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Jimmy Carter's complicated relationship with Utah grew warmer

Posted at 5:27 PM, Feb 20, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine a time when oil was growing more expensive and even scarce, where the relationship with Moscow was on a razor's edge, the U.S. was reeling from an administration born in controversy and where the west was trying to figure out how to get enough water.

That was the world Utah occupied during President Jimmy Carter's administration.

Carter stepped into office as the conservative Christian Democrat: a Navy man, peanut farmer, and Georgia governor. Upon his inauguration, Utah's congressional delegation was unimpressed by the president's 12-minute speech, but then Democratic Utah Governor Scott Matheson said it was delightful.

Carter's attempts to rein in spending included trying to cancel reservoir projects in Utah's Uintah Basin. The Salt Lake Tribune's editorial staff noted the fight with Democratic congressman Gunn McKay saying he and Sen. Jake Garn convinced the president of the importance of developing water for the growing and dry west.

Adding fuel to the fire was the MX missile project, a proposed system of intercontinental ballistic missiles on rails that was supposed to be in south central Utah and Nevada. It was never built, but was the subject of an intense fight with Matheson, Carter's usual ally.

Add skyrocketing inflation and gas shortages, and Carter left office less popular in Utah than when he entered.

But when Carter visited Utah 13 ago, he signed books at the King's English Bookstore in Salt Lake City where hundreds of residents showed up to get their copy's signed.

"I like salt lake city. I like the people who live here, and my favorite cousin lives in Salt Lake City," said Carter on that day.

Carter believes Republicans have obstructed bi-partisanship, but he likes a Utah republican, namely Senator Orrin Hatch.

"I think he's been more generous to me than he needed to be," the former president said, adding that Hatch invites him over and sometimes speaks up for Carter when he finds himself in controversy.

If only the man who achieved popularity when others escaped the public limelight could say today what he did in Utah back in 2010.

"I feel great. I was just sick one day, but I got more publicity about being sick than I had about anything since I left the White House," Carter joked. "And I sold a lot of books because people felt sorry for me and they thought I was desperately ill."