Jimmy Carter set a strong example about finding meaning in American life — that message remains as pertinent today as it was in 1979

click to enlarge Jimmy Carter set a strong example about finding meaning in American life — that message remains as pertinent today as it was in 1979
Library of Congress photo
First Lady Rosalynn Carter and President Jimmy Carter dance at a White House Congressional Ball in 1978.

Back in 1979, with mile-long queues for gas, 14 percent inflation, 10 percent mortgage rates and manufacturing imploding, President Jimmy Carter addressed these multiple crises with what historian Kevin Mattson called "the speech that should have changed the country." Carter's advisers implored him to simply explain the economics underlying the problems. Surely Carter, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in nuclear physics, could nuance data, but he was resolute: "I don't want to bullshit the American people."

Carter was elected to salvage our republic from the detritus of the Vietnam and Watergate breaches of faith, and thus resuscitate a government metastasizing with "a cancer on the presidency." Tenacious insistence on truth — no bullshit — would be Carter's cure.

I was born in Columbus, Georgia, home to Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers, 50 miles from Carter's birthplace of Plains. That a modest peanut farmer committed to civil rights could, in 1971, become governor in Lester Maddox, Klan-infested Georgia was a seed of hope in a derelict national landscape. Carter's son later reflected, "We were liberals and not racist, so I had only two friends in Georgia."

Carter's 1979 speech was more homily than political platitude. He framed the crisis as a moral malaise. True, the economic cause was supply scarcities imposed by international oil producers who increased crude oil prices 1,500 percent in a decade. But Carter insisted that the voracious demand for oil exposed a flaw in the American character: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption." Americans defined themselves "no longer by what one does, but by what one owns... [which] does not satisfy our longing for meaning."

Carter's message of malaise should resonate still, as too many of us seem inured, if not in adulation of those who causally invoke the sacred while practicing the profane. For these self-righteous impostors, "God Bless America" is merely a flag-accessorized marketing slogan — their moralizing charade a cash cow; truth a malleable commodity.

It's tempting to dismiss this inconvenient truth as one of Carter's Sunday school sermons or an evasive political tactic. But Carter was reaching deep, calling us to the Christian virtues of frugality and service abandoned by the many secularized supplicants at the altar of avarice.

Carter walked this talk by installing solar panels on the White House and turning down its heat to 55 degrees. Emulating his mother, who at age 68 served in the Peace Corps, Carter worked with Habitat for Humanity for decades.

In his principled pragmatism, Carter finessed his Christian convictions with his commitment to separation of church and state, often arousing religious conservative criticism. When he was elected in 1976, three years after Roe, Carter opposed a constitutional amendment banning abortion, yet he also opposed federally funded abortions. His belief in the sanctity of all life compelled Carter to oppose capital punishment.

When the Southern Baptist Convention, to which his Plains church was affiliated, instructed women to submit to their husband's authority, Carter retorted that religion was one of the "basic causes of the violation of women's rights," and that SBC policy represented "self-serving, authoritarian males." He resigned from the conference.

Lest one think Carter holier than thou, recall his election month 1976 Playboy interview in which he confessed that he "committed adultery in my heart." Alas, if one doubts the moral morass of the present, dwell on the tolerance if not sanctification by some of Trump's serial assaults on the Seventh Commandment, a 2021 Georgia billboard comparing him with Jesus, and his home state's own Marjorie Taylor Greene. As the New York Times' Maureen Dowd quipped, "Hope of the South to Dope of the South." Carter's mantra: "We're better than this."

Consistent with his faith, the Carter Doctrine rebooted foreign policy on the basis of human rights. It became untenable for the U.S. to continue to justify supporting atrocious dictatorships such as Nicaragua's Somoza, Argentina's Peron and Chile's Pinochet in the name of opposing communism. FDR's observation that "Somoza's a bastard, but he's our bastard" was no longer a morally defensible position. In 2002, Carter received the Nobel Prize for Peace for his mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the improbable Camp David Accords (1978) and his commitment to human rights.

In 1953, the CIA instigated a coup to overthrow the first democratically elected government in the Middle East because Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh demanded the nationalization of foreign-controlled oil. The U.S. proxy was Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who terrorized Iranian civilians and restored foreign oil interests, including 40 percent control by the U.S.

With oil crises raging in 1979, Carter was compelled to confront a conundrum. The shah was overthrown and replaced with a theocratic "Islamic Republic." U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran were taken hostage as revenge for U.S. hegemony. As an egregious violation of international law, Carter authorized a military rescue of the hostages that failed and became the raison d'être for his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan.

Unlike the faux populism of some Republican charlatans (somehow a red cap with a $10,000 suit isn't convincing), Carter's flannel, denim, shit-kicker casual exuded the real deal.

Among Carter's authentic populist bona fides was that he was a rock and roll enthusiast. Carter recalls in the 2020 documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll Presidency, "The Allman Brothers put me in the White House." Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan were Carter friends. Carter adored jazz, and when Dizzy Gillespie played the White House, Carter sang a duet with the bebop icon of his "Salt Peanuts." He designated June as National Black Music Month.

As Carter recently moved into hospice care, it's time to remember the man in full, deeply rooted in Georgia's red clay. Carter humbly lived his faith and restored our belief that the best and brightest could ascend from the dirt of politics and rule humanely. As with Lincoln, who in his time was vilified and is now aptly venerated, if we fail to give Carter the historical homage he deserves in the misapprehension that he failed us, we have failed ourselves. And because of Jimmy Carter, we are better than that. ♦

John Hagney is a retired history teacher, spending 45 years at Lewis and Clark High School. He was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar Distinguished Teacher and published an oral history of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms that has been translated into six languages.

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