A Crisis at Christmas
I was surprised by Roslynn Carter’s remark when I called her for an interview about my book in 1995. She said, “ I was talking with Jimmy this morning about the questions you sent.” It was my procedure to send questions to the First Lady, prior to our interview. That way she could have time to think about her response and solicit advice as in this case.
The third year of Carters’ first term brought many challenges to the administration –the Iran crisis, the hostage crisis and the continuing energy crisis. To some members of the staff, even the 1979 Christmas card proved to be a challenge. Anticipating the need to send twice as many cards as the previous year, a burden was placed on the Correspondence Office as well as on the budget allowed for the project. The DNC finally approved the purchase of 105,000 Christmas Cards and 7000 gift prints of the 1860 water color of The President’s House by Lefevre Cranstone.
The crisis with Iran in late November resulted in one of the most critical challenges to the Carter Presidency. When the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran, his followers attacked the U.S Embassy on November 4 and took the 50 Americans there hostage. Aides to the president, suggested that he cancel all holiday festivities. President Carter, however decided that cancelling Christmas would give more power to the enemy than they ought to have.
The halls of the Executive Mansion were decked for the holidays with folk art of the American Colonial period. Unveiling the decorations to the press, Mrs. Carter said, “It’s a special time of the year. Christmas is still Jesus’ birthday—a time to come together, to count your blessings and to pray for the hostages.”
Since November 4, the hostage crisis was on everyone’s mind—especially the president as he came to speak at the lighting of the National Christmas tree on December 13. In his remarks he said, I think it would be appropriate for all of us here, or in the sound of voice to pause just a few seconds and pray that the hostages would come home soon and come home safely.
When it came time to light the tree, Amy Carter threw the switch. Only the Star of Hope at the top and the blue lights on the 50 state trees around the periphery – lit up--one small tree for each hostage. The President announced that the rest of the lights would be lit when the hostages came home. The audience was touched by the President’s dramatic gesture.
The Carters always went home to Plains for Christmas, but not that year; they went to Camp David. The President believed that any day the hostages would be released, thus he wanted to stay close the White House.
The hostages did not return in 1979, nor did they return home in 1980. I could sense the pain, even years later, in Mrs. Carter’s voice as she recalled Walter Cronkite ending the daily news with the number of days the Americans had been held hostage. Every night was somber as the anchorman reminded listeners this is day 237…day 345… day 412 etc. Mrs. Carter told me Walter Cronkite apologized to them, that by marking the days, he probably cost the president the 1980 election.
For a second straight year, the National Christmas Tree remained darkened pending the hostages’ return. Special recognition was paid to them as the tree was lit for 417 seconds, one second of light for each day in captivity.
The hostages did not return home on President Carter’s watch, despite his round the clock efforts. Finally on the morning of January 20, the Carter White House got word that the hostages would be released after 444 days in captivity. As Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President, the plane carrying the hostages had left Iranian air space on their way to Germany. Denied the privilege of making the announcement of the hostages’ release, Jimmy Carter was on a plane to Georgia. It was a bittersweet day for the former president.
Carter went home to Plains, GA as a private citizen for the first time in four years. He spent the night in his own bed, before going to West Germany to greet the “prisoners of war” as Reagan’s representative. As promised, the National Christmas tree was hastily decorated in time for the return of the freed Americans. It was lit in their honor.