Billy Carter testifies about his relationship with Libya before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, August 22nd, 1980. Photo Credit: Wally McNamee via Getty Images
By David Kurlander
The decision by the New York Post to publish emails and images purportedly discovered on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden has re-sparked old debates over the bounds of ethical reportage, the independence of political family members, and the impact of personal scandal on election results. These issues have accompanied virtually every modern presidential election, but loomed particularly large in the lead-up to the 1980 contest, when President Jimmy Carter’s outspoken brother Billy became increasingly financially entwined with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi…
Billy Carter started communicating with the Libyan government in 1978, during a tense period in the relationship between the United States and Libya. In the decade after the “Islamic Socialist” Gaddafi overthrew the comparatively pro-Western King Idris, the North African nation had become an increasingly outspoken voice against Israel, even giving hero’s funerals to the Black September terrorists who carried out the 1972 Munich Olympics attacks against Israeli athletes. Gaddafi also had an escalating war of words with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was in the midst of crucial peace negotiations with President Carter and Israeli President Menachim Begin. The U.S. ambassador had long since been recalled from Tripoli.
Libyan oil, however, still flowed into the U.S., and Gaddafi was eager to restore additional trade, particularly in airplanes and heavy tractors. Eight C-130 transport planes, already purchased by Libya, sat idling at the Lockheed factory in Marietta, Georgia. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was reviewing the transfer of two Boeing 727s, which would expand the reach of Libya’s state airline. The Libyan foreign ministry began putting out feelers to help push the pro-trade agenda.
The 41-year-old Billy Carter was a sure-fire target for an influence campaign. Over the previous two years, he had become an uproarious counter to his stoic brother. He sponsored a “Redneck Power Pickup” model kit based on his Chevy truck. He owned an iconic gas station in Plains. He started a beer brand, Billy Beer, which brought a surreal dimension to his very public battle with alcoholism.
Libyan agents invited Billy to Tripoli through a remarkably complicated rapprochement involving the Sicilian-Arab Friendship Association (as wild as it sounds). In September 1978, Billy agreed to go. He dazedly took in the country and thought through potential business schemes. “I talked to some Libyan farmers and really didn’t think they were much different from Georgia farmers except for the language and the farm equipment they used,” Billy wrote in his autobiography. ‘They didn’t wear overalls, either.”
The following Spring, Billy hosted a five-week visit of 27 prominent Libyans to Georgia. Billy threw a massive party at the Atlanta Hilton, where he offered a number of problematic comments to local TV news stations. In response to a question on Libya’s reputation, Billy said, “A heap of governments support terrorists. “At least they admit it,” he followed up. When asked why Billy chose Libya, he said, “The only thing I can say is there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than there is Jews.”
President Carter went on NBC News to address the growing scandal. “We love each other, but any attempt that I might make to control Billy’s words or actions would not be successful at all,” Carter said of his brother. In private, Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and his staff unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade Billy from deepening his relationship with the Libyans. Billy told a member of the National Security Council that he “knew more about Libya than all you State Department bureaucrats put together.”
Shortly after the Atlanta Hilton party debacle, Billy checked into rehab at the U.S. Navy Treatment Center in Long Beach. By this time, Gaddafi had started militarily supporting Ugandan dictator Idi Amin during his violent incursion into Tanzania. The Libyan strongman had also threatened Sadat as the Camp David Accords continued to take shape. President Carter wrote his brother a message echoing Brzezinski’s advice to cease the Libyan machinations, but also offering—much like alleged messages from Vice President Biden to Hunter that the Post published—personal support: “All of us are very proud of you, & particularly your brother! You’ve had a rough time lately, I know, but you’ve really come through it with a lot of courage. Call me whenever I can help. I love you.”
Billy made another trip to Tripoli in September 1979 for Gaddafi’s extravagant ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of his revolution. By this time, Billy had made inroads with several American oil concerns interested in working with Gaddafi’s regime. He had also taken out a $220,000 loan from the Libyans. Billy had not registered as a foreign agent. And various underworld figures, from Watergate fugitive Robert Vesco to rogue ex-CIA agent Frank Terpil, were convolutedly involved in moving Billy-adjacent monies to and fro. In other words, Billy Carter was in deep.
The Carter administration had continued to take a concerned but hands-off approach to Billy’s misadventures. After the Iranian hostage crisis began in November, however, First Lady Rosalyn Carter suggested to Carter and Brzezinski that Billy might be able to convince Gaddafi to reach out to the then-Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini. Brzezinski, Billy, and the Libyan charge d’affaires in Washington met multiple times to orchestrate Gaddafi’s outreach.
The scandal escalated as the 1980 election year arrived. Shortly after the hostage meetings, a Libyan mob—seemingly inspired by Iran—sacked the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, damaging any potential hostage diplomacy. In July 1980, The Washington Post journalist Walter Pincus revealed that President Carter himself had been present at one of the Libyan meetings about the hostages. In August, Billy had to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he pled for respect: “I hope that this testimony will show in a common-sense fashion that Billy Carter is not a buffoon, a boob, or a wacko, as some public figures have so described him.”
Billy Carter stayed at the White House during his testimony, but was not permitted to talk to the President. “Jimmy walked through a room where I was watching TV and never said a word, not even hello. I just kept on watching television,” he wrote in his memoirs. The scandal ultimately faded away without charges, although the bad press may have played some small role in the 1980 election loss. But President Carter’s highwire balancing act—between honoring his brother’s autonomy and protecting the nation’s geopolitical health—is a poignant reminder of the unique opportunities, temptations, and emotional dilemmas that those in high office must confront.
For a local piece linking the Billy Carter saga to the Biden drama of today, check out legendary Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Jim Galloway’s column. For more on the 1970s dynamics between the U.S. and Libya, read John Cooley’s 1982 Libyan Sandstorm: The Complete Account of Qaddafi’s Revolution.
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: