Jimmy Carter has stayed true to his own path

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, September 2, 2015

by John Railey

My parents had big plans for me on Labor Day 1976. I was to go with them to hear Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter speak in Norfolk that afternoon.

Squirrel hunting that morning, I got lost in the woods. I worried that I wouldn’t make it home in time to go hear Carter. It was a cloudy morning, so I couldn’t use the sun as a guide. I found my way out through a classic method: Using trees as landmarks to keep me in a straight line, I walked from one tree to the next one until I finally emerged in a field near my starting point.

Carter, the “peanut farmer” from Georgia, was on his own hard path.

I can’t tell you what he talked about that day in Norfolk. I was 15 and worried about more important things, like girls. Nor did I pay much attention to him in my first years in college. I was worried about more important things, like girls. I did know in passing that his presidency was not going well. Some of my friends said he was lost, foundering and clueless.

Ronald Reagan, of course, soundly beat Carter in 1980.

A few years later, when I began newspapering, Carter was in the news nearly as much as he’d been as president, but this time the press was often good, reports about him working for democracy and peace and against poverty and disease around the world. I started paying attention to him, wondering what I’d missed.

I thought about all that the other day as Carter, now 90, gave that landmark press conference in which he talked about his cancer. For many Southerners, he could have been a beloved father or grandfather, speaking in that gentle drawl. He showed courage, compassion and even humor, flashing that trademark grin. People the world over, including former critics, heaped praise on him.

I didn’t pay him as much attention in my youth as I should have. But in the years since, I’ve studied Carter and tried to learn from him. This I do know: Those who rush to deify him now would do well to appreciate Carter in all his complexity — especially his former critics who still resist his calls for peace.

I believe Carter would be the first to say he’s no saint.

Yes, he welcomes visitors to his Sunday school class in Georgia. But, although it’s been largely forgotten in the past couple of weeks, he can also be prickly, temperamental and too quick to lash out at allies. He has caught his share of backlash, even from his fellow liberals, sometimes rightly.

I remember dialing in to a telephone press conference he led in the late 1990s. He was cordial, but it was clear he didn’t suffer fools gladly.

In a telling 2009 photo of the living presidents visiting in President Obama’s Oval Office, Carter stands slightly apart from his fellow members of the most exclusive club in the world.

He wasn’t the second rising of the Southern sun, but he did his best at that, showing the world that many of us Southerners have come a long way since our disastrous resistance to ending slavery that needlessly cost so many lives on both sides.

I believe Carter has tried to follow his Baptist faith the best he can. That faith led him to stand up for blacks and underdogs in general early on. And that faith got him through those four years in the White House.

To me, the conventional wisdom is mostly correct, that his humanitarian efforts in his years since the White House far outweigh his years in it. But the brilliant outsider who wouldn’t play dumb to win the Washington game wasn’t a total failure as president. He protected the environment. He was ahead of his time in calling for energy conservation. In a volatile time, although he was no pacifist, he wasn’t aggressive in military action, no matter how much his critics wanted him to be. As a student at the Naval Academy during World War II and Navy veteran, Carter knew the terrible toll of war.

When he left the White House, instead of retreating quietly back to Georgia, he made a whole new way in the world. Douglas Brinkley nailed that in his book on Carter, “The Unfinished Presidency.” That book came out in 1998. Brinkley could write another long book on what Carter has accomplished since then.

Carter would be glad to help him. He’s not shy.

But listening to him give that press conference the other day, it struck me that he is one of us forever. Any Southerner who grew up in a one-stoplight town where you hunt, paddle on backwoods rivers and climb water towers for fun knows people like Jimmy Carter, people with big dreams who leave and come back.

People who study Christ a little more closely than you do, but never try to lord that over you. People who act on their faith and always feel comfortable in it, no matter what the world says or what illness life throws at them. Imperfect humans who try to follow the teachings of Christ, especially on striving for peace.

Jimmy Carter never lost his way.

JOHN RAILEY is a native of Courtland and is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column first appeared.