W. Bush ethics advisor Richard Painter told Fortune that “every other President in modern times has tried as best they could to act as if the law did apply to them.”
Despite all of their relative differences, Carter and Donald actually share some interesting historical parallels. Just like Trump, Jimmy’s win in the Democratic primary was a shock to party elites. Some of his competitors even formed an ABC (Anybody But Carter) campaign, not far off from the viral #nevertrump hashtag.
Furthermore, Jimmy benefitted greatly from not being associated with a Washington system that had just produced Watergate and Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon. While he had served as both a senator and governor at the state level, Carter was a relative unknown — something that was a major boon to him in the 1976 primaries that saw many states hold elections instead of party-boss selection for the first time.
President Jimmy Carter has to continue to fight the elite control that both he and Trump rallied against during their campaigns. Earlier this year, he spoke openly about his belief that the United States was no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy — a position backed up extensively by studies that indicate a disconnect between the average citizen’s opinions and policies enacted by the U.S. government.
“So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
Do you think Donald Trump should follow the examples of presidents Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon with his potential conflicts of interest?
[Featured Image by Eddie Mullholland/Getty Images Pool]