As a candidate for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter called for a government “as honest and decent and fair and competent and truthful and idealistic as are the American people.” The cynics rolled their eyes. They misjudged him. Carter believed sincerely in the potential goodness of both the government and its people, and we would all be so much better off if more politicians did. Leadership can inspire the best or worst in people. He strove for the best.
His record as president was mixed, but his record as a former president is unsurpassed. His untiring efforts over five decades for peace, democracy, human rights, fair elections and public health around the world richly earned him the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize and set a towering example that would be challenging to match.
Talk about a life well-lived. America’s longest-living president is 98 and in hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia. His election in itself was balm for a nation deeply torn over Vietnam and revolted by the Watergate-era criminality of the Nixon White House. At his inauguration, Carter complimented President Gerald Ford, whom he had defeated, “for all he has done to heal our land.” It was a unifying gesture that came from Carter’s heart.
Carter’s successful campaign for the nomination had effectively ended the segregationist George Wallace’s influence in the Democratic Party, and the former Georgia governor’s victory in Florida’s early primary was crucial to that. But he was still “Jimmy who?” to many people, Georgians included, when he sought the presidency.
Florida was a crucial state for him. It was the first big-state primary he won after Iowa and New Hampshire and he had no strategy beyond Florida had he lost here.
Like other presidents, he promised more than circumstances — notably the 1979 energy crisis, chronic inflation and an Iranian hostage crisis — would allow him to accomplish.
His pardoning nearly 500,000 Vietnam war draft evaders was another courageous act for the sake of compassion and national unity. His administration was hardly lacking in significant achievements. It was a triumph of statesmanship that owed entirely to Carter’s tenacity in keeping Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at the table for 13 days.
Ratification of the Panama Canal treaties was another. Carter, who had opposed them as a candidate, came around and expended considerable political capital in persuading the public and Senate that it was necessary to rectify a legacy of imperialism.
Carter appointed more Black and women federal judges than any of his predecessors or his successor did. They included Joseph W. Hatchett Jr., a Florida Supreme Court justice who became the first Black judge of a federal appeals court in the Deep South.
By repealing economic regulation of the airline and surface transportation industries, Carter rid the nation of protected monopolies that had kept competition low and fares and rates high.
He was the first president to make renewable energy a national priority. His successor gutted the budget for that and removed the 32 solar panels Carter had put on the White House roof. It was in his post-presidency that he achieved greatness and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that many thought he should have shared in 1978 along with Begin and Sadat.
The Carter Center, which he and his wife, Rosalynn, founded in Atlanta in partnership with Emory University, has observed 113 elections in 39 nations and led a coalition that has all but eradicated Guinea worm disease, a crippling parasitic infection spread in Africa by contaminated water. Where in 1989 there had been more than 890,000 cases reported, in 2021, there were just 15.
Although he was noted for his religious faith and for having been “born again” as a Christian, he never sided with the religious right, as many other evangelicals did, and did not try to impose his faith on others. He made clear that it governed only his personal conduct.
“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something,” he said. “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
Tribune News Service