Jimmy Carter: Last Days of a Good Life
In late August it was reported that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter had entered their “final days.”
The 39th President is 98 and his bride of 77 years is 96. Their grandson, Josh, told People Magazine that they are “still holding hands” and that Jimmy is still eating his favorite peanut butter ice-cream. The former President has been in hospice care since February, declining lifesaving assistance. He recently revealed final plans for his burial near his modest home at Plains, Georgia, and has requested that President Joe Biden deliver his eulogy at a formal memorial service in Washington.
About 30 years ago my family visited Disney World in Florida, and we were able to fit in a side trip to Andersonville in southern Georgia where one of our Civil War ancestors, a U.S. Army veteran, wrote about his experiences in the rebel prison there. Carter’s hometown of Plains is a short drive from Andersonville, and so we were able to visit the tiny town, three-year high school, and church where the former President regularly taught Sunday school. Regrettably, our return flight home prevented our being able to stay for the service the following morning.
A reform Governor of Georgia in the 1960s, beginning with 2% name-recognition, Carter won an astounding upset victory in securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.
He was benefited in this by his use of the term “born again Christian” to describe his religious faith and win the Democratic caucuses in heavily evangelical Iowa.
His presidency included many notable accomplishments. The Camp David Accord he brokered has brought a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel. Greatly concerned about clean energy, he installed solar panels on the White House, and established the Department of Energy. Committed to public education, he extended the Head Start Program to migrant children and established the Department of Education.
He also successfully negotiated the intensively controversial treaty which gave the U.S.-constructed canal to Panama. The narrow Senate victory in approving this treaty was largely secured by the vote of Montana Senator Paul Hatfield, which also assured Hatfield’s defeat in the Senate primary election of that year to the popular young Congressman Max Baucus. For his sacrifice Hatfield received an appointment to the federal bench.
Though ironic now, reacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter organized the boycott of the 1980 Olympics slated for Moscow. Carter was continually plagued by economic pains throughout his presidency. Double-digit inflation, combined with dormant growth, resulted in chronic “stagflation,” a term that caught on and severely undermined Carter’s chances for reelection. The year-long ordeal of captured American hostages in Iran sealed Carter’s political doom.
Surveys showed the outsider Carter at over 60% approval at the outset of his administration. Though controlled by this own Democratic Party, Carter’s relationship with Congress was always rocky. His inexperienced congressional liaison, Hamilton Jordan (he pronounced it Jerdon) was a hard bargainer, apparently with little interest in cultivating the egos of legislative leaders. An exasperated Speaker Tip O’Neill nick-named him “Hannibal Jerken.”
Then there was Carter’s heavy-drinking hillbilly brother Billy who attempted to cash in on his brother’s success by marketing his country brewed “Billy Beer.” Senate Republican leader Bob Dole commented that those who tried it thought “Billy’s horse must have diabetes.”
Carter fought off a challenge from Edward Kennedy in 1980 for the presidential nomination, but it widened the rift between the moderate rural and urban liberal wings of the Democratic Party. The moderate Republican George H.W. Bush prevented a similar fissure in Republican ranks by agreeing to accept the Republican nomination for Vice President with charismatic conservative presidential nominee Ronald Reagan. The result was a GOP landslide.
Looking back, historians routinely rank Carter as only an average President. But his long legacy of selfless service in the 42-years after his Presidency probably ranks Carter first among former Presidents. Because of his national commitment to housing for the American poor he and Rosalynn have been famous volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. With his commitment to fair and accurate global elections, Carter visited scores of emerging nations to supervise their election processes.
If not a great President, Jimmy Carter was certainly a good man. Our nation will miss him.
Former Montana Secretary of State and Montana Senate President