The most beloved politician to graduate from the Naval Academy often returned to his alma mater.
He would come to Annapolis so he could speak with the midshipmen following in his footsteps of service in the Navy and to the country. He was a luminary whose remarks made national news. And the relationship was clearly mutual, with the academy itself and its network of alumni across the country honoring the man and his career.
It wasn’t Jimmy Carter.
To a longtime outside observer like me, the relationship between the only Naval Academy graduate to be elected president and the institution he graduated from in 1946 was hard to define. It seemed far less warm than the one with the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. It was McCain who seemed the favorite son, right up to the moment his flag-draped casket was taken by horse-drawn caisson to a grave at the academy cemetery.
So, when Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro rededicated a building in Carter’s name on Monday, there were multiple meanings.
It was about honoring the 39th president as much as erasing the name of the Confederate traitor Matthew Fontaine Maury. It took place in a little-publicized, small ceremony on Presidents Day, just days after Carter’s family had announced the 98-year-old was entering home hospice care in Plains, Georgia.
The idea that this was anything less than a strong bond is not something you’ll hear from either the academy or the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. When I asked library director Meredith Evans why the relationship seemed perpetually at arm’s length, she was stunned.
“I’ve never heard anyone say that,” Evans said. “He talks with his former classmates. He talked about being a midshipman. He has a lot of connections to the Navy. I feel like like he’s always been connected.”
But Carter only returned to Annapolis a handful of times after he was elected president, including his 1978 address to the graduating class while president, a football game and two reunions.
Stephen Frantzich, who recently retired as chairman of the political science department, said he and others tried many times to get Carter to return — either to the classroom or at the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference.
Maybe politics had something to do with it. Carter was a moderate Southern Democrat, but also a frequent critic of U.S. military interventions and Pentagon spending. There’s no survey of alumni political views, but Frantzich said graduates tend to lean more right than left.
By comparison, McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, was a hawk who survived 5½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
“McCain came back every time he could come back,” Frantzich said. “A number of times he came and spoke to his classes. He would spend a lot of time. Even though he was not the best student at the academy, he loved to come back.”
Carter’s presidency influences how the wider academy community sees him and the decision to rename Maury Hall in his honor. He cut Navy shipbuilding and presided over a period of high inflation and unemployment. He had to deal with the 444-day hostage crisis in Iran and images of a helicopter and C-130 aircraft burning in the desert after a failed rescue mission that left eight Americans dead. He signed a treaty that ultimately led to the transfer of the Panama Canal to the Central American nation.
When 1964 academy graduate David Tuma posted a news story about the dedication to his website, USNA-at-Large, the negative response from some wasn’t a surprise, with some questioning Carter’s job performance as president.
When Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, he expanded the Navy and projected American military strength in the post-Vietnam world. It was a defining moment for a generation of academy graduates, including McCain. Journalist Robert Timberg, Class of ’64 and a Marine combat veteran, wrote a book about it, “The Nightingale’s Song.”
Jim Cheevers, who retired as Naval Academy Museum director in 2017, put together an exhibit on Carter after his election in 1976. It wasn’t easy.
“There was very little he left behind of his midshipman days; and at the time, he was not highly appreciated for his political persuasion at his alma mater,” Cheevers said.
Then on Jan. 20, 1981, the day Reagan was sworn in, Cheevers was “reminded” to remove the exhibit because Carter was no longer commander in chief.
There have been other exhibits. For two years starting in 2007, a case was set up telling the story of the Naval Academy’s two Nobel Prize winners, Carter and physicist Albert A. Michelson. Last week, the museum opened a third exhibit on the former president.
“Opinions on President Carter certainly changed over the years,” Cheevers said of Carter.
Politics play a role, but it would be easy to overstate its impact on how Carter is perceived at the academy and by those who come out of it. Evans said plenty of midshipmen visit the library, and academy memorabilia is on sale there. Carter is widely praised for a post-presidency that included volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and founding the Carter Center to work for peace, free elections and eradicating Guinea worm disease.
“I’m reminded of a saying at West Point: ‘Much of the history we teach was made by the people we taught,’ ” Heidi A. Urben, a Foreign Service and security studies professor at Georgetown University, wrote in an email. “It’s a testament to how the academies like to highlight their famous graduates. There have only been three service academy graduates elected president — Grant, Eisenhower, and Carter — but the two academies have varied in the manner and extent to which they honor each.”
While a monument honoring President Dwight Eisenhower was dedicated in 1984, a barracks bearing his name opened in 1968, the year before his death, and the “Ike Hall” theater in 1975. There are statues of Eisenhower’s World War II contemporaries, Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton.
It wasn’t until 2019 that West Point installed a statue of Ulysses S. Grant on its campus, and it was done at the recommendation of the House Armed Services Committee to honor the 150th anniversary of Grant’s inauguration.
“In other words, it took 150 years for West Point to prominently honor one of its only two graduates who went on to become president and the U.S. Army officer who saved the Union and ended slavery,” she wrote.
That was the same in Annapolis, where the renaming of Maury Hall was recommended by a congressionally appointed panel tasked with coming up with new names for military facilities dedicated to Confederate officers. It overrode the academy policy limiting naming buildings for living people.
Carter himself has generally talked fondly of the Naval Academy and his 11 years in the Navy. Carter said a service academy was the only way he could afford college, and the choice was made easy by a favorite uncle in the Navy who served in World War II.
“From the time I was 5 years old if you could ask me, what are you going to do when you grow up? I would have said, I want to go to the Naval Academy and get a college education and serve in the U.S. Navy,’ ” he said in a 1984 interview with the Academy of Achievement, an oral history project.
While he was there, he had experiences common to those of all midshipmen. Frantzich, the retired political science professor, discovered Carter’s plebe-year diary at the Carter Library in the 1980s and wrote a paper on what the future president recorded about his experiences.
“You wouldn’t expect reading his other diary that he would become president,” he said. “He complained about too much work. At one point, he said something like a 10-pound load in a 5-pound bag.”
Carter and his classmates graduated a year early, part of a World War II effort to replace the numbers of young officers dying. One of the midshipmen he met was Wesley Brown, the first Black man to graduate from Annapolis.
Brown, who died in 2012, told the story of how he and Carter were both on the track team. When harassment from white Mids got intense, Carter visited Brown’s dorm room to encourage him to “hang in there.” The academy dedicated its new field house athletic center in Brown’s name in 2008.
There is another clue to Carter’s relationship with the Navy in his years in uniform after graduation. He was one of two young lieutenants assigned to Adm. Hyman Rickover’s project to develop the first nuclear-powered Navy warships. Rickover was a divisive figure in the Navy, often described as brilliant, stubborn and arrogant — labels pinned on Carter as well.
Carter wrote about the relationship. During his job interview with Rickover, the admiral asked where Jimmy stood in his class at the academy. Carter responded with pride, “Fifty-ninth out of 820.”
Rickover responded, “Did you always do your best?”
“No,” Carter answered.
The admiral turned his back, ending the interview by asking, “Why not?”
Carter cited the episode in his 1975 book on his decision to seek the presidency, “Why Not the Best?”
“He set a standard of commitment and perfection in life that I had never experienced before,” Carter said in that 1984 interview. “But he really had a great impact on my life.”
The measure of a president changes. He is one thing when elected, and another when he leaves office. Ten years later, his value may go up, and if he is still alive 25 years later, it will be different as well.
When a president dies, there is a reassessment unlike others. In 1980, voters focused on inflation and Iran when they picked the sunny Reagan over a sometimes preachy Carter. Today, biographers and historians see his crafting of a national energy policy, a focus on human rights, normalizing relations with China, and the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. He also safely brought home the 52 hostages held captive in Iran, who were freed on the day of Reagan’s inauguration.
“Some critics have said that Jimmy Carter marched to a different drummer,” retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, a 1980 academy graduate and director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, said during Monday’s ceremony. “As a historian, I would agree, in a positive way, as it relates to his moral courage.”
For now, at least, Jimmy Carter is a president the Naval Academy is proud to claim.