Jimmy Carter, personal hero
After the news broke earlier this week that 98-year-old Jimmy Carter has elected to go into hospice care rather than pursue treatment for whatever is ailing him (I suspect a return of his cancer), a number of stories hit the proverbial papers about him. Kind of pre-obituary editorial pieces that seek to remind the reader that, whatever one may think of President Carter's time in office, the fact of the matter is that James Earl Carter Jr. is and always has been a damn fine human being.
I would go even farther than that and posit that Jimmy Carter is one of the best people to ever walk the Earth, and I say that with as much confidence as I possibly can concerning a person I've never actually met.
President Carter has been one of my heroes since I was a teenager. Not because he was the first president I was cognizant of in real time—I was all of seven years old when he was elected and just shy of twelve when he left office—and not because his successor was an idiotic simpleton that begat policies that continue to damage the country to this day, though both of those things are true. But because even as a pre-teen, when I was beginning to understand politics and what government does and is for, I saw Jimmy Carter advocating for the future in a way that emphasized empathy for all. And, sure, the fact that the next guy preferred to solve things with military adventure and by sticking it to the underprivileged brought out Carter's humanity in a way that wouldn't have been as obvious otherwise.
"It's very difficult for the American people to believe that our government, one of the richest on Earth, is also one of the stingiest on Earth."
The "common wisdom" of the zeitgeist lauds Carter for his post-presidency but gives him failing marks for his four years as President, but that's bullshit and I think history will recognize his term as a bright spot in an otherwise troubling era of American politics.
I did some research on recent presidents for a high school project a group of us were doing that required us to create founding documents for an imagined new country. Most of us, unsurprisingly, ended up presenting a constitutional structure not far removed from what we were living in; we may not have been the sort of gung-ho patriotic Americans that slap flag decals on our trucks and yak about 'Murca, but it's what we knew and we were smart enough to know it was a pretty good setup compared to some others. My group opted for something that was kind of a cross between the US constitution and a parliamentary setup like you'd find in Canada or Britain (no royalty, though), one that allowed for votes of no confidence and a maximum of six years in office for the president. As my teacher pointed out, this was likely because at the time we had a president we did not like and were indulging in a little wish-fulfillment, which was undoubtedly true. Part of my thinking was that here we had just reelected Bonzo's trigger-happy sidekick by a margin that astounds me to this day, giving him eight years in office, while the brilliant nuclear engineer that championed human rights around the world only got four years; therefore we need to split the difference at six years to check the stupidity of voters. (I've since changed my tune on that, I generally oppose term limits so long as elections happen often enough; the problem is with campaign laws, not term limitations. There are still millions of stupid voters, though.)
“The last three days that I was president, I never went to bed at all. I never went to bed until we had negotiated the final release of the hostages.”
In my limited research—which consisted mostly of mediocre encyclopedia articles and some newspaper pieces found in public library microfiche; we didn't have the Internet when I was in high school, you know—I learned about President Carter's diplomacy with Israel and Egypt, his push for national health insurance, and his attempts to put the country on a course toward renewable and sustainable energy. But most of what I found were negatively slanted accounts of economic inflation and blame for the Iranian hostage crisis. I didn't know much of anything about economics, but I did know that Carter's efforts got those hostages home without firing a shot and that the new guy ripping out the solar panels atop the White House was a dick move that undermined a solid environmental policy agenda. (Something I didn't learn until later was that the hostage crisis itself came about largely because Carter gave in to outside pressure to do something he did not want to do—outside pressure that boiled down to essentially a con by Henry Kissinger and others that erroneously convinced Carter that the deposed Shah of Iran had to be granted asylum here because he otherwise could not get proper cancer treatments; turned out the Shah could have gotten just as good if not better care where he was in Mexico and admitting the Shah kicked off Iran's taking of hostages. When the asylum proposal was initially brought to him, Carter's reaction was "fuck the Shah"—this from a guy who almost never swears—but Kissinger and co. manipulated him on humanitarian grounds with the cancer treatment story. Yet, you never heard Carter placing blame on Kissinger et. al, he was president and he owned it.)
Post-high school I read more. I learned about the Panama Canal treaty and why that was such a big deal and how it had positive impacts throughout Central America. About the creation of the cabinet departments of energy and education. About the Superfund toxic cleanup law. I read about how he studied nuclear reactors at Annapolis and led a Navy mission to prevent a nuclear meltdown. I saw news stories about the current administration relaxing Carter-era fuel economy regulations, with Lee Iacocca (remember that asshat?) giddily crowing about how his company and others lobbied to “put up a tombstone [that reads] ‘Here lies America's energy policy'”; about American saber-rattling in various corners of the world, including playing both sides in the Iran-Iraq war and, of course, the illegal mess of the Iran-Contra scandal—all of which I knew would not have happened had Carter been reelected.
“It is difficult for the common good to prevail against the intense concentration of those who have a special interest, especially if the decisions are made behind locked doors.”
I read Carter's memoir of his presidency, Keeping Faith. I found it fascinating, especially as it didn't seek to sanitize his flaws. One knock on Carter as president that I think actually holds water is that he tended to micromanage; a more important one is that he didn't play politics. I found it oddly(?) appealing that the president of the United States didn't think he needed to lobby Congresspeople to share his view, at least not in the traditional sense, that once he presented a good argument that a policy was the right thing to do that enough in Congress would see the evidence right in front of them, no lobbying necessary. Still, a bit of traditional politicking might have helped with some of his legislative frustrations; he didn't like trading political favors, didn't think crafting policy should have anything to do with making quid-pro-quo deals and felt such things had an aura of dishonesty about them. (According to his vice-president, Walter Mondale, "the worst thing you could say to Carter if you wanted him to do something was that it was politically the best thing to do.") Even so, more liberal lawmakers were pissed that Carter took an incremental approach instead of sweeping change tactics—some things never change, right?—and Ted Kennedy might have had a my-way-or-the-highway attitude regardless. (We might have Ted to thank for not having any kind of national health insurance reform until the Obama administration.)
You can look back on some of Carter's speeches and writings from his term of office and think, "wow, he was prescient" because he recognized climate change (though it didn't have that name yet) and the dangers of relying on fossil fuels. "We must prepare quickly for a change," he said, not three months into his presidency in 1977, "to strict conservation and to the use of permanent renewable energy sources, like solar power." But really, this wasn't precognition or anything even slightly weird, this was just basic sense and science. It's just that since 1981 this country's leadership hasn't given a damn about such things until very recently. (And yeah, I blame Bonzo's sidekick for that.) The man is a nuclear engineer, he knows details are important and how things interrelate, he could see what ramifications an action today would have a decade down the line.
"I believed what my father taught me about the separation of church and state, so when I was President I never invited Billy Graham to have services in the White House because I didn't think that was appropriate."
His famous (infamous?) speech in ’79 that has unfortunately become known as the "malaise speech" I find remarkable for a couple of reasons: It's refreshingly blunt, for one, voicing criticisms of himself from others but also kind of laying into the public at large; not in a mean way, of course, but bluntly stating that society wasn't trending in a helpful direction. "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption," he said. "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. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose." Not exactly the politically safe pandering one might expect from other officeholders. Carter also becomes visibly frustrated when making his case for energy policy—remember, this is during the OPEC embargo, which not only made for long queues at gas stations but fueled high inflation generally—telling the viewer that "the energy crisis is REAL" (and one might imagine an unspoken addendum, like "I'm not screwing around here, this is important, so GET IT THROUGH YOUR THICK HEADS"). And he warned us that we'd be where we are today in terms of our politics if we didn't wise up: "We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure."
"We must embrace human rights and aggressively challenge our society’s acceptance of violence, which should never be seen as normal or as the preferred means of solving problems."
I read several of Carter's subsequent books, too. I enjoyed some of them, like Talking Peace and Our Endangered Values, but the White House years held more interest for me. White House Diaries is a really interesting read. I admit, though, I couldn't get through his novel The Hornet's Nest. Maybe I'll try again someday.
The post-presidency of Jimmy Carter has been impressive beyond anyone's expectations, but the thing it most demonstrated to me was that this guy was and is the real deal. He campaigned for the presidency in the wake of Watergate with the promise that "I will never lie to you" and he meant it. He was a staunch Baptist but fervently believed in the separation of church and state for real, not in the lip-service way most so-called Christian politicians do, and even bucked the church when it violated what he regarded as higher principles, as when he severed association with the Southern Baptists Convention over its decision to ban women from serving as pastors. He couldn't be president anymore, but he nevertheless kept doing international diplomacy as a private citizen when possible, created a conflict-resolution institution, continued championing global human rights and global public health, and famously volunteered with Habitat for Humanity into his 90s. This guy didn't just talk a good game, he walked the walk.
"I was familiar with the widely accepted arguments that we had to choose between idealism and realism, or between morality and the exertion of power; but I rejected those claims. To me, the demonstration of American idealism was a practical and realistic approach to foreign affairs, and moral principles were the best foundation for the exertion of American power and influence."
If only people had had better priorities in 1980. We had a President who told us the truth even when we didn't want to hear it, one that would exhaust every diplomatic channel before considering using the military, one that believed government should work for everyone and strive for equity. And then we tossed him aside because people liked the myopic simplicity of the cowboy actor.
Jimmy Carter is the standard for integrity among human beings. That, above all the policy stuff, all the moral high ground, all the detailed brilliance, is why he has remained one of my heroes. I look up to Jimmy Carter as much as I might a heroic fictional character.
"Who are your standard bearers, the people you would emulate?" Well, I gotta go with Captain Picard, Hawkeye Pierce, Peter Parker, Toby Ziegler, Atticus Finch, and Jimmy freakin' Carter.