April 01, 2023

COLUMN: A good and decent man

June Bower

Accolades are pouring in for former President Jimmy Carter and he deserves every one of them. There’s no former politician, president or otherwise, who has contributed more to humanity than Carter.

It’s been a long time since Carter was President -1981 to be exact. Elected in 1976, he served just one term, then was soundly defeated by President Ronald Reagan. Carter inherited a deep recession upon becoming president, and had to deal with an oil embargo and conflict in the Middle East. And when 52 Americans were taken hostage and held captive by Iran for 444 days, his presidency was pretty well doomed.

Iran was retaliating against Carter because he protected the exiled Shah of Iran from certain execution. Carter then drew criticism in the U.S. for failing over such a long time to get the hostages freed. Although his administration negotiated feverishly the entire time of their captivity, Iran held the hostages until the last day of Carter’s presidency. Out of spite, Iran waited to free them the day Reagan was inaugurated.

One of the first actions Carter took as president was to pardon thousands of young men who had dodged the U.S. draft during the Vietnam War. Although his pardons were controversial, they were unconditional and helped heal the country after the bitter conflict.

A major success of Carter’s presidency was the Camp David Accords, a historic peace deal between Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, ending a war between the two nations that had continued since Israel’s founding in 1948.

Carter was a Washington outsider. He was a Georgia peanut farmer with a pronounced southern accent and a humble lifestyle. But he had also been a brilliant Naval officer with expertise in nuclear powered submarines. He was then a successful Governor of Georgia before emerging on the national scene and winning the Democratic nomination for president. When he defeated President Gerald Ford who was seeking re-election after succeeding President Richard Nixon, the Washington D.C. establishment was shocked. They never did understand or appreciate Jimmy Carter - until long after he left office and returned to Georgia.

I was serving as Adair County Chair of the Democratic Party during the Carter administration and came to admire his approach to the presidency. During the oil embargo and energy crisis, Carter tried to lead the American people to adopt energy-conserving practices. Although his efforts eventually came to be viewed as reasonable, East Coast pundits and his adversaries at the time made fun of his calls to lower the thermostat and wear sweaters to conserve energy.

Carter was often the brunt of ridicule from Republicans, and eventually, his fellow Democrats began to criticize him. When the late Sen. Ted Kennedy decided to challenge him for the Democratic nomination, the party split badly. I remember being very disappointed with Kennedy and some of my fellow Democrats for challenging the sitting president of our own party.

Kennedy caught fire among the progressive wing and won several primaries before ending his run, but the damage was already done to Carter. After his election defeat by Reagan, he and his wife Rosalynn were quite bitter about the party’s lack of support. Eventually, however, they set their minds to the future, established The Carter Center and spent the next four decades serving others.

The Carter Center is still committed to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering. It works on global peace and health, advancing human rights, resolving conflicts, preventing diseases and advancing democracy. For years, Carter provided hands-on support to nations around the world helping them to achieve democratic elections.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter spent nearly 40 years after his presidency working with Habitat for Humanity, not just lending their name to the cause, but their own labor to building homes for the poor.

Carter has been a devout Christian, a deeply religious man throughout his life. He faithfully attended services at his local church and taught Sunday school there for decades. Unlike those who loudly profess their Christianity and publicly flaunt their politics-tainted religion, Carter has lived his faith through good works and wise counsel. His humble demeanor and graciousness never left him. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Carter’s legacy as a good and decent man is intact.