Monday, June 20, 2011

Jimmy & me

While in Atlanta recently, I got the chance to visit the Carter Presidential Center. Many of you probably have a low assessment of Jimmy Carter, and wonder why I would even take the time to visit there? However, I would visit any presidential library if I got the chance, because we should all honor the office, even if we might not totally agree with the man holding the office. Also, Jimmy Carter played an important role in my formative adult years.

As I was coming of age, I looked forward to casting my first ever vote in the 1976 election, and began my research early. By the summer of 1975, I had already been following the early candidates (anybody remember Terry Sanford? Fred Harris? Frank Church?). I was going to be a good citizen and ensure that I cast an informed vote, as is important in a democracy. The previous election had not gone well for me, as a Nixon supporter who defended the president in the early Watergate days, only to realize later I had been hoodwinked.

One candidate caught my eye early on. I was impressed with Jimmy Carter's unusual background—farmer, nuclear submarine officer, and progressive governor of a southern state. He had proven his leadership abilities by changing Georgia's segregationist policies, and best of all, he was not tainted by Washington—which I had already determined to be a problem for many others. I liked that he was not a typical Democrat (since I was not sure that I was typical of either party). I had grown up in a semi-Republican family, and even had done extensive volunteer work as a 9th grader in 1972 for Nixon's re-election (I was young—what else can I say?).

When my senior year began in the fall of 1975, my social studies teacher Mrs. Phipps gave us a sheet of possible topics for a major paper we were to write, or we could pick any of the potential presidential candidates. As I recall, she went around the room asking students to pick their topics. I chose Jimmy Carter, and most of my classmates had no idea who I was talking about (at that time, one could not imagine a president being referred to as “Jimmy” and someone asked if I knew him personally).

My early pick of Jimmy Carter began looking prescient as he came out of nowhere to win Iowa and New Hampshire, and suddenly went from being a nobody to becoming the frontrunner. It made me feel like picking a winning candidate was a piece of cake—all you had to do was spend time researching the possibilities and deciding on the best. [I have since learned it is not all that easy.]

As I began my college career in the fall of 1976, I was a big Carter supporter. I remember being in the dormitory watching the debate, which was really big because there had not been a televised debate since the JFK-Nixon debate in 1960. That debate ended up being key to Carter's victory a few weeks later. Another college memory was rushing over to the student union after a late morning class, to watch the inauguration on a big color TV. The fact that Carter eschewed the limo and walked the entire distance between the Capitol and the White House was impressive. We needed a man of the people to help us get away from the Watergate days. I also remember writing a paper about Carter's cabinet choices in an “American Presidency” class I took in the spring of 1977. Early on, I felt good about our new president.

I appreciated his emphasis on the energy problem, and his promotion of human rights—a phrase heard all the time now but which was not well known until his presidency. With the exception of economic concerns, the first part of his term went OK, and once the Camp David Accords were signed, he seemed assured of a second term. Indeed, it was his effective personal leadership that brought Sadat and Begin to reach that historic agreement. The Nobel peach prize that year went jointly to Sadat and Begin, but it was Carter who made it happen. [I'm glad he was eventually honored with the Nobel Prize later for all his humanitarian efforts.]

However, the latter stages of his term seemed to go downhill. The economy never seemed to get better. One of his appointees, Burt Lance, came under investigation for banking problems back in Georgia. Although Lance resigned, Carter stood by his side still supporting him, which seemed different from Carter's pledge to clean up Washington and get away from any hints of improprieties. I feared he was too loyal to his “Georgia Mafia” friends, and thus was like too many other politicians. [I should point out in hindsight that Lance was never charged with wrongdoing after the investigation was finished.]

Another peculiar thing that bothered me was that Carter changed the side of his head where he parted his hair. In the beginning, his part was on the same side as I part mine, but later in his term, he went for a new look and changed sides. I found this ridiculous; indeed, a sign of a potential personality disorder. My hair only wants to naturally part on one side, so this made him seem artificial to me.

Things got worse after the malaise speech (where he never used the word “malaise”). Americans didn't want a President to tell them what was probably the truth—they just wanted someone to make things sound like they were better. [Reagan understood this, and always pushed positive themes (“It's morning in America”).] Soon we were dealing with killer rabbits swimming towards his fishing boat (Google it if you don't believe me), and Carter became the butt of many jokes.

With the seizure of the Iranian embassy, the last year in office was the worst for him. ABC's Nightline got its start as a special news show at 11:30 each night called “America Held Hostage—Day .” The hostage crisis was terrible, and there was very little that we could do about it. By the spring of 1980, with Ted Kennedy challenging the incumbent for the nomination, Carter finally decided to take action with a rescue plan. Unfortunately, an unexpected dust storm caused a crash at the Desert One rendezvous point, scuttling the mission. West Virginia native Cyrus Vance, who had served as Carter's Secretary of State, resigned in protest because he had opposed the attempted rescue mission. To many of us, it seemed like Carter was going for a grandstand play before the Wisconsin primary election to ensure Kennedy wouldn't win.

By this time, I had already given up on Carter. During the fall semester of 1979, which I spent in Washington as an intern for Congressman Rahall, I became intrigued by a liberal Republican named John Anderson who had decided to run for the Republican nomination. I felt like he had little chance, but I liked his thinking. However, Anderson ended up doing much better than anyone had predicted, placing high in early primaries even if he didn't win them. I jumped on board and eventually got my first job with his independent presidential campaign after graduating with my Political Science degree. Although Anderson didn't win, it was a great experience for me to travel around the country and participate in a national campaign. [It also solidified my identity as an independent.]

So in the span of five years, I went from an early supporter of Jimmy Carter to a paid employee of someone running against him. I've always had this complicated relationship with Carter and his legacy. I still think I was right to support him in the beginning, and yet also right to not support him for a second term. I also think he gets way more criticism than he deserves, and not enough credit. I admire the work he has done since leaving the presidency, be it with Habitat for Humanity, or his prodigious work as an author, or his efforts at promoting democracy through election monitoring and other diplomatic efforts. Also, many people don't realize how much work the Carters have put into improving health conditions and eradicating diseases in third world countries.

I'm glad I got to visit the Carter Presidential Center. I doubt that it will ever happen, but Jimmy Carter is certainly someone I would enjoy getting a chance to meet and talk to, and perhaps come to resolution about my complicated history with him. I hope that history in the future will judge him more kindly than his contemporaries have judged him. It's easy to “pile on” and decide that someone like Carter is a bad person, but in reality, all of us have some good and some bad in us. It takes an intelligent person to be able to see the virtues in everyone.

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