October 1, 2020. Jimmy Carter is 96 today.
The birthday of the 39th president of the United States gives us something to celebrate during the insane interregnum of Trump.
It’s good to remember what the Carter years (1977-1981) were like. We had a president who believed Black Lives Matter, insisted on international human rights even when his CIA thought he was naïve, and lived his Christian faith.
The White House was the People’s House during the Carter years. As a young Baptist editor, I found the White House Press Office to be extremely accessible. When Victor Tupitza, one of the senior writers for The American Baptist magazine, said he wanted to cover a White House briefing on the Equal Rights Amendment, I called the press office.
After several rings, a Georgia-accented voice said, “Hello?”
Forty years on, I’m still convinced the unidentified voice belonged to Press Secretary Jody Powell.
“Just send us his social security number so we can check him out and he’s more than welcome to come,” the voice said in a business-like drawl. The photos we published of President Carter wearing an ERA button were taken by Victor.
Jimmy Carter is the only president I have met. When the White House held a briefing for religious editors on the Panama Canal Treaties, I jumped at the chance to attend. I sat in a row of chairs in the White House East room, just behind Zbigniew Brzezinski’s spiky cowlick. There were more than a hundred editors present, and we rose to our feet as the president entered. I have no memory what Carter said at the podium but when he asked for questions I kept raising my hand and hopping up to attract his attention. I also don’t remember what I wanted to ask, but it was probably just as well that he didn’t call on me.
When the president concluded his remarks he mingled with editors and shook hands. When I got to him I extended my hand and immediately forgot the little speech I had prepared. I said, “Mr. President, American Baptists are for you” – not a hundred percent true as I look back on it – and he smiled and said, “Thanks, I need all the help I can get.” It was not a historic moment.
Happily for me, I did have several more opportunities to meet him after he left office. When the Baptist World Alliance met in Los Angeles in 1982 Carter was a keynote speaker. I was drafted to edit the meeting’s daily newspaper and Duke McCall, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, thought I should interview Carter. I sat in a small darkened room with Carter, McCall, and a few Baptist dignitaries and had what may have been high-level discussions. I can’t remember the details. Months later I stood next to the former president at a buffet line in the Carter Center and discussed the dietary benefits of granola and other health foods.
During the 1979 biennial meeting of American Baptist Churches USA, First Lady Rosalyn Carter was invited to make a keynote address. Mrs. Carter agreed to do it by telephone hook-up and I was assigned to make the technical arrangements. This was significantly more complicated then than it would be today and I remember a dozen conversations with the First Lady’s press office to work out the logistics.
As the big moment approached I was sitting in a crowded luncheon of the Roger Williams Fellowship when a frenzied woman threw open the door and shouted, “Is Phil Jenks in here? The White House is calling!” I stood up, did my best to look calm and tried to ignore the dumbfounded stares as I shuffled out. The call was a final check-in by the First Lady’s press office.
The call went off without a hitch and Mrs. Carter’s melodious voice floated soothingly on speakers throughout the large hall. But she went on a few minutes longer than expected and American Baptist General Secretary Bob Campbell got nervous.
“Can you tell her to stop?” he asked.
“No,” I said. It’s probably one of many reasons I was soon no longer working for the Baptists.
In 1978 The American Baptist magazine celebrated its 175th anniversary. That was also the year the Canadian Baptist was celebrating its 125th anniversary. The collective staffs of both magazines – including William H. Jones, the Canadian editor – decided to publish a joint issue celebrating the occasions. The project was coordinated by Milt Ryder of the American Baptist staff.
We decided to solicit letters of congratulations from the President of the United States and from the Canadian Prime Minister. At first we thought this might require some complex diplomatic finesse, but it turned out to be easy. I called the White House correspondence office and they said, “Okay, just tell us what you want the letter to say.” Bill Jones received a similar response from the prime minister’s office.
I quickly wrote what I thought would be a nice message from President Carter, and Bill Jones wrote a message for Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Within days, our attempts at historic prose were validated over the signatures of both world leaders.
Forty-two years on, there is another Prime Minister Trudeau in the premier’s chambers in Ottawa, and Jimmy Carter – who wished us “many more years of service to God and society” – has outlived The American Baptist magazine by several decades.
I hope he will be around for many years to come.