Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, turned 96 last week. He would be the first to tell you that he was far from a perfect President: too smart for his own good, too self-righteous sometimes, perhaps even too plain for the august office he held. But he was moral, not corrupt. Selfless, not egotistical. Kind, not mean-spirited. Humble, not boastful. He and his wife Rosalyn have been married for almost 74 years. They live a simple but loving and purposeful life, seemingly free of the need to court popular opinion or public sympathy. Despite the infirmities of old age, they still believe in quietly doing God’s work—whomever and whatever that entails—without the need to foist their beliefs on others. They are, in a word, content.
I was living in Washington during much of Mr. Carter’s Presidency. I watched him jawbone bitter enemies—Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin—into signing the Camp David Accords that resulted in the Treaty of Washington, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that has lasted more than forty years. I wondered about the wisdom of ceding control of the Panama Canal and his insistence on making human rights a pillar of American foreign policy even though our own record in that arena was—and still is—spotty at best. I worried as he was taken by surprise when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and I was disappointed when he foundered during the Iran hostage crisis. When Operation Eagle Claw ended in disaster with the death of eight American soldiers in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s Presidency was all but finished.
While his political legacy is at best mixed—his four years in office have been called “a failed presidency”—Mr. Carter’s humanitarian instincts are revered. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” Those same instincts—his desire to selflessly serve others—still motivate him today. We all know about his work with the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity: the bandana under the hard hat, the worn leather tool belt, and his hammer and nails approach to making this world a better place for the underserved. Public accolades don’t seem to matter much to Mr. Carter; he would continue to do what he does even if no one was watching. That’s a rarity these days.
In these charged times of racial and social injustice, it perhaps helps to remember that Jimmy Carter grew up on a peanut farm deep in the segregated south. His father, according to Jonathan Alter’s new biography “His Very Best,” was “comfortable upholding a system of rigid segregation and quiet repression.” Despite this pedigree, Carter managed to find his own way. When he was elected Governor of Georgia in 1970, Carter stunned many of his constituents when, in his Inaugural Address, he said, “I tell you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.“ That habit of claiming the moral high ground over political expediency served him well in politics until it didn’t. Ultimately, it seemed to alienate voters and left Carter open to criticism: “he’s too weak; too self-righteous; too much of a goody-goody.”
Time has a way of making all things visible. Given what we are enduring now, Jimmy Carter’s days as President seem to us as morally distant as they are on the calendar. I don’t rue his years in office—they’re gone—but, like many, I have grown to admire Jimmy Carter’s humility, his work ethic, and his striving nature. That’s not peanuts.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com