NOTE: This is an expansion and update of my previous essays on Jimmy Carter.
August 28, 2019 – Jimmy Carter, now in his 94th year, has been out of office longer than any millennial has been alive.
That makes him extraneous to the majority of living Americans. Even those who remember his presidency dismiss him as a fleeting peculiarity between Watergate and Reagan.
Yet those of us with long memories suspect Carter’s political setbacks were not only due to factors beyond his control but exacerbated by a press that didn’t always get the story right.
Nicholas Kristof suggests the press owes Carter an apology. Recalling the media’s merciless exaggeration of a non-incident – Carter’s alleged encounter with a wild-eyed rabbit that attacked his rowboat – Kristof writes,
“One of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it. Thus we managed to portray President Gerald Ford, a first-rate athlete, as a klutz. And we used a distraught rabbit to confirm the narrative of Carter as a lightweight cowed by anything that came along.”
Lost in the narrative is the image of Carter as an assertive leader who championed civil rights, pressed for human rights around the world, stared down Begin and Arafat, sought international peace, and always tried to do the right thing.
It was that latter trait, some say, that did him in, not only in the press but also in the darker halls of government.
Miles Copeland, a CIA functionary, complained in a 1990 interview with Robert Parry that “Carter was a Utopian. He believed, honestly, that you must do the right thing and take your chance on the consequences. He told me that. He literally believed that.” Parry later recalled that “Copeland’s deep Southern accent spit out the words with a mixture of amazement and disgust.”
There is a dubious conspiracy theory that the CIA and its media cohorts worked hard to damage Carter’s reputation and assure his defeat in the 1980 election. The theory is interesting but doesn’t give due credit to Ronald Reagan, the best presidential campaigner since Franklin Roosevelt.
There are many reasons Carter lost the election of 1980 (including the one cited by George McGovern to explain his disastrous defeat in 1972: “Lack of votes”).
But it is good to see Carter’s reputation slowly restored by journalists and historians, including Kristof and Randall Balmer, whose astute Redeemer, the Life of Jimmy Carter, places Carter in the venerable American tradition of progressive evangelicalism.
It is that tradition, in fact, that first attracted me to Jimmy Carter. I followed his 1976 campaign with interest, and one of my most vivid memories is watching his speech accepting the Democratic nomination that July. Not that the speech was a great one but it took place in the week hours of the morning, and my four-month old daughter Lauren sat wide-eyed on my lap as we watched it. Lauren was a baby who enjoyed the night time, and even Carter’s rhythmic drone could not put her to sleep. As Carter spoke she bounced happily on my lap and studied the flickering black-and-white screen with wide-open dark brown eyes.
Carter did utter some nice phrases that night:
“We can have an America that encourages and takes pride in our ethnic diversity, our religious diversity, our cultural diversity, knowing that out of this pluralistic heritage has come the strength and the vitality and the creativity that has made us great and will keep us great …
“And we can have an America which harnesses the idealism of the student, the compassion of a nurse or the social worker, the determination of a farmer, the wisdom of a teacher, the practicality of the business leader, the experience of the senior citizen, and the hope of a laborer to build a better life for us all!”
Because he was a famously born-again Baptist, Carter’s presidency was a heady period for Baptists north and south. He regularly worshipped at Washington’s First Baptist Church and most Sundays he taught the adult Sunday school class. Many of my Baptist colleagues rushed to attend the class and returned with highly public anecdotes about their private conversations with the president. One story was that a Baptist executive who taught the class on alternate Sundays was called out of town at the last minute. He called the White House and told Carter, “Mr. President, I just can’t be there Sunday.” Carter replied, “That’s okay, I’ll teach the class. I know you’re busy.” The story is probably not apocryphal.
I was among those Baptists who thought it would be advantageous to meet him. As it turned out, my first encounter was a bit of a misadventure.
In 1977 I was 32 years old and editor of The American Baptist magazine, the official organ of American Baptist Churches in the USA. The magazine itself founded in 1803 and billing itself as “the oldest religious periodical with continuous publication in the western hemisphere,” had gravitas. I had no such thing, and I was eager to be seen engaging the president of the United States in Baptist small talk.
That year President Carter signed treaties to turn the Panama Canal over to Panama. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan called upon the Senate to reject the treaties, but John Wayne was for the agreements, and Carter should have known that the Duke trumped a Goldwater and Reagan in any game. But he launched a public relations campaign to win popular support for the treaties, and he invited many maxi- and mini-molders of public opinion to the White House to make his case.
Among the mini-molders were religious journalists who went to the White House to hear the president make his case. A couple hundred journalists came from every religious tradition and we shuffled respectfully into the East Room where rows of folding chairs had been placed.
I had never been to the White House and I prepared carefully for the occasion. I bought a new tan suit and new earth shoes that not only squeaked on the shiny floor but also had unusually low heels that kept me off balance. I carried in my side pocket a copy of Input, the newsletter for American Baptist professional leaders, which published a statement of American Baptist support for the treaties. I wanted to give the statement to the president so I strategically chose a chair near Jim Wall, editor of The Christian Century. Jim, a Georgian, was known to be a friend of Carter’s and I calculated the president would probably notice him in the chairs.
At the appointed hour, a shrill voice called out, “Ladies and Gentlemen the president of the United States.” We stood, and Jimmy Carter strode purposefully into the room. His face was faintly marred with small pink blotches and was dressed in a light-gray plaid double knit suit. He flashed his familiar smile as he headed for the podium. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, who was charged with giving the treaties diplomatic heft, and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, flanked him. Bunker, tall and glum, and Brzezinski, with his trademark cowlick, seemed resigned and weary, as if their silent support had been required for more than one presidential briefing.
Carter spoke briefly on the moral obligation and legal logic of the treaties, and stepped away from the podium. The crowd stood at once and we began pressing toward the president, hoping to catch his eye. Jimmy Carter is warm and nearly charismatic when he is pressing the flesh, an attribute never captured on television. He grabbed hands and spoke easily to African American pastors, lavishly dressed bishops, bearded rabbis in black suits, and Baptist editors in white belts and double knit pants. I heard Carter say, “Hi, Jim,” to Wall as I squeezed among the clerics.
I worked my way behind the president’s back as he shook hands with a purple-vested bishop and I reached into my pocket for the copy of Input. Behind me was my friend William Dudde, a Lutheran writer, and behind Bill was an unknown admirer pushing eagerly forward. The admirer thrust himself against Bill, who lost his balance and pushed heavily against me. I lost my footing in my new earth shoes and fell rudely against the president’s back. I smelled his soap and hairspray.
Both Carter and the Secret Service must have been inured to unplanned jostling in crowds, so I was not – as I briefly expected – wrestled to the ground by security agents.
Instead, Carter turned and scowled at me with his clear blue eyes, the “fishy-eyed stare” he reportedly gave to people who annoyed him.
He started to turn away again and I suddenly remembered the copy of Input. “Mr. President,” I said hurriedly, “American Baptists are for you.”
He smiled slightly and took my hand.
“Thanks,” he said. “I need all the help I can get.”
Weeks later, the White House sent a wide-angle black and white photograph to all the participants. It shows President Carter smiling in the midst of the crowd. I am standing a few steps behind Carter, smiling goofily and probably rehearsing a speech I wanted to give the president about Baptist support for the treaties. Providentially, the picture was taken before I could get any closer. I lost it years ago, and it’s just as well.
Happily, I had several more brief encounters with Jimmy Carter over the years without mishap. Each time I was impressed by his graciousness and easy manner.
In the summer 1981, weeks after he left office, he addressed the Baptist World Alliance in Los Angeles and I was struck by his humility. “I spent many hours on the campaign trail telling people about Jimmy Carter,” he said. “Now it’s time to tell people about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
I edited the Baptist World Alliance assembly newspaper that year so Duke McCall, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, included me in a meeting with Carter. Several of us white guys squeezed into a small, dark room with the ex-president. I don’t remember what he said but he was the only man in the hot room who wasn’t sweating. Only now it occurs to me that another person in the room must have been Pat Pattillo, director of development for Southern Seminary, who became my dear friend and brother when we served on the National Council of Churches staff in 2005.
Jimmy Carter is never an intimidating presence, despite his international fame and the awesome power he once held. As a Baptist editor I attended a meeting on health care sponsored by the Carter Center in the mid-eighties. Carter moved freely among us, and when he addressed the gathering he said something that startled most people in the room.
Undeterred by his reputation of being unable to tell a joke, he attempted to use a humorous anecdote to mock people who refused to take responsibility.
“A guy answers a knock at his door and there stood a man with a mask and a gun,” he began hesitatingly. “The guy says, ‘don’t shoot, you can have my wallet.’ But the masked man says, ‘You don’t understand, Mack! I’m not a robber. I’m a rapist.’ And the guy shouts over his shoulder, ‘Honey, it’s for you.’”
After the initial gasp, some people attempted to laugh. But I was sitting a row behind Rosalyn Carter and I heard her say under her breath, “Jimmeeeee.” Carter heard it too and he paused uneasily before continuing his speech. It was a stupid mistake, and I suspect he never made it again.
The next day I joined my Baptist colleague, Hugh Pickett, at a luncheon buffet offering fruit, veggies, and granola. I began filling my plate but Hugh scowled disapprovingly.
“Statistics show the Mormons live the longest because they don’t use caffeine and eat healthy food like this,” said someone standing just outside my line of sight. I turned and recognized the former president of the United States, also filling his plate.
“This is very healthy food,” I replied redundantly. Hugh did not approve. Whispering loudly enough for the president to hear it, he hissed, “I want steak. I’d rather live with Jesus than in Salt Lake City.”
Jimmy Carter is now 94, and I hope he lives long enough to see more pundits and journalists acknowledge the wisdom, courage, and strength he brought to the White House and in all the years before and after his presidency.
He may have been, after all, the only president in recent memory who genuinely believed “that you must do the right thing and take your chance on the consequences.”
That alone should qualify him for a statue somewhere. And I would like to think more than one candidate in the forthcoming election might honor the model offered by the much-disparaged 39th president of the United States.
But I think it’s more likely that the candidates of 2020 will adopt more cynical approaches to their pursuit of power, and historians will note that the president who always tried to do the right thing remains unique in his time and, sadly, in all time.