In retrospect, 'Well done, Jimmy Carter'

David Blankenhorn, Deseret News, 9/3/2015

A common view is that Jimmy Carter was a failure as president. Elected in 1976, his presidency was marked by high inflation, slow economic growth, long lines at gas pumps, uncertainty about America's direction and a long, humiliating imprisonment of American hostages by Iranian radicals. He was deeply unpopular during most of his term. Running for re-election in 1980, he was trounced by Ronald Reagan. Especially for Americans who revere Reagan as a conservative hero, the Gipper's 1980 triumph felt all the sweeter for having spared the nation from any more of Jimmy Carter's weak, incompetent liberalism. Or so that story goes.

I have a different story.

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Subject: Civil Society

More by: David Blankenhorn

A common view is that Jimmy Carter was a failure as president. Elected in 1976, his presidency was marked by high inflation, slow economic growth, long lines at gas pumps, uncertainty about America's direction and a long, humiliating imprisonment of American hostages by Iranian radicals. He was deeply unpopular during most of his term. Running for re-election in 1980, he was trounced by Ronald Reagan. Especially for Americans who revere Reagan as a conservative hero, the Gipper's 1980 triumph felt all the sweeter for having spared the nation from any more of Jimmy Carter's weak, incompetent liberalism. Or so that story goes.

I have a different story. I've always admired Carter. I cast my first vote for president for him in 1976, when I was 21, and no vote I've cast since then feels any better.

As president, Jimmy Carter kept the peace. He didn't start any crazy wars. The hostages all returned safely from Iran. He made human rights a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. He prosecuted the Cold War with the Soviet Union intelligently, including by placing intermediate U.S. missiles in Europe, over much protest. His leadership in producing the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt stands as one of the most impressive diplomatic achievements of his or any presidency.

He was an early advocate for energy conservation and worked hard to break the nation's dependency on foreign oil. He advocated both public and private thrift.

He had the ability to bring diverse groups together. In the 1976 election, he assembled a remarkable "redneck/blackneck" coalition of African-Americans and working-class whites. He was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of white evangelical votes. Few political labels suited or fit him. His liberal opponents called him a conservative, and his conservative opponents called him a liberal -- a trait which, especially in today's climate of hyper-partisanship and label-driven culture wars, I find deeply appealing.

He worked incredibly hard. He had personal integrity. He had unbending moral purpose. He didn't lie.

After he lost the presidency, these same qualities led him -- with his wife, Rosalynn -- to establish and run the Carter Center, which today is one of the world's most effective and respected private institutions devoted to advancing human rights and fighting disease, poverty and inequality across the globe.

But these are only some arguments, and arguments seldom mean as much to us as we think they do. Studies show that our deepest commitments originate not in our heads, but in our hearts -- less from factual analyses and the sifting of evidence than from intuitions, gut feelings and first impressions. That finding holds true even for intellectuals, who tend to give much credit to their intellects, and it's certainly true regarding me and Jimmy Carter.

I identified with Jimmy Carter. When I was young and the world seemed new, this leader from Plains, Georgia, made me proud to be a Southerner. This pious, intellectual Southern Baptist who felt called by God to do good in the world also made me proud to be a Christian.

This personal identification and pride was especially connected to Carter's stance on race, which was the defining moral issue of my childhood and youth in Mississippi. In his inaugural address as governor of Georgia in 1971, Carter had declared, "I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over." That sentence may sound tame now, but in Georgia in 1971, it was not. In the 1976 Florida presidential primary, he had defeated and effectively ended the political ascendency of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, a notorious segregationist who had made me ashamed to be a Southerner. In Jimmy Carter, I saw the kind of Southern Christian leader I could both recognize as kin and dream of one day becoming.

I met Jimmy Carter twice -- the second time in 2010 when he was 85 and the head of the Carter Center in Atlanta, and the first time in 1976 when he was 51 and running for president, giving a speech to college students in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the speech, a young African-American woman with a Southern accent standing next to me said to him (half as question and half as prayer), "I hope you'll actually do the things you say you'll do." He looked her in the eyes with an intensity that I'll never forget and said, "I promise you, I will." In my bones I knew he meant it, and that was enough for me then, as it is now.

Today, stricken with cancer, Jimmy Carter is approaching the end of his life. In both success and failure, he's lived a good life. In the words of the Bible: "Well done, good and faithful servant."

David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.

This article originally appeared here.

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