Can We Enjoy Halloween Ever Again?


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Archangel Justice Looming?


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Bill Buckley and the One-Line Response

saintbilloifyaleThere was a time when liberals and conservatives could have conversations that were not only enlightening but also entertaining.

All that began to fade when the Newt Gingrich crafted his GOP Contract with America, which essentially declared Republicans had no further interest in bipartisan dialogue or, for that matter, in fighting fair to achieve their far-right goals.

Fair-minded conversation between liberals and conservatives was soon blocked by the formation of the TEA Party, which was described by NAACP President Julian Bond as “the Taliban wing of the Republican Party.”

And sane discourse became really quite sincerely dead with the advent of the Trump Circus. Trump, of course, is not really a conservative; he’s a self-obsessed narcissist whose views are so far right he cannot escape being compared to white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And most Republicans in Congress are so intimidated by his bullying that they swim blindly in his turbulent wake.

The only comfort I can find these days is that most of my truly conservative friends are as appalled by Trump’s blundering and amoral presence as I am.

Dear God, how I miss the days when ideological dialogue was pleasant and edifying. In particular I miss William F. Buckley, Jr., whose views were far to the right of mind but whose editorials in National Review were always worth reading. Under his editorship, the philosophical slant of the National Review was conservative, intelligent, open-minded, and frequently humorous. Back in the days when I was editor of The American Baptist magazine, I never missed an issue of the Review.

One thing I learned from Bill Buckley is that he never shied away from a challenge to his views and, apparently, that he always answered his mail. He answered his mail even in those long-gone days when letters had to be typed and envelopes stamped.

Somewhere in the American Baptist communications archives of the seventies and eighties are two letters from Buckley, one-line comments typed on plain bond paper.

The first was in response to my first boss, the Rev. Dr. Frank A. Sharp, director of American Baptist News Service, who wrote a weekly column on religion and culture for a local daily newspaper. Frank, a liberal in theology and politics, wrote to Buckley in 1974 to announce he was going to send him copies of the column. Buckley, who could easily have ignored the warning, replied, “Thank you, Doctor, but you really needn’t bother.”

In the summer of 1982 I read an editorial by Buckley that annoyed me. He opined that the nation’s seminaries were hotbeds of liberalism.

I used my own editorial to respond that Mr. Buckley – a famous Catholic – had lost sight of the fact that “the most conservative possible interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount” and other utterances of Jesus are “fundamental aspects of the faith.” I cited Jesus’ teachings about violence and hatred (Matthew 5:38-44), the nature of riches (Matthew 19:16-23), and Christian concerns for those on the fringes of society (Matthew 25:31-45) and concluded, “No Christian who seeks to conserve God’s word would dare seek to explain these teachings away, or water them down.”

I suggested somewhat condescendingly that Mr. Buckley might be excused for regarding God’s word as “too idealistic and impractical … He does, after all, live in the real world, and his philosophy for life in that reality is always wise and well stated in his (writing).”

“But he goes too far, “ I concluded, “when he insinuates that Christians who seek to live their faith in the manner Jesus commanded are ‘liberal.’ Those Christians are, in fact, the last true conservatives” those who believe Jesus’ words enough to apply them to the real world.”

With youthful chutzpah (I was in my mid-thirties in 1982), I sent Buckley a copy of my editorial, thinking I might have made some point he would consider valid.

Within days he replied, again on plain bond paper with a single typewritten sentence centered on the page. “Thank you, Mr. Jenks, it would seem the differences between us are quite comprehensive.”

Looking back, I realize what a significant response that was.

Like his response to Frank Sharp, it was polite, succinct, and showed Bill Buckley’s willingness to read any idea that crossed his desk however comprehensively different it was from his own thinking.

That kind of interaction is sorely missed today.

I hope the rational conservative spirit of a bygone era will soundly reject the Trump take-over of the GOP and restore sanity and civility to our political dialogue.

Even when our differences are quite comprehensive.

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9/11: Denying Them Their Victory


bobedgar1September 11 2019. As President Trump declares peace talks with the Taliban dead in Afghanistan, one wonders whether remembering September 11, 2001 eases the pain and makes sense out of all that has happened since.

The War in Afghanistan, launched in direct response to the terror attacks of 9/11, seems interminable and, it seems, tragically futile. Eighteen years later so much has been lost in the toxic dust– including a prophetic statement that appeared days after the attacks.

The statement, “Deny them their victory,” was written by four interfaith leaders and signed by 4,000 people, including Martha and me and perhaps including you.

Looking back on the statement, I’m struck by the possibility that one of the greatest tragedies coming out of 9/11 was the fact it was largely ignored.

The statement was a courageous call to Americans to reject a violent response to the terror attacks by refusing to be sucked into the violent worldview of the terrorists,

“We, American religious leaders, share the broken hearts of our fellow citizens,” the statement said. “The worst terrorist attack in history that assaulted New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, has been felt in every American community. Each life lost was of unique and sacred value in the eyes of God, and the connections Americans feel to those lives run very deep. In the face of such a cruel catastrophe, it is a time to look to God and to each other for the strength we need and the response we will make. We must dig deep to the roots of our faith for sustenance, solace, and wisdom.”

The statement continued: “The terrorists have offered us a stark view of the world they would create, where the remedy to every human grievance and injustice is a resort to the random and cowardly violence of revenge – even against the most innocent . . . The terrorists must feel victorious.

“But we can deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image. Terrorism inflicts not only death and destruction but also emotional oppression to further its aims. We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be. We assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. America must be a safe place for all our citizens in all their diversity. It is especially important that our citizens who share national origins, ethnicity, or religion with whoever attacked us are, themselves, protected among us.”

The writers of “Deny Them Their Victory” were Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners; Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, then general secretary of the Reformed Church in America; David Saperstein, then director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Bob Edgar, then general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

The full statement can be read here.

Bob Edgar was my friend and boss during the years I worked as a media relations specialist for the National Council of Churches. He was a United Methodist minister, a six-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and president of the Claremont, California, School of Theology before beginning his two terms as NCC president in 2000. He was president of Common Cause from 2007 until his unexpected death in 2013.

I loved Bob and admired his tireless advocacy of peace and justice as alternatives to oppression and conflict. “We need to stand up when others tell us to sit down, and we need to speak out when others tell us to be silent,” he said, and he goaded the sometimes reluctant member communions of the NCC to speak out. Some communions resented Bob’s media visibility, leading him to say, “I think the faith community can make a difference; the question is whether they will.”

The question remains whether the world of 2019 would be different if the faith community had spoken out more emphatically in 2001 about remaining the prophetic people God intended them to be.


Shortly after the terror attacks of 2001, I recorded my family’s personal story. There are millions of stories that involve lost loved-ones, courageous first responders, and lives that would never be the same after September 11.

I have made it a point to repost that story every September 11, in part to keep it fresh in my mind and in part to preserve the story for children and grandchildren.

Martha and I had just settled into our offices in The Interchurch Center that day, more than 100 blocks north of the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, Martha directed public relations and communication for the United Church of Christ Pension Boards on the 10th floor (as she still does), and I was communications officer of the U.S. conference for the World Council of Churches on the 9th floor.

I was probably sipping the last dregs of my morning coffee in the 9th floor office of the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches when Martha called. “Did you hear a plane has flown into the World Trade Center?”

Instinctively, I turned to my keyboard and typed The Associated Press had moved a tentative story with a file picture of the twin towers.

“What a mess,” I thought. I could imagine a small plane veering off course from Teeterboro and straying into one of the 1,340 foot-high towers. No doubt some office workers in the tower had been injured.

Martha called back. “We have an office on the 19th floor,” she said. “We can see the towers from there.” I met her at the elevator and we went up. Tom, the office IT director, shook his head as we walked in and nodded toward a southerly window.

The towers were nearly seven miles south of us, but in my memory they seemed just a few blocks away. Black smoke billowed from the northern façade of the North Tower, and I still assumed an errant small plane had done the damage. Most of the people in the office had stopped looking out the window and had returned to their tasks.

We watched the smoke streaming eastward for several minutes.

“I have a service downstairs in the chapel,” Martha said.

One of her coworkers had died over the weekend, and Martha, an ordained minister, was in charge of the memorial. We thanked Tom for allowing us to satisfy our curiosity and walked out. Seconds after we closed the door behind us, the second plane hit the South Tower.

An hour later, when Martha and her colleagues emerged from the memorial service, both towers were fully involved in flames and on the verge of collapse.

Across the river in Hoboken, Martha’s cousin Tony watched in horror as people leaped from the towers to escape the flames and fell to their deaths on the plaza below.

Martha’s cousin Alina was stranded with her colleagues at Brown Brothers Harriman on nearby Wall Street. In the Empire State Building on 34th street, Alina’s husband, Steve, was making urgent calls to her office to see if she was all right.

Back at the Interchurch Center on 120th Street, my colleagues Jean and Sonia were literally holding each other up as news came of the collapse of the North Tower. Jean’s niece, who had been staying with her that summer, worked at one of the buildings adjacent to the towers and Jean had been unable to reach her.

As I sat in my office overlooking the Hudson River, I spun my radio dial, seeking additional updates. I listened briefly to an FM deejay who said he was broadcasting from one of the towers. “They’re telling us to evacuate,” he said excitedly, “But I’m staying at my post as a public service, ‘cause folks need to know what’s goin’ on …” I spun past him looking for 1010 WINS or another all news station and didn’t give the deejay a second thought. But 13 years later, I wonder: did the guy wise up and get the hell out of the tower? Or did I accidentally tune in to his last words on earth?

It wasn’t easy getting news about what was happening outside. I began receiving emails from a World Council of Churches colleague in Geneva, Switzwerland. Martin Robra, a German Lutheran peace activist, was monitoring the news in Europe and it was in one of his emails that I learned a plane had also struck the Pentagon in Washington. “You are at war,” Martin wrote ominously.

Our offices in The Interchurch Center at 120th Street and Riverside were far from Ground Zero and still unaffected by the calamity that was unfolding downtown. Two days later, a foul yellow haze that stung the eyes and burned the throat would spread throughout all of Manhattan. But in the midday hours of September 11, the air was still clear uptown. If you turned northward toward the George Washington Bridge, it was a beautifully pristine late summer day.

Outside the city, persons following the events on television wondered if all New York was in flames. Our son, Will, then a junior at Port Chester High School, left an urgent message on Martha’s cell phone. He had heard the city was under attack by military jets flying out of the White Plains airport and he pleaded with his mother to get in touch with him. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the message until hours later, when we were all safely home.

Daughter Victoria was in sixth grade in Port Chester on September 11 and we felt sure she would be safe with her teachers until the end of the day. However, daughter Katie was in a special education program in an outside school district and needed to take a school bus home. What the traffic situation would be like in Westchester County was anyone’s guess.

“Let’s go pick up Katie,” Martha said. I told Jean and Sonia that we were heading home, and they waved their hands as if to shoo us out. “Be careful,” Jean said. She had just heard that all bridges and access routes to Manhattan has been closed.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s see how far we can get.”

As it turned out, Riverside Drive was virtually empty. When we got to the Bronx-bound Henry Hudson Bridge, I looked for signs it had been closed. Instead, an MTA officer waved us through the tolls. We made it to Katie’s school in Ardsley in half the usual time.

But there were scores of cars jamming the high school parking lot. Parents from all over the district had come to take their children home. We parked at the far end of the lot and headed for the nurse’s office to sign Katie out. We found ourselves waiting in a line of anxious parents as a stressed-out gray-haired nurse scolded us.

“This is crazy,” she hissed, “You people are over-reacting,” as she impatiently scribbled her signature on dismissal slips.

After several minutes, Katie was escorted to the office by her teacher, Erin. Erin smiled at us but she must have had other things on her mind. She knew her brother, an employee at Cantor Fitzgerald, could have been one of nearly 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center. It would be weeks before his remains were identified, but hours after the attack his fate was still unknown.

That night, as the sun began to set on September 11, the Port Chester members of the family were safely home on Wesley Avenue. Throughout the tri-state area that night, thousands of shaken people who made it home kept an eye on their neighbors’ homes to see if they returned safely. But many never did.

As supper was being prepared, I stepped outside briefly, probably to retrieve something from the car. A military fighter jet roared overhead at a low altitude; if the jet had been slower, I could have read the words on the fuselage, but it thundered angrily and disappeared. My knees buckled as I ducked instinctively, but in an instant the air was silent again. I thought to myself, “We really are at war.”

It’s difficult to exaggerate the worldwide effects of September 11. The attacks – and our reaction to the attacks – had an indelible impact on billions of people.

On September 12 we learned that our British friends John and Bridget had been traveling from London to New York on September 11. When U.S. airports closed, their flight was diverted to Nova Scotia. They and other passengers were taken in by friendly Canadian farmers until the planes started flying again, on September 14.

Our daughter Lauren had planned to fly from Washington State to Philadelphia on September 11.

“I was going to a wedding in Philadelphia on the 15th,” Lauren recalls. “My flight was supposed to be a red eye leaving on the night of the 11th, but it didn’t get out until the 14th. I waited on line at (the Seattle-Tacoma airport) so long that I got free water and snacks from the Red Cross.”

Lauren was in a tiny minority of Americans who still wanted to fly that week. As it turned out, she made it to the wedding on time. “The minister pointed out that weddings are always audacious acts of hope in a world full of tragedy,” she recalls. “It’s hopeful, loving, life affirming acts like marriage that get us through everything else.”

It was not easy to find loving, life affirming acts in the aftermath of September 11. It’s not any easier today as the war in Afghanistan, launched as a direct reaction to the terror attacks, goes on and on. For many of us, the murder of Osama Bin Laden a decade after the attacks did little to ease the anger and salve the grief.

Eighteen years after the attacks, I still can’t bring myself to watch the television images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. They are simply too painful.

But there was another historic event that occurred less than a week after September 11, 2001, and many religious leaders have called upon people of faith to recognize it whenever they pray about September 11.

On September 17, President George W. Bush, in an extraordinary act of statesmanship, began his day with a visit to a mosque in Washington.

He bought coffee for a cafeteria full of people as he appealed to Americans to get back to everyday business and not turn against their Muslim neighbors.

The Associated Press reported that Bush removed his shoes in Muslim fashion and “padded through the ornate mosque on Washington’s Embassy Row and heard stories from his hosts about Muslim-American women afraid to leave their homes for fear of prejudiced backlash after last week’s terrorist strikes.”

“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior,” Bush said.

He quoted from the Quran and fervently defended the Islam faith: “Islam is peace,” he said. “These terrorists don’t represent peace, they represent evil and war.”

The judgment of history is still pending on George W. Bush, and millions of his admirers and critics engage in spirited debate about his preparedness for a terrorist attack, or his decisions to go to war in Afghanistan – a war that continues to this day.

But on September 17, 2001, he demonstrated the kind of leadership the nation needed most. He made it clear that the terror attacks were the acts of mad and evil men who had no connection to millions of peace loving Muslims around the world. And he said people who felt otherwise “should be ashamed.”

It was a reminder that should engage us all as we look back on those terrible days.

And looking back, we will always wonder if the U.S. response of war and mass destruction was the correct one.

Or would the world be different today if we have responded with a courageous “vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life”?

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Cartoon Commentaries




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Do the Right Thing

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.

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