Jimmy Carter continues to teach us what it means to live a good life

Jimmy Carter continues to teach us what it means to live a good life

At age 98, Jimmy Carter has decided to forego medical treatment and spend his last days at home with his family.

Carter’s choice of hospice care — like so much of his post-presidential life — sets an example, leads the way, if you will, toward what Carter considered a better way of living. His faith has always been central for him. He taught Sunday School classes at Maranatha Baptist Church well into his 90s. Working for Habitat for Humanity, the former president helped renovate and build thousands of homes for low-income residents of more than a dozen countries, often using his own hammer and tool kit. Carter’s commitment to helping to house others — even when he himself was physically struggling — is another example of the man literally getting his hands dirty in the process of showing others the way.

It seems appropriate during President’s Week to remember — and celebrate — Jimmy Carter for his decency, his integrity, and his foresight — as a political leader, statesman, and humanitarian.

A peanut farmer and nuclear engineer for the U.S. Navy, Carter served as governor of Georgia from 1971-1975, succeeding arch segregationist Lester Maddox. In his inaugural address before the state legislature, he declared, “I say to you quite frankly, the time of discrimination is over. No poor, rural, weak or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job, or simple justice.” He then appointed a substantial number of Black people to positions in his administration.

As president of the United States from 1977-1981, Carter negotiated the Panama Canal Treaty and the Camp David Accords, signed the SALT II arms control agreement, created a Department of Education, and appointed a record number of women, Blacks and Hispanics as federal judges.

Carter was also dogged by stagflation, long lines at gas stations, an inability to get a Congress controlled by Democrats to support his legislative agenda, the Iranian hostage crisis — in which American diplomats were held captive for 444 days — and a botched effort to rescue them. He ran for re-election in 1980 and was defeated by Ronald Reagan.

That said, his accomplishments — in office and afterward — were not insubstantial.

To counter post-Watergate cynicism, Carter signed and implemented the Ethics in Government Act, which imposed financial disclosure rules and lobbying restrictions on government officials. When he left Washington, Carter returned to Plains, Ga., sold his peanut business, which had been in a blind trust and was $1 million in debt, and moved back into the modest two-bedroom ranch house he and his wife Rosalynn built in 1961. Unlike his predecessors and successors, he declined to “capitalize on being in the White House” by joining corporate boards or charging huge fees for speeches. Carter used commercial airlines, not private jets. His bill to the federal government for pensions, office, staff, and other expenses was about half the tabs submitted by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Before it was fashionable or politically advantageous, Carter attempted to increase public awareness of — and take steps to address — climate change and the disastrous stewardship of the planet’s physical resources. He installed solar panels on the White House roof (which were subsequently removed by President Reagan). His administration helped draft and he then signed legislation to create a Cabinet-level Department of Energy, a Superfund to clean up hundreds of hazardous waste sites, provide resources to limit the damage caused by strip mining, and tax incentives for home insulation. Carter’s White House Council on Environment Quality set standards for environmental impact statements. The Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act set aside 157 million acres, the largest such initiative in U.S. history, for national parks, wildlife reserves, and other purposes.

In one of his last public acts, the former president filed a brief opposing construction of a gravel road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which, he claimed, violated the Alaska Land Conservation Act he had signed.

In his inaugural address, President Carter declared, “Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clear preference for those societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual rights.” Implying that doing what’s right is also in the national interest, he maintained that human rights must be a core principle of American foreign policy. In the early weeks of his administration, officials denounced violations of human rights in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Uganda.

President Carter supported international human rights covenants. In President Directive 30, he linked economic and military assistance to the human rights record of potential recipients. After he left office, Carter recommended that the United States should be “the unswerving champion of human rights, both among our own citizens and within the global community.”

Established in 1982 in partnership with Emory University, the Carter Center, a non-profit organization based in Atlanta, has made protecting and promoting human rights (broadly defined to include economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights) one of its highest priorities. Instrumental in the establishment of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Carter Center has characterized discrimination and violence directed at women as “the most serious, pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights.” And the center has tried to persuade religious leaders to support gender equality.

Staff at the Carter Center — including Carter himself, at times to the consternation of his successors — have sought to resolve conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, the Korean Peninsula, Haiti, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and the Middle East. They have served as observers in 113 elections in 39 countries. The former president has met with and publicly praised human rights activists throughout the world.

Several years after Carter moved back to Plains, Jehan Sadat read him a note her husband wrote before he was assassinated in 1981: Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat (who shared the Nobel Prize with Carter and Menachem Begin for the Camp David Accords) declared, “is the most honorable man I know. Brilliant and deeply religious, he has all the marvelous attributes that made him inept in dealing with the scoundrels who run the world.”

Carter paused for a moment, then smiled and replied, “Well, maybe, but I’ll never change.” Even though it didn’t always produce the results he wanted, this kind of stubbornness — another name for persistence on behalf of principle — along with his morality, empathy, and prescience should constitute a substantial part of his legacy, as an above-average president, the nation’s best former president, and an exemplary human being.


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