Re-evaluating Jimmy Carter

July 24, 2018

The Carter Center hosted Stuart Eizenstat on May 3 for a lecture and book signing of the former ambassador’s book, President Carter: The White House Years. Eizenstat’s biography of the 39th president re-evaluates the Georgian, shedding new light on the former governor’s earnestness and steadfast principles. Unfashionable though it may be to celebrate such things today, Carter is, by most accounts, a good human being.

The Carter administration was nearly free of scandal, especially by today’s standards. President Jimmy Carter founded the Department of Education and the Department of Energy.

Since establishing The Carter Center in Atlanta in 1982, the former president and his team have nearly eradicated river blindness and Guinea worm. The methodical mind and persistence of Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, improved the health of millions who had suffered from these public health issues. Modern presidents from both major parties could boast about times when their poll numbers were high, but few can state that they led the charge to nearly eliminate certain parasitic infections and diseases.

Yes, Jimmy Carter was a one-termer. Yes, there were presidents who showed more ease and humor in front of television cameras. But the 93-year-old is a testament to the change that one person can make if he approaches policy challenges in a calm and serious manner. Evaluating Jimmy Carter is like evaluating ones parents or grandparents — in hindsight, one finds them correct. It is not the job of authority figures to be loved, it is their role to lead with responsibility and humanity. Even if that means we are told to adjust our thermostats, save gas, or consult a world atlas.

I attended Ambassador Eizenstat’s lecture, have audited three of President Carter’s Sunday School classes at Maranatha Church in Plains, Ga., and built houses with President Carter and more than 100 other Habitat for Humanity volunteers in Durban, South Africa in 2002. I was in the pews when he spoke March 27, 2018 at Sen. Zell Miller’s memorial service in Atlanta. And I can honestly state that I never heard an amazing sound-byte or a Fallon-worthy joke. But I am consistently impressed by the modest demeanor, policy knowledge, and earnestness of a man who was once our president.

While it is fashionable and necessary to question traditional authority figures, especially males, I believe that those members of The Greatest Generation who improved the lives of their fellow Americans without regard to race, religion, or background deserve our thanks. Especially when, like Carter, their sound character has been established through decades of steadfast public service. More important than thanking Jimmy Carter, or John McCain, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is emulating these fine Americans. They have a clear sense of who they are and what it means to contribute to society.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, stated: “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.” The Baptist Jimmy Carter seems to have lived by this creed.

I myself am Jewish, cynical, world-weary, and independent minded. And even I am able to see that Carter, our citizen-farmer former president, is American through-and-through. Teaching by example, exemplifying civic duty, Jimmy Carter is one of the thousand points of light who made America great in the first place.

No tweets or giant gold letters needed.

And so, Mr. Carter, I say: thank you.

Jordan Barkin is a former associate editor of Hearst Magazines. His columns have been published by U.S. News & World Report, Gannett, Atlanta Magazine, The Hill, Jerusalem Post, and HuffPost. He lives in Atlanta.

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