Gerald Ford had been a congressman for 25 years without ticking people off or writing any legislation. Ford barely had time to warm up his vice president's chair before he became president upon Nixon's resignation.

Ford pardoned the departing Nixon, which made him almost as unpopular as Tricky Dick Nixon himself. He also signed the Helsinki Accords, marking a move toward détente in the Cold War, and supported women's rights and education for handicapped children. Despite President Ford's support, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution that would have legally prohibited discrimination against women fell three states short of passing.

Ford stood by without intervening as South Vietnam finally fell to the Communists; eventually half a million Vietnamese would escape to live in the U.S. Even though he was the sitting president, Ford barely won re-nomination in 1976.

During the Ford era, Congress passed Title IX (1972), making colleges give money to support women as well as men in sports. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the Supreme Court put a cap on the very school integration they had started 30 years before by holding that students couldn't be bused across school district lines to meet integration goals.

A few years later, in University of California v. Bakke (1978), the court found that universities can't have separate, easier admissions programs for minorities; race and underprivileged status can be a factor but not the only factor for getting into school.


Jimmy Carter won the presidency in America's bicentennial year of 1976 by promising to be a good and honest leader. He may have been too good. Carter was a peanut farmer who had served a term as governor of Georgia. With no Washington political experience, he ruffled the feathers of congressmen in both parties used to feathering their own nests.

Carter tried to get America to cut down on its energy gulping habit by turning the thermostat down in federal buildings and even requesting a ban on Christmas lights. He signed the SALT II (1979) arms limitation treaty and patched up Social Security. Carter brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in the Camp David Agreement (1978). Putting human rights at the forefront of American policy, Carter began to withdraw support for brutal dictators, even if they were friendly to the U.S. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 led to an American boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

The Iranian hostage crisis

One repressive guy Carter continued to support came back to haunt him. The U.S.-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown by Muslim fundamentalists, who seized the U.S. embassy and held its staff in the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1980) for over a year. Faced with an unhappy American public, Carter decided to tell the truth: "We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose." That made Americans feel bad; they weren't willing to stop piling up the goods just yet.

Mounting problems

The mood of the people wasn't improved when the Three Mile Island (1979) nuclear power plant experienced a near meltdown, and opposition to nuclear power increased. Carter's bad luck got worse when a swimming rabbit actually attacked him while he was out fishing. Americans were beginning to feel like maybe a tough-guy action hero would be a better choice than their good-guy President Carter.


Question: What was the result of trouble at Three Mile Island?

Answer: Opposition increased to the development of nuclear power plants.

Carter lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, a former actor who did a much better job looking the part of a president than Jimmy Carter (more on that in Chapter 20). Jimmy Carter went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, working tirelessly for peace and human rights, often irritating politicians but impressing ordinary people. In the 1980s, America took a turn toward conservative politics and an uncertain future as world leader.

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