Jimmy Carter held a press conference today, announcing details on his growing battle with cancer.
“I will never lie to you,” Jimmy Carter said back in 1976. And so far, he never has.
The dignity, humility and integrity of Jimmy Carter is best illustrated by what he hasn’t done.
Unlike presidents who followed him he has not made millions off of interviews or speeches. Or taken speaking engagements from companies who needed influence. He hasn’t used his Foundation to trade influence for money. He hasn’t taken bribes in return for influencing policies for friends.
Unlike many of the most recent presidents he hasn’t used the courts to block researchers or writers from accessing his presidential papers. He has been accessible. He simply has nothing to hide. I interviewed him the year after he left office.
Unlike the last three Democrat presidents who preceded him, he did not have sex with young subordinates on his own White House staff.
What is striking is that there has not even been a single charge of impropriety. One can disagree with his political views but one cannot find anything wrong with his character.
Jimmy Carter followed Richard Nixon into the White House. Nixon, who was caught in a lie over the Watergate Scandal, created what was called the Imperial Presidency. His new White House Secret Service uniforms looked like Prussian police officers. By contrast, President Jimmy Carter insisted on carrying his own bags when he got off Air Force One.
It is said that Jimmy Carter redefined the post presidency. Most early presidents were careful to retire and stay out of the limelight. There were exceptions. Ulysses Grant got involved in tawdry business deals with his sons and probably would have gone to prison if he had not been a former president.
In more recent times, Coolidge, Truman, Eisenhower, all kept the tradition that held, former presidents were seldom seen and never heard.
Carter changed all of that. Determined to be useful, he volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and helped build houses for the needy. There he was, the former president, on a rooftop, pounding nails in the sun. The media couldn’t resist. He showed energy and compassion and his Carter Foundation impacted the world.
Jimmy Carter’s political rise was a Cinderella story. He was a candidate for president who showed up in Iowa the year before with a 2% recognition factor. That doesn’t mean that 2% of the state supported him, it means only 2% even knew who he was. But by the summer of 1975, right where we are now in the presidential cycle, Jimmy Carter stunned the nation by winning the important Iowa presidential summer straw poll. It thrust him into the nation’s limelight where he has remained ever since.
It is hard to explain the euphoria that accompanied the Carter election as president. He was a Democrat who publicly identified himself as a “born again” Christian. Which put border states into play and reshuffled the electoral college numbers as Republican evangelicals crossed over to support him. It forever changed the strategic map of American politics.
His family was a hoot.
Lillian Carter, the president’s mother, was a huge personality, well ahead of her time. Outspoken and courageous in her political views, Lillian was a Southerner who spent her life exposing racism. A world traveler, a nurse, a former Peace Corps volunteer to India, she became a delightful bon vivant of the Carter First Family.
His sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, was a well dressed, good looking, faith healer.
His brother, Billy Carter, was the personification of the old Southern country boy. When Carter won the Iowa Caucus reporters descended on his tiny gas station in Plains, Georgia where Billy held court with a beer can in his hand. “My sister is a faith healer,” Billy said. “My brother thinks he’s going to be president. I’m the only sane one in the bunch.”
It was an exciting and compelling time of hope. America was coming out of Watergate and corruption. There was hope that this president could restore integrity to the White House. He did that. But the economy sagged, Islamic terrorists seized power in Iran and the Soviet Union threatened the end of the world. American turned to Ronald Reagan.
The Soviet threat is gone now, but the economy still struggles as American finds its new place in a post industrial era and unfortunately, the corruption is back. The IRS, the Veterans Administration and other agencies are tainted. The front runners for both parties include a Republican who openly brags that “I buy politicians and they do what the hell I tell them to” and a Democrat who is trying to survive charges that she offered her power for sale to even foreign buyers.
Jimmy Carter’s press conference today was a reminder that at least once, in recent American history, someone held power without corruption.