Ever since he entered hospice care a few weeks ago, at age 97, reminiscences and accolades of Jimmy Carter have fluttered across the cyber-sphere. They triggered my own memories of the peanut farmer turned President turned humanitarian: the only President with whom I have any personal experience.
I first saw Jimmy Carter at Quincy Market in Boston, 1976, gladhanding tourists, making his pitch to be elected President. The city was aglow that year, playing a central role in our nation’s Bicentennial celebrations. Quincy Market was still fresh and innovative. I had my doubts whether the soft-spoken Southerner was up to the executive task of the Presidency, but I understood that he was a necessary salve to our national bruises of Vietnam, and Watergate.
My fears proved accurate. The one term governor of a mid-tier state with almost no D.C. connections took forever to put his government in place; key appointments lagged for months. Before equilibrium set in, inflation raged, gas lines stretched blocks, and Iranians took hostages. The former Navy officer’s ship of state never found an even keel.
What Jimmy Carter lacked in executive function, he compensated for in moral leadership. The modest walk to his inauguration, the cardigan sweaters, the direct appeals to turn down our thermostats, his Playboy admission to committing “adultery in my heart.” The man from Plains was the perfect antidote to Richard M. Nixon. And though many of us proclaimed that Jimmy was the kind of man we wanted, we had to reckon with the truth: Tricky Dick was a more accurate representative of our nation’s character than this naively honest, faith-based man.
My true appreciation of Jimmy Carter emerged in 1978 when I served as a VISTA Volunteer in the South Plains of Texas. The tobaccer chewin’ cotton farmers living in brick ranches, the Brown migrant workers in stucco flats, the Black hands hunkered within drafty wooden frames, all scraping an existence miles removed from the media mills on either coast. They all loved our farmer President. They heard their own voices in his resonant drawl.
President Jimmy Carter went down in single-term ignominy; whopped by Ronald Reagan and his supply side shenanigans. 1980 proved to be a pivot election. Since then, any talk of morals, ethical responsibility, or true equity is only cheap political blather. American’s sole purpose is the pursuit of the mighty dollar and the creature comforts it affords. Whatever we trample chasing that buck—whether flora, fauna, or fellow human—is permissible collateral damage.
As our culture descended the narcissistic, nihilistic spiral of over-consumption, the easily dismissed one-term President rose as a phoenix of human decency. Without question, the finest former President our nation has ever produced. In retirement, Jimmy Carter was everywhere: monitoring elections in far off lands; negotiating peace accords that won him the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize; hammering away at Habitat for Humanity. That was the second time I saw Jimmy Carter, withered and thin, with Rosalynn, building Musician’s Village in New Orleans post-Katrina. A man so much more comfortable in his skin than the politician I’d encountered in Boston thirty years earlier.
One of my oddest accomplishments is to visit every Presidential Library, from Herbert Hoover right on up to W. (Before Hoover, Presidential papers are private, and therefore not official Dept. of Archives libraries.) Each library is fascinating in how directly it reflects the man it illuminates. Reagan’s is pompous; Kennedy’s aspirational; Nixon’s consciously contrite. LBJ’s is actually humorous; Clinton’s bloated. Ford’s is, frankly, boring. Eisenhower’s focuses more on World War II than his presidency and, in a similar vein, Jimmy Carter’s celebrates his accomplishments after he left office. Jimmy’s building is low slung, inconspicuous. The only library I’ve visited with absolutely no security. Just come on in.
I thought I knew the story of this man and his times; they are my times as well. But I learned something new and profound about Jimmy Carter when I visited his library. The man avoided being labelled either hawk or dove: he pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers; cancelled the B-1 bomber; yet also increased the Defense budget; and authorized arms sales around the world. Still, while Jimmy Carter was President, the United States did not engage in any military conflicts. None. No American soldier was deployed in combat, anywhere in the world. No battle lives were lost. An amazing non-achievement for the leader of a nation as bellicose as our own.
Jimmy Carter will never rank among the best of US Presidents. But he will always lead my list of the finest human beings to walk this earth. I feel privileged to have stood in his shadow, and witness his example.