James Earl Carter, thirty-ninth president of the United States of America, has too often been called our best former president though a bad, i.e., ineffective president while in office. I wish to differ.
War and Peace
Our country was not at war during the four years of the Carter presidency. Stop and reflect on that for a moment. As commander-in-chief, President Carter called for the sacrifice of no American’s life.
And yet, at the same time, without military action and through diplomatic efforts alone, he was able to bring about the beginnings of peace in the Middle East, a hard-won dream still to be fully realized. Carter’s intelligence, information, preparation, and patience were all at work at Camp David.
Energy and Environment
He took the long view on environmental issues and set us on a path of energy conservation and independence. President Reagan reversed that direction, and no American president since Jimmy Carter has been clear-sighted or determined enough to put us back on track.
When President Carter held a press conference, he made every attempt to answer questions clearly and directly. I will never forget my astonishment the first one I watched him give a televised press conference. Has there ever — in your lifetime — been a president more honest with the American people?
Despite the taking and holding of hostages that guaranteed his bid for reelection would be defeated, ultimately the hostages came home alive, in large part because Jimmy Carter put a higher priority on the hostage situation than on campaigning for reelection.
That James Earl Carter has always been a decent, honorable man no one can deny. A naive visitor from another planet, looking at the burdens and responsibilities of leadership, might assume decency to be a minimum requirement for the presidency of the United States. History and experience, however, paint a very different picture, and decency is often mentioned as if it can only be, if not the opposite of greatness, yet a kind of honorable mention granted to someone who failed to achieve a place in the pantheon of greatness.
The long partnership of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, the work of the Carter Center in Africa, the Carters’ hands-on volunteering with Habitat for Humanity — all those would attest to lives well lived, had the couple never lived in the White House. And yet I would have Jimmy Carter admired and revered not only for his basic decency and his charitable work and the teaching of Sunday school but for the vision that, as President Carter, he brought to the nation and the world.
I feel privileged to have lived in an era that saw both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama elected to the nation’s highest office. The true legacy of both men rests not on mere legislation (which subsequent leaders can overturn) but on a promise realized — that it is possible for good people, with vision, to rise to positions of leadership, that it is possible for citizens in a democracy to elect leaders who will serve also as examples to the rest of us of what it means to be a great American.