In the summer of 1974, a man went around America surveying a country badly wounded by the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of a scandal known as Watergate. He stood about 5-foot-9, was sandy-haired, and had an ambling type of walk. At the time, some people, if they took notice, remarked that he had some kind of vague resemblance to John F. Kennedy. The most notable thing about him was his gleaming white teeth and megawatt smile (which, later on, caused some wags and opponents to uncharitably remark that he was the illegitimate son of Eleanor Roosevelt). However, the hair, the teeth and the walk were inconsequential to what he was saying.
In that summer, he decided to do the impossible: run for the presidency of the United States. The sum of his life experience up to then was that he had been an officer in the United States Navy, a peanut farmer and businessman, a state senator, a Sunday school teacher and the Governor of his home state of Georgia. He was the most virtually unknown of unknowns as far as presidential candidates went, yet he went about telling people something people never expected to hear from a presidential candidate (and particularly so, in the aftermath of those scandal-scarred Watergate years): “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never make a misleading statement. I’ll never betray the confidence that any of you had in me. And I’ll never avoid a controversial issue.” And: “I want a government as good and as kind and as loving as the American people.” He went from person to person, and, smiling, extending his hand, and said: “My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running to be your president.”
It was the most improbable thing anybody ever heard in the history of American politics: a one-term Governor from a southern state seeking the highest office in the land. It was just himself—no big retinue, no big-time party organization (just family and a few friends), and hardly enough funding to even begin a nation-wide campaign. His was as “retail” a campaign as you could get: to conserve funds, he stayed overnight in people’s homes. It was an ingenious move: not only did it serve the dual purposes of saving travel headaches and cutting expenses, but it gave the aspiring candidate and prospective president the opportunity to encounter ordinary Americans and listen to their dreams and understand their fears. Yet, there he was, a full two years before a single vote would be cast in America’s Bicentennial year of 1976—that too, was unheard of, to run for the presidency so far out in advance. He surveyed the American political landscape and determined that he had a duty to present his vision—and himself—for the highest office. It would be an uphill battle—he would have to go through primaries and caucuses against the well-known, better established luminaries of the national Democratic Party—people like Hubert Humphrey, Sargent Shriver, Jerry Brown, George Wallace, Mo Udall, Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, and Frank Church. It was simply one man—Carter—against the field. And yet, when it was all over, he triumphed over them and gained the nomination in New York City in August 1976.
His campaign autobiography was Why Not the Best? He would be accused of hubris because of that book’s title; but that was a misreading of the man and his message. He had decided to run for the presidency not because he was the “best”—in Christian humility he would tell you he wasn’t—but that he decided that because of that Christian faith, he was determined to do his best for his country and to help it recover what he felt was its lost ethical moorings. In a hard-fought campaign, he defeated the incumbent, Republican Gerald R. Ford (who himself was propelled onto the national stage through the constitutional crisis his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, had—through his own actions—had put the country through). In that November, the man who was derided for being “Jimmy Who?” became the 39th President of the United States and would go on—along with the country—to experience a very eventful and trying four years of crises and challenges.
And now, in his 90th year (his 91st birthday is on October 1st), Jimmy Carter, the former president, is undergoing a challenge greater than any he had ever experienced or gone through, either personally or politically: he is now in a campaign against the “big C,” (as John Wayne memorably described it) cancer. Just recently, on August 12th, Mr. Carter revealed that a recent operation on his liver revealed its presence and that in his words “has spread through my body.” (And in a news conference on the morning of Thursday, August 20th, Mr. Carter has revealed that the cancer has spread to his brain, with 4 small spots having been found; he is to commence radiation treatment that very afternoon). It was shocking news to hear, but at the same time, it wasn’t—there is a history of cancer in the Carter family: all of his siblings died from the dreaded disease.
Mr. Carter’s post-presidency is now the longest in American history: he has been a former president for a little over 34 years (with the possible exception of John Adams, who lived to be 91 and was a former president for some 25 years). It is ironic now to think that the “term” of his post-presidency has been far longer than the four years he was actually president. But ever since he lost his bid for re-election back in 1980 against Ronald Reagan (in the time of the Iran hostage crisis), Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn (who just turned 88 on August 19th) have spent those years working on all kinds of projects with the aim of helping people not only at home, but abroad. Through the Carter Center and involvement in humanitarian endeavors such as Habitat for Humanity, the Carters have worked to put their deeply-held Christian faith into practice, doing their “best” to adhere to Christ’s teaching “to do unto others.” Whether through human rights advocacy, health promotion and other charitable works, the Carters have worked tirelessly in great ways and small to make life better for their fellow human beings.
Faith has always been important to Jimmy Carter. A Baptist, he studied, prayed and acted upon his faith. Throughout his adult life, he has been a Sunday school teacher. Every Sunday (unless he was away on an international mission of some kind) he would always be found in church, giving a presentation on the day’s Scripture readings. Such sessions would be packed; there would be busloads of tourists on any given weekend wanting to see and hear a living President of the United States. But that would not be the only reason: these new “congregants” would also come to hear what a man of faith would have to say about these scriptural passages and how it applied to life—and how it especially impacted his own. If they were fortunate enough—and really listened—they would have learned heartfelt lessons from a man who was always close to the land and the God of creation. In his political life, he had met everyone, from the well-born to the poorest of the poor—he would even host the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, in the White House, as a sign of Christianity being a unifying force, not a divisive one —but in those Sunday sessions, it was of God he talked about and how he tried to follow him.
Much has been said about Jimmy Carter as president, when he was in office and afterwards. For many years thereafter he was mocked by the opposition party (and not by a few members of his own). Despite it, he went on his with his life and continued to seek and impart a meaning to it—his own as well as others’. His signal contribution to the office and to the American people was his emphasis on human rights, not only at home but abroad. In retirement, he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for his humanitarian and peace efforts. While he was in office, he reached out to those who might not have agreed with the American view, or have American values. He once said that “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way around. Human rights invented America.” He also said that “to be true to ourselves, we must be true to others.”
His actions as president have often been critically assessed (pro and con) and as he would surely acknowledge, that is a given when one enters political life. But what is noteworthy of Jimmy Carter’s approach to public and political life is the belief that one’s faith has a part to play in it and that it is something that should not be ignored or undervalued. He knew as well as anyone about the history of the separation of church and state and how American liberties are such that both are zealously guarded. But to Jimmy Carter, faith can never be separated from the human person, because it is so much a part of the human makeup.
When he was sworn in as president on that very cold day on January 20th, 1977, Jimmy Carter said and did things that were unexpected, yet so gracious and so American at the same time: after taking the oath of office, he turned to his presidential predecessor (whom he had defeated the previous November) and, with outstretched hand, he said: “For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land,” to Mr. Ford’s embarrassment, yet obvious pride and gratitude. And in acknowledging his grade-school teacher, Miss Julia Coleman, he appreciated all those who guided him who set him on his life’s path. And later, when getting out of the presidential limousine with Mrs. Carter, he walked for a time along Pennsylvania Avenue in a gesture of solidarity with his fellow Americans, something that hadn’t been done since the time of Thomas Jefferson, when he simply walked from his boardinghouse to the Capitol for his swearing in.
However, the most important thing to say about Jimmy Carter is what he himself said on that Inauguration Day so long ago. As is usually tradition in presidential inaugurals, a passage from Scripture is quoted and reflected upon. Facing his countrymen, Mr. Carter spoke the words of the prophet Micah: “"He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."
Jimmy Carter is now about to embark on another journey. He does not know when it will end; but he does know how it will end, and that it will end. It is one which will require everything that he has; but because of faith, he believes he is ready for it. His whole life has prepared him for that moment. In a sense, the title of his presidential memoirs summarizes the kind of life he has tried to lead: Keeping Faith. He has done his best to adhere to those words of the prophet Micah, and he is ready once again “to walk humbly with thy God.” And for him, those words might just be the best epitaph that can be given for the man from Plains who was a man of faith.