The Appreciated Decency of Jimmy Carter

The man long known as “America’s greatest ex-president” is being reassessed in the fullness of time.

One social media wag’s adjustment to a viral image that made Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter seem smaller-than-life.@DeonardoLeVinci


Lisa Van Dusen

May 5, 2021

The irony of this week’s viral meme — part optical illusion, part age-related shrinkage — of a tiny Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter being visited by two jumbo Bidens is that lately, Carter’s figurative post-presidential stature has grown considerably.

The classic one-term rub that Carter’s was a “failed presidency” has recently been — like the legacy of that other one-termer, George H.W. Bush — revisited. And the other enduring question about Carter, how to reconcile his relentless decency with the all-consuming ambition assumed to be a prerequisite for the office, is also benefiting from perspective. In reality and in fiction — and in that hybrid, DC-comics multiverse still fronted by the last American president — more space is generally taken by the type of presidents who either sacrifice many of the qualities Carter is known for as the price of power or never possessed them in the first place.

Lately, Carter has seemed like less of a fluke, less like a post-Nixon, pendulum-swing over-correction into incorruptible, inflexible piousness and more like a president whose departure from office just minutes before the American hostages in Iran were freed on January 20, 1981, was a greater product of outrageous fortune than his arrival was. Time has made a president whose moral compass sometimes infuriated more profane pols (Carter once famously admitted to Playboy that he’d committed adultery “in his heart”) seem exotic for having a predictable GPS that guided choices from Middle East peace to his 1977 pardon for Vietnam draft dodgers, so many of whom had made lives in Canada.

At least three things have happened recently that have prompted a reassessment of Carter’s legacy. The first is that the 96-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, former Georgia governor, engineer, Plains peanut farmer and Sunday school teacher has had enough close-call health scares in the past five years to mobilize fans, biographers and documentarians to pay tribute while he’s still here. Jonathan Alter’s well-reviewed biography His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life and the documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President began the trend last September. The documentary Carterland was released late last month.

The second is that the cartoonishly corrupt and preposterously deceptive presidency of Donald Trump likely inspired a reassessment of how we view strengths and weaknesses in leaders of the free world. Saying you’re in love with a cherubic North Korean dictator takes something, but it isn’t guts. Inviting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David and not leaving empty-handed takes something more nuanced than a rampant id.

And while it remains unclear to what extent Trump will be spending his post-presidency picking up his Twitter assault on humanity where it left off, it’s likely a fair bet that he won’t be either helping build houses for poor people or observing and upholding the integrity of free and fair elections in embattled democracies. Carter’s work with Habitat for Humanity and founding of the Carter Center set a standard for the ethical post-presidency.

The third thing is that Joe Biden has reminded people that ambition, decency and political competence can coexist. Barack Obama proved that, too, but his presidency is so inextricably associated with his historic status as a first and, in 2008, a phenomenon, that his policy legacy is still setting. And the world will see him more clearly once the Trumpian trauma dissipates.

While it remains unclear to what extent Trump will be spending his post-presidency picking up his Twitter assault on humanity where it left off, it’s likely that he won’t be helping build houses for poor people or upholding the integrity of free and fair elections in embattled democracies.

That thread from Carter to Biden — from the post-Nixonian correction to the post-Trumpian one — struck home in Joe and Jill Biden’s visit to Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter last Friday. Of course: both underestimated as journeymen pols, both underdogs in their primary campaigns, both widely seen as good guys who wear their faith on their sleeves. The words “cunning”, “calculating”, “ruthless”, “vindictive” or “corrupt” generally don’t show up in the top five adjectives applied to either, publicly or otherwise. Both are authentic. Not “what a nice thing to say” authentic, but what-you-see-is-what-you-get authentic.

“Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter’s presidential bid in 1976 when he was a long shot,” the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote of the pair after last week’s pilgrimage. “A former Biden aide says,” ‘Those guys love each other.’”

Both seem to have that rarest of qualities among politicians in general and successful ones in particular — a healthy relationship to power. As Nixon, Trump and other presidents have proven, it’s a quality that can influence everything else about a presidency, a post-presidency and a legacy. All human beings are flawed, all politicians have egos, and all powerful people are susceptible to being changed by that power in the worst ways possible. Carter and Biden, whatever mistakes either has ever made, seem to share a fundamental view of power as a means to public service, not the other way around.

For decades, Jimmy Carter was shorthanded as the guy who made the “malaise” speech (it didn’t contain the word) or was held politically hostage by the hostage crisis. Now, Carter finds himself the beneficiary of unexpected historical kismet — a moment when the recent past and his country’s aspirations have collided in such a way that the value of his decency has appreciated considerably. Just in time for him to appreciate being appreciated.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor and deputy publisher of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.