Bookman: Appreciation for President Jimmy Carter’s vision and courage

President Jimmy Carter's most prominent accomplishment – unlikely peace accords between Israel and Egypt – endures to this day. Photo courtesy of Carter Presidential Library.

We cannot know the time that we are granted, or that which will be granted to others. So why wait?

Why wait to say words of appreciation, words that are deserved and ought to be said and heard?

At age 95, Jimmy Carter has been granted enough time that to many younger Americans he is a relic of another era, a man from a time before their living memory. In part that is true. Carter is indeed a leftover from another time, another Georgia, another America, and that is part of why he has become a national treasure. Like any era, that era had its strengths and its drawbacks, and in Carter, we find those good parts personified.

I’m old enough to have adult memories of Carter as president. The first presidential vote I ever cast came in 1976, when Carter ran against Gerald Ford. I voted for Ford, in part because I considered myself a moderate Republican, back when such things existed, and in part because Carter was an unknown from Georgia while Ford had handled the difficult aftermath of the Nixon impeachment with grace and wisdom. I don’t regret that vote, nor do I regret my vote for Carter four years later, when he ran and lost against Ronald Reagan.

At the time, Carter’s presidency was deemed a failure, and for understandable reasons. The prime test of a successful first term is to be given a second term, and the American people did not grant that second term. He was viewed by many as weak, as lacking toughness and grit.

Many years later, though, I was asked to write a full-length obituary for Carter so that the newspaper would have it “in the can,” ready to go to print after he died. (Needless to say, that piece has never been used and has long been rendered outdated, for example by a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. But I wish I still had a copy, because I’d try to get Carter to sign it. How many obituaries do you see that are signed by its subject?)

Researching that piece 20 years after Carter left office, I was struck by how badly he seemed to have been snake-bit. Most of what went wrong during his time in office – in Iran, in the economy, in the energy sector – were not of his making, but the consequence of trends that had been building for decades, that previous presidents had chosen to ignore. It was Carter’s luck to be in office when the bills came due, and in hindsight he handled them with vision and courage. His most prominent accomplishment – unlikely peace accords between Israel and Egypt – endures to this day.

Other things proved less durable. In a bout of excess sincerity in that ’76 campaign, Carter had admitted that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” and had “committed adultery in my heart,” but only in his heart. He also said that he had sought and received God’s forgiveness for that sin. The shock caused by that confession almost lost Carter the election, a quaint thought in these days of porn stars, secret payoffs and multiple adulteries.

Carter also sold his peanut operation in south Georgia before taking office, to ensure that he could not be accused of any conflict of interest as president. He presented himself as part of a tradition of white Southern evangelicals who take their faith seriously and try to live by it, who model the humility, decency and concern for the downtrodden that Jesus had preached. He has continued to honor that fine if fading Southern legacy in the almost 40 years out of office.

As a child, I had been raised to think of the U.S. presidency as the highest possible calling, a thought that recent events have forced me to reconsider. I think the biblical Matthew had it right: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.