Former president Jimmy Carter is back in the news, this time because of his decision to forgo further medical treatment and live out his final days at home, under hospice care. Approaching his ninety-ninth birthday, he hopes to die as he has lived, with quiet dignity.
Generations who read about Carter only in history books may miss the drama of his meteoric rise to the presidency. He grew up in rural Georgia, in a home without indoor plumbing or electricity, and walked three miles to school and back. His family could have been scripted by Hollywood: his mother did a stint with the Peace Corps in India and his sister Ruth had some renown as a faith healer. And then there was Billy, who hung out at a gas station and served up juicy quotes (and beer) to the Yankee reporters. “I’ve got one sister who’s a motorcycle mama and another one who’s a faith healer. I’ve got a brother who claims he’s gonna be president of the United States—and people think I’m crazy?”
Ignored by the Democratic Party establishment, Jimmy Carter simply worked harder than any other candidate in early-primary states, knocking on doors and shaking hands with nearly every voter. Skeptics began taking Carter more seriously when they learned he had been a nuclear engineer as well as a peanut farmer, and had championed civil rights and equal rights for women as governor of the Southern state of Georgia.
In the wake of Watergate scandals, Americans responded to Carter’s winsome smile and his promise that he would never lie to them. Against all odds, in 1976 Carter ascended to the most powerful office in the world. The new president set out his agenda in his inaugural address: “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced.” He began acting on those principles by rating countries for their human rights records and directing U.S. aid accordingly.
Carter frequently quoted the Bible in his speeches. He told the World Jewish Congress that his commitment to human rights had come from his study of the Hebrew prophets. During the campaign, he had weathered a storm caused by his admission to a Playboy magazine writer that “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust…I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Most Christians would have recognized the reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but secular journalists had no clue. Some of them viewed Carter’s “born again” talk as a crass appeal to Bible Belt voters. Starting with his first week in Washington, however, Carter taught Sunday School at a Baptist church, and by the time he left office, no journalist doubted the sincerity of his convictions.
Sometimes the president sounded sermonic as he lectured the nation about racism, energy waste, poverty, and unaffordable health care. In a cover story, Newsweek magazine declared the year of Carter’s election as “The Year of the Evangelical”—a title that now appears ironic in view of the movement’s turn away from the progressive politics that Carter embodied.
Jimmy Carter’s descent reversed his meteoric rise. Due to unrest in the Middle East, the price of oil doubled, and inflation climbed to a historic high of 14.6 percent. Worse, in 1979 Iranian revolutionaries broke into the U.S. embassy in Tehran, shouting “Death to America!” and seizing fifty-three hostages. Each night, network news programs prominently displayed the hostages’ total days of captivity, along with humiliating images of blindfolded Americans being prodded by the captors. When a daring rescue attempt by helicopter failed, Carter’s fate was sealed.
In his bid for a second term, a host of evangelical voters forsook Carter for a more right-wing brand of politics, and Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. Carter returned to Plains, Georgia, a broken man, scorned by fellow Democrats and named in some polls as the worst president ever. His family business, held in a blind trust during his term, had accumulated a million-dollar debt.
From that shaky platform, Carter began to rebuild. After writing a book to pay off debts, he established The Carter Center in Atlanta to foster programs he believed in. Due mainly to his emphasis on democracy and human rights, many developing nations looked to him as a great leader, and Carter responded with visionary projects. A team that he recruited began monitoring elections all over the world. His hands-on support of Habitat for Humanity brought publicity and funding to that fledgling organization. His foundation targeted diseases that plagued poor nations, nearly eliminating many, including guinea worm and river blindness.
Every weekend he was home, the former president faithfully taught Sunday School. Word got out, and soon tour buses began filling the parking lot at Maranatha Baptist Church. A congregation of 80 to 100 found themselves swamped by 300, 500, even 1000 visitors on Sundays. CNN donated some used cameras, and the Sunday School class accommodated overflow crowds with a video hookup in another room. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter graciously agreed to pose for pictures with any visitors—after the worship service. Thus the pastor faced the challenge of preaching to hundreds of visitors, many of whom would hear the Christian message for the first time, while not boring his regular congregation.
One day someone sent me a clipping from the New York Post, in which Jimmy Carter named me as his favorite modern writer. Later, I got a phone call from Rosalynn, who asked advice about which Bible she should give her grandchildren. “We have to meet them on our next trip South,” my wife said. And so we did.
On a hot summer day in 2002, we visited Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters had reserved two seats on the second row. Soldiers from twenty-one different countries, in training at nearby Fort Benning, showed up that Sunday morning. “Tell me, if you were back home, would you be in church today?” Janet asked a carload of Swedes and Romanians. The Swedish driver didn’t hesitate: “If Jimmy Carter was preaching, we would!”
Turn over the wooden offering plates at Maranatha Baptist, and you’ll see the carved initials “J.C.” Carter made them in his carpentry shop, just as he made the television cabinet in the Sunday School room. The pastor told me that every other month the ex-president took his turn cutting the grass outside the church while Rosalynn cleaned the bathrooms indoors.
Around town, I heard stories of how Carter wielded his power locally. When the head of Habitat for Humanity boasted about having eliminated all substandard housing in Sumter County, Carter telephoned to tell him about Josephine, who lived in a house with holes in its siding plugged with rags. When a young woman in the church entered adulthood with a face badly deformed from a genetic defect, Carter called the head of Emory Hospital in Atlanta and arranged for plastic surgery. During my visit, Carter gave me a tour of an experimental plot in his back yard—“These are Paulownia trees, the fastest growing trees in the world,” he said. He was hoping they might solve the global problem of deforestation.
Despite bouts with metastatic cancer, Carter continued the frenetic pace well into his nineties. He kept cranking out books, hammering nails for Habitat, and judging elections in young democracies. Meanwhile, Rosalynn championed the cause of childhood immunization. Together, they seemed the ideal small-town citizens, if you forget for a moment that they used to entertain royalty, and slept next to a briefcase with nuclear codes that could destroy the planet.
In time, historians re-evaluated Carter’s performance as president. He appointed more women and people of color to key positions than any predecessor. During his term, not a single American soldier was lost in combat (although eight died in the desert during the failed rescue attempt in Iran). Most significantly, he brokered a peace deal in the Middle East that led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee expressed regret that Carter’s award came long after the leaders of Israel and Egypt received theirs—twenty-four years after the historic Camp David Accords. Blessed are the peacemakers, no matter how long it takes to recognize them.
In a stunning reversal, Jimmy Carter now makes the list of most admired presidents, and if someone held a contest for best ex-president, he would win hands down. Now 98, he has lived longer than any U.S. president, and has had the longest and most productive post-presidency (42 years). Randall Balmer, who wrote a book about Carter and his faith, says, “My favorite quote about Carter comes from James Laney, the former president of Emory University: ‘Jimmy Carter is the only person in history for whom the presidency was a steppingstone.’”
While others have left the White House to enjoy golf or cash in on their celebrity status, the Carters devoted themselves to sacrificial service. The result brings to mind Jesus’ most-repeated statement in the Gospels: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Get some rest, President Carter. You’ve earned it.
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