(photo by John Amis/AP)
By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
I always say Jimmy Carter was the classiest post-presidency act ever. His imminent passing may be the time to expand on that.
For me, Jimmy Carter has been sort of like Queen Elizabeth – that reassuring, benevolent elder statesman who will always be with us. When he announced his brain cancer a few years back, the news coverage remarked on his serenity and good cheer with something like awe, but grace did characterize much of what he did.
I had two encounters with him when I was in college, both when he was running for governor of Georgia.
One was on the very first Earth Day in 1969. He was a featured speaker and, because my mother was working on his campaign, I got to introduce him. He scribbled a few notes on some index cards for me, and I was so impressed he’d get behind this new initiative.
The other was a few months later when the campaign was on in earnest. He came to our campus to speak, and I interviewed him for the school paper. Later that day, in line for lunch, I met my future husband, the miracle that ended up in my becoming a grateful and proud Canadian citizen.
Carter was just an obscure peanut farmer from southern Georgia serving in the state legislature, when he first ran to be the Democratic nominee for governor in 1966 and lost to Lester Maddox.
Owner of a fried-chicken restaurant called the Pickrick, Maddox took out large weekly newspaper ads whose space he used for expounding his segregationist views as well as promoting the restaurant – from which he had famously chased would-be black patrons with an axe handle.
Carter did defeat Maddox on his second try (my mother was invited to the inaugural ball, but that wasn’t her cup of tea).
He set his sights on the White House for 1976. I don’t think he would have won if the Watergate scandals hadn’t made the country so open to the thought of an outsider. Reporters and pundits wondered if he would go with his given name of James Earl Carter as president – no, he would continue as Jimmy Carter.
As president, he dealt with the aftermath of the first big oil crisis and rampant inflation. Presidents in office at such times get stuck with those things. He walked the walk on the environment though, turning down the White House thermostat, stoking up the White House fireplaces, wearing sweaters and trying his best to get Congress to approve research into a fuel alternative to oil – gasohol was what he thought held some promise.
By 1980, America was tired of malaise and sacrifice. They wanted sunny Ronald Reagan with his Morning In America slogan. Carter left politics without bitterness, resumed teaching Sunday School at the Baptist church in his old home town, and looked ahead.
In the end, he would establish his own foundation that would do good work around the world, would write more than dozen books (including a tribute to his mother Miss Lillian and one ill-advised fiction effort that got poor reviews) and begin volunteering for Habitat For Humanity.
That work is the closest he came to having any profile at all. As the decades went by and he kept showing up at builds, people noticed and maybe rethought their opinions of him.
Habitat informally had an annual Jimmy Carter build, I was told when I volunteered for a build in New Orleans 16 months after Hurricane Katrina. You would have thought the hurricane hit last week, so great was the devastation even then.
They told us if we wanted to rearrange our travel plans, a special guest was coming the last day of our build. I couldn’t face staying on another day amid those heart-wrenching ruins, but I had a feeling whom it would be. I checked the news when I got home, and it WAS Jimmy Carter, still wanting to be where he was needed at age 82.
Definitely the classiest post-presidency act ever!