By Neil Heriot | March 6, 2023
Former President Jimmy Carter building housing in Nashville.
Photo Credit: CNN
Several weeks ago, former president Jimmy Carter elected to enter hospice care and refuse further medical treatment. In his final days he will be surrounded by loved ones, including his wife, Rosalynn, of over 70 years. His legacy will live on in many ways, most notably in the Carter Center, which has done good work improving human rights and quality of life worldwide. When he is gone, we will have lost one of the most compassionate, kind, and noble humans who have ever existed.
Carter’s presidency, from 1977 to 1981 in which he promised to restore trust, honesty and integrity to the government, has not been regarded as a very successful or popular one. He presided over an energy crisis, stagflation, and the Iranian hostage crisis. His leadership during this time was found unsatisfactory, and Carter was defeated in a landslide by Ronald Reagan in his reelection campaign. But unlike most other presidents, who spent their post-presidencies writing books, giving speeches, and endorsing candidates, Carter spent most, if not all, of his 42 years post-presidency working in the Carter Center and alongside Habitat for Humanity.
This is especially notable in today’s society, which is much more politically toxic than in Carter’s presidency. Public trust in government has been falling over the decades, and a large part of this decline is the increase of belief and perception that politicians are dishonest and serve only special interests – rather than the people that they are elected to represent. Many of them, of course, will deny this and be quick to offer statements affirming their dedication and commitment to their constituents, though many Americans will doubt the veracity of these claims.
But there can be no doubt that Jimmy Carter did try to serve his people honestly and with integrity. I doubt that a less virtuous man would have done as much work in diplomacy, healthcare, and housing that Jimmy Carter did. After all, not everyone would be willing to actually go to the field and do the hard and unsatisfying work themselves. But Carter did so, and he did so without any hesitation. It must be very jarring to the average American, seeing a (former) politician actually working to create tangible and notable positivity in this sometimes-bleak world. We are so used to the idea that everyone in Washington is corrupt, dishonest, bought out by interest groups and billionaires and that our votes and participation in our democracy matters little, that the idea that good apples such as Carter can exist seems completely implausible to us.
But Carter’s virtues do not end at his integrity and genuine desire to help those who need it. Carter was honest to fault. Political commentators and analysts are quick to cite his “malaise speech,” in which he talked about the lack of confidence in the future that America was suffering during this time period. He stated very hard truths that were necessary to hear but unwanted. When Carter bluntly said things such as “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” and that America's wounds “have never been healed,” he had a point. I think, given what America has been through in more recent times, Carter's words are all too true and worth a visit 40 years later. Americans today, as they did in 1979, struggle with confidence in their future, in the belief that their government is there for them.
Many believe that the American dream, the idea of America at its best and what it can be, is nothing more than an unattainable dream. Pride in America as the leader of the free world has been eroded by America's persistent domestic issues such as inequality and racism. Carter told it as it was back then, but the American public ultimately rejected the assertions made in that speech. Americans resonated much more with Ronald Reagan's sunny, boundless, optimism and confidence and ousted Carter from office. But the points and issues Carter listed in that speech did not disappear and magically reappear 40 years later. They only hid from the American psyche and reemerged once the opportunity arrived.
Now that opportunity has arrived. Jimmy Carter has lived a long and fulfilling life with those he loves and he will die peacefully, but he will still die in an America in crisis. America's struggles with its role in the world has intensified in the aftermaths of Afghanistan and Ukraine. The divide of left and right over many sensitive issues remains wide and stands poised to get wider in the near future. American democracy, for the first time in recent memory, was put under serious strain. The 2022 midterms showed that it is still powerful and not dead anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean it will never be at risk ever again. Who knows what chaos and destruction will ensue the next time this happens.
Even in the face of all of this negativity, where it seems the only option is to give up and accept the world as it is, men like Jimmy Carter (though they are unfortunately very rare) refused to accept this. They chose to accept that the world could be a better place, and they gave everything to help those in need. Jimmy Carter’s presidency failed to do this, but rather than give up and simply retire, he chose to spend the rest of his life doing what he had intended to do as president. And even if it seems small in the grand scheme of things, he made an impact. He made this world just a little bit better for everyone around him. Once he is gone, I fear it will be a very long time before someone with Jimmy Carter's convictions and dedication to do good will arrive.