Recalling a Fine American

 

 

                  by Kenneth Bagnell

                   

           I doubt there’s been a finer man in the 20th century American Presidency than Jimmy Carter. His life is mostly great character, the sort of man Henry Miller had in mind when he defined the finest leader: “The great leader has no need to lead – he is content to point the way.”  He did much more than being content in those months and years of his presidency, in the 1970s. No, he got busy on vital and large causes, humanitarian rights, and peace advocacy. Walter Mondale, idealistic if also aged, said a year ago, that Carter, now nearing his mid-nineties, stood distinctively when compared with other Presidents simply because of his active altruism.       

    About a year or two ago, his friend, lawyer and political colleague Mondale was specific on Carter’s lifestyle: “He’s got this human part of him, this focus,, this commitment … He gets on to something he wants to get it done, and it’s impressive to watch him.” All this is only a portion of our Jimmy Carter’s humanitarian and spiritual character. Nonetheless, he had inherited two earlier burdens: economic decline in the years before him, and the hostage crisis in Iran.  I say he “inherited it”, so that, when his term was over, he deeply hoped for certain progressive achievements or constructive policies. While still in office, he spoke of what I’ve mentioned in these words: “Human rights is the soul of our policy, because human rights, is the very soul of our nationhood.” It was, remember, the late 1970s.  He was and still is a progressive.  Hence the first message of the word “evangelical” was less vertical but more horizontal and altruistic thereby meaning to Carter and his supporters, curing poverty, strengthening human rights, and restraining the call for the military. Along with that, in time the political and moral winds of the US were changing and unfortunately bringing a new kind of Republican voter: men and women mobilizing, not “for” Carter, but “against” Carter.

      In any case, today’s Jimmy Carter is still the sincere and affable Christian of the highest order but one thing he isn’t: he’s never been a hard shell of the stern image cast by many of the past Southern Baptist Evangelicals.. It just isn’t, because Jimmy Carter and his new book Faith – one of 32 he’s written –  is a very warm and readable volume which by most informed opinions is more than merely acceptable. As is the custom, he’s been interviewed day after day on Faith. Here’s a few questions he’s taken and answered:

  (1)  “You write that God is not my personal valet. What do you mean by that?”

      He first laughed then spoke: “When I was younger I used my prayers primarily for things that I wanted God to help me get or to do or to accomplish As I got older I realized that my main prayers – I didn’t make this decision in advance – but my main prayers are ones of thanksgiving. And I had this feeling in particular when I thought a couple of years ago that I was going to die in a couple of weeks from the cancer. I had cancer in my liver and also four places in my brain… And so I thought my life was about over and I realized at that time that I didn’t have any fear of death. I was just grateful for the wonderful life that I had been granted…”

    (2) In another TV interview in March, the inevitable question emerged and he replied carefully and moderately on PBS: “Carter called Trump’s alleged past behavior “regrettable” but said he didn’t think it would cause Trump to lose support of his base. “President Trump’s solid base of support is going to be unshaken by it” Carter said. The same might not be true of moderate voters, however, Carter said. “I think for some of the marginal voters, that might sway the election toward Democrats in 2018” mentioning that Trump’s history with women might be a “major factor” in the midterms. (Obviously a very careful answer.)

   (3) The nation just marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Why did you decide to serve as a mediator during a dispute with his children and what difference do you think that made?

       Carter’s reply: “I think it all worked quite well, luckily, not because they were willing to ask me and others to help them. I just met with the three children of Martin Luther King Jr on a number of occasions over a two year period and eventually they decided themselves to resolve their differences, which had existed only in court with lawsuits against each other. So they finally have been able to work it out together. I helped a little bit but I was very glad to do it and got to know them intimately and appreciate once again the great contribution that their father had made…”

      To many of those who admired Jimmy Carter’s character, the great concern is with his health. He is 93, has been ill, has recovered and still conducts his Sunday School hour which he held the very first Sunday once he was no longer President about 40 years ago. Now Sunday School is held virtually every Sunday, often in various places and new settings. Not long ago, CBS carried a piece on it with Jane Pauley as its interviewer. She asked a lot of various questions. Some were quite frank. He answered them all in appropriate detail. One was the kind of question he might have found painful:

      “You,” Pauley said quietly, “are the first one-term President since Hoover not to be reelected, which, you know, history has a way marking as a failed presidency….”

        Carter replied quietly and simply: “Yes.”

       There was a brief pause but then he spoke: “I’ve realized that. I realize that, you know, not getting reelected is considered to be a failure. But I have found, since leaving the White House that I’ve had a very gratifying and I think, productive life. For example the Carter Center, You know, we’ve been able to monitor 107 different elections that may not have gone well had we not been there.” For his efforts Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. The Nobel committee lauded him for his decades of endless effort to find peaceful solutions to global conflicts, to advance democracy, to develop human rights and promote social and economic development.

 

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