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Jimmy Carter: The Spirit of Plains
He may not be regarded as the best President of the United States, but he's undoubtedly one of the best people to ever serve as President.
The Spirit of Plains, Georgia
It was summer and I was sleeping in a parking lot in South Georgia. I was there with my mother at Maranatha Baptist Church to watch the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, teach Sunday School the next morning.
We slept in our car to beat the crowd. Hundreds came each Sunday to see the Carters.
It happened to be their wedding anniversary, and it was the weekend after the 4th of July, which gave the community of Plains an added sense of patriotism as people from all over the world watched a 94-year-old former president performing the duties of church deacon and citizen.
As someone who grew up in a Baptist church, I was used to the prayers and the hymns. It felt a bit like home. After the service, Mom and I got our picture taken with Jimmy and Rosalynn and wished them “Happy Anniversary” as if they were people we knew.
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This was a bucket list trip for us. Mom had been a school teacher and I loved history. Our vacations took us to Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Cooperstown, and Monticello. The trip to Plains was like that: a chance to see a president up close to understand where he came from.
We saw the places that made Jimmy Carter: the train depot that served as headquarters for the ‘76 campaign, the gas station owned by his brother Billy, the school he attended, the farm house where he grew up. It all felt so normal; so everyday American.
This could have been anyone’s hometown. It happened to be home to a president.
As we started our journey back we passed the house where the Carters lived. I was struck by the sight of a Confederate flag flying from the porch of one of their neighbors. Not by the flag itself, which is sadly still common in the rural south, but by the fact that’s where the Carters returned to, to that part of the world. After leaving the White House the Carters could have moved anywhere: Atlanta, California, or Martha’s Vineyard. Places more elite, more exclusive, more liberal. Places that don’t fly the rebel flag anymore.
Jimmy and Rosalynn went back to their old neighborhood and the people they already knew. They went back to attending a small Baptist church. They went back to their old lives. It was remarkable to see because that’s what public service is supposed to be: an interlude in life, not a launching pad to a new one. It’s the spirit of the Roman general Cincinnatus returning to his farm, or George Washington resigning his military commission.
We tend to mythologize that sort of thing in America. It was something to see the real thing: an everyman from a small-town who got elected president, got voted out, and went back to being a community leader. It embodies our belief that anyone can be president, but the role of citizen is just as important. Right or wrong, it’s what the Founding Fathers intended for our republic: service to one’s country, not self-aggrandizement.
Like him or not, Jimmy Carter embodies that spirit.
The Spirit of ‘76
The peanut farmer from Plains was what Americans needed in 1976. He was the antidote to Richard Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate. He was an outsider and a small-business owner. He was a person of faith and character and someone who told the truth. Americans didn’t love hearing it all that much and voted for the remedy, but that’s democracy. It moves on. It’s in a bad place today.
Politics today is full of the wrong people in it for the wrong reasons: hacks, bomb throwers, and self-promoters who argue instead of legislating and who measure results in likes and retweets. That was not President Carter, and it certainly wasn’t ex-President Carter. He was much more decent, selfless, and principled than what we have now.
As his family recently announced, his time in this life is nearing its end. We’re going to miss him.
I understand those who don’t feel the same nostalgia. I didn’t experience the 70’s. The memories of gas lines, inflation, and the Ayatollah may be hard to forget. Carter is remembered as an unsuccessful president and to many a failed one, but we remember Carter for his failures because he was open and honest about them.
Carter was also ill-suited for the modern presidency and the TV era. He was not a great communicator like Reagan. He didn’t understand that part of the presidency is to be a bullshit artist. We want our presidents to console and inspire us. To tell us everything is going to be ok.
Carter told hard truths and Reagan voters didn’t like it. He obsessed over the hostage crisis in a way that made the country obsess with him. That’s why Reagan’s election was as much about optimism over pessimism - “morning in America” - as it was about tax cuts.
Carter failed at the PR aspects of the job, but looking back there is plenty he got right.
In the end, the hostages came home from Tehran. Carter’s appointment of Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve led to higher interest rates, but finally got inflation under control. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel brought a semblance of peace to the Middle East.
There were other accomplishments, summed up by Carter biographer Jonathan Alter for The New Republic: including doubling the national park system; being the first president to address global warming; the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and establishing the departments of Energy and Education. According to Alter, “Carter won approval of more major legislation than any post war president except Lyndon Johnson, and he did it in only four years.”
At the end of that term, Carter’s Vice President, Walter Mondale, probably said it best: “We told the truth. We obeyed the law. We kept the peace.” That’s not a bad record considering what came before - Vietnam and Watergate - and what came after - Iran-Contra; the second Iraq War, which Carter opposed; and January 6th. Given the state of the country today and what we’ve voted for since, our feelings about Carter are as much a reflection on us as they are on him.
What does it mean to be a good President?
Jimmy Carter will look better over the years.
There are presidents who rise in the rankings because of where they stood on the issues that really mattered, like Ulysses S. Grant, John Quincy Adams, and Harry Truman. There are also presidents who ended up on the wrong side of history and are rightfully reevaluated, like Andrew Jackson has been for the Trail of Tears and other tragedies.
When it came to civil rights, human rights, and the threat of climate change, Jimmy Carter was one of the good guys, and that’ll be remembered.
Carter’s post-presidency also set the standard. Through the Carter Center he worked on conflict resolution, free and fair elections, and promoting democracy abroad. For that work, and a lifetime of serving causes bigger than himself, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. That’s a pretty good indicator of how he’ll be judged over time. He was a good, decent, and honorable man, who spent four years as President of the United States and didn’t let it change him.
The man who carried his bags on the campaign trail and sold the presidential yacht never forgot where he came from, and went back there after leaving office. That’s the spirit of Jimmy Carter, the spirit of Plains, the spirit of ’76.
That’s why there are still lessons to be learned from Carter about civic responsibility and civic virtue. The spirit of Plains is about each of us making a contribution. It’s about finding a community and being a part of it. About finding a partner and celebrating a 76th wedding anniversary. It’s the kind of patriotism that’s about more than symbols. It’s loving the country by making it better. It’s doing our part and relying on others to do the same.
America is still a republic, still founded on freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Sometimes we need reminders about what that means, what’s at stake, how fragile those blessings are, and therefore what we should look for in our leaders. We can survive mediocre and even failed presidents. What we cannot survive are demagogues who won’t uphold the constitution or accept the results of elections. The kind who stoke insurrection against the government. We’ve had enough of that.
Our system isn’t built for strongmen; it’s built for citizens. The kind who coach little league on Saturdays and who go to PTA meetings. Who pick up trash, mentor young people, give to charity, and volunteer. The kind who build homes for Habitat for Humanity like the Carters did.
If more people were like Jimmy Carter, the United States would be a better place today.
It says something that people from all over the world would suffer the humidity and gnats of a South Georgia summer and sleep in their cars to watch a former president teach Sunday school. It says even more that someone in their 90s would still care to teach it.
Now in hospice care, President Carter won’t have the chance to teach Sunday school again, but his spirit will continue to inspire the rest of us as leaders and as citizens.
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