The Imperative Wisdom of Jimmy Carter


The Carter Center


Last week brought another torrent of breaking news stories out of Washington, but one small story out of Winnipeg managed to cut through the noise.

That is where Jimmy Carter — 92 years old and still recovering from a bout with skin cancer last year — was admitted to an area hospital to be treated for dehydration after a day spent building affordable housing with Habitat for Humanity.

The next day, having been discharged, Carter went right back to work — joking that his “bringing attention to this Habitat project was completely unintentional.”

The episode prompted an outpouring of support for the 39th president, who, in his post-presidency, has won a Nobel Peace Prize and worldwide respect by traveling and working tirelessly to promote and support human rights and peace.

But to tokenize Carter as a nice story — an honorable man, if a failed president — would, at this moment, be a significant mistake.

We are at a point in American and presidential history in which Carter’s unassailable character sits in a particularly vaunted light. But we are also at a point in which Carter’s political legacy — as well as the consequences of his presidency — are vitally important.

Comparisons to the current president are an easy starting point, and there was no shortage last week of liberal commentators pointing out that while Carter had off been building houses, Donald Trump — the builder president — was at one of his properties in New Jersey watching golf.

But that symbolism notwithstanding, the notion of Carter as Trump’s anthesis — for his graciousness, his humility, his moralism, his military service, and his religiosity — has merit.

It was Carter who started the tradition of presidents releasing their tax returns, Carter who put his business in a blind trust when elected, and Carter who was mocked for telling Playboy that he had “committed adultery in his heart many times” — where Trump has been accused of marital rape and admitted to serial sexual assault.

Carter’s presidency is stained with failure — largely due to a stagnant economy and the Iran hostage crises, two situations not entirely within Carter’s control — and it’s true that, as a politician, Carter was limited.

But considering who he was — a farmer from rural Georgia whose presidency was sandwiched between twenty otherwise unbroken years of Republican rule — Carter was nearly a radical.

Despite his pragmatic political positioning as a moderate, and despite neoliberal economic views, it’s Carter — not Barack Obama — who stands as the country’s most liberal president since the end of World War II.

Carter’s record — both before, during, and after his time in office — is littered with stands that the left wing of the Democratic party today would have lapped up.

Carter spoke out against the War on Drugs to Congress as early as 1977. He was the most pro-Palestine president in American history, was against the Iraq War from its onset, slammed the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and voted for Bernie Sanders.

It was Carter who created the Departments of Energy and Education — becoming a hero to the environmental movement as governor of Georgia when he intervened to stop the construction of a massive dam on the Flint River. Carter’s tiny hometown of Plains now gets 50 percent of its energy from solar power.

Carter was not a pacifist — he escalated the Cold War considerably after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — but he also abhorred the death penalty and needed just two days as president to grant amnesty to every Vietnam draft evader.

And it’s been in the international arena where Carter has received so many plaudits over the last several decades. His work at Camp David in 1978 to facilitate peace between Israel and Egypt stands as an astonishing, unrepeated piece of diplomacy.

Less publicized was Carter’s role in ending the U.S.’s support for dictators across Central and South America, a region that, despite its continuing struggles, has come an extraordinarily long way towards democracy and peace since its nadir in the 70s.

Carter has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the power of money in politics. In 2013, he said that “America has no functioning democracy at this moment,” and, earlier this year, described our current political system as “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

Two years ago, Carter told a nationally syndicated radio program that “we’ve seen a subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors.”

It’s worth mentioning here that Carter mostly eschewed the allure of the post-presidency speaking circuit that has most recently, to the tune of a $400,000 fee from the health care industry, snared Obama.

This was a president who went on television in 1979, one year before his re-election bid, and told the country that consumerism was killing its soul.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” Carter said, “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”

America, at large, wasn’t ready for any of this. It is little wonder then that Carter’s presidency was met with a resounding backlash.

Carter would give way to eight destructive years of Ronald Reagan, plus four of George H.W. Bush, while the Democratic party would only return to power with a standard-bearer in Bill Clinton who ran a campaign somewhere to the right of William F. Buckley.

Carter’s tenure was important in another way. In 1976, what is now called the religious right — then in its infancy as an organized political power and recognizing one of its own — threw its weight behind Carter and helped elevate him to victory.

The evangelical community got plenty from Carter. He injected religion-based morality into mainstream political discourse in a way that his predecessors had not.

The problem was not, of course, that Carter was insufficiently Christian. It was that Carter’s Christianity informed his liberalism — and that liberalism was, for the likes of Jerry Falwell, a cardinal sin.

And by 1980, the Republican party — recognizing the religious right as a burgeoning power base critical to its future — was ready to pounce.

All of the sudden, the Republicans had dropped their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, started calling for a restoration of school prayer and begun again trying to win over George Wallace voters in the South.

Their presidential nominee that year, Reagan, began his general election campaign by traveling to the Neshoba County State Fair outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi — the town where three Civil Rights workers were brutally murdered in the summer of 1964 — and giving a speech announcing his support for “state’s rights.”

Carter, who knew exactly what a speech about “state’s rights” in Mississippi was code for, condemned Reagan for appealing to “hate and racism.” The mainstream press, in its infante wisdom, mainly defended Reagan and accused Carter of being hysterical.

Fast forward three months, and Reagan had swept his way to 489 electoral votes and ushered in twelve years of Republican White House control. In 1976, Gerald Ford had won the white vote by four percentage points. Reagan won it in 1980 by 20.

Twenty eight years later, Trump — with the full, unflinching, unwavering support of evangelical right and its leadership, like Jerry Falwell Jr. — won the white vote over Hillary Clinton by 21 percent and ran up huge margins in the south.

This state of play has flummoxed some. Trump can only be construed as Christian, or religious, or even spiritual, by the most craven of opportunists.

But it was after Carter that the Falwells of the world and the rank-and-file behind them decided that they were about supporting conservatives — not Christians — no matter the cost.

Carter, you could say, unmasked the religious right as fraudulent. That he reached the White House at all in a Democratic party with a strong bias against the south was a remarkable political achievement.

Tip O’Neill wrote that Carter was the “smartest public official” he ever knew. Carter was a visionary, and — as it is with most visionaries — history will appriciate him far more than his contemporaries did.

Jimmy Carter is an American hero. How ever could we use a few more like him.

One response to “The Imperative Wisdom of Jimmy Carter

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article on Jimmy Carter; well researched and probing in your analysis of the years that in retrospect seem relatively honorable, when words from “The White House” were not met with either scorn or a big yawn, as they are now.


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