President Jimmy Carter has been one of my heroes my entire life.
I was born years after his presidency, so I never knew him as a politician. I grew up knowing him as the former president that was out there building houses, fighting disease, and negotiating with world leaders. I remember reading an article once about how he nearly punched the then-president of South Africa for refusing to allow AIDS to be treated. Just a few months ago, he fainted from dehydration on a Habitat for Humanity build site in Canada. He’s ninety three. He’s been doing this kind of thing for decades, and every time I read an article or a quote or one of his books that discusses what he’s up to, I’m inspired.
So many accounts of what people disliked about his presidency and the way he presented himself strike me as things I’d have appreciated. Perhaps part of that comes from being part of a generation that grew up after Reaganites and the rise of the evangelicals in politics, in an era of mass surveillance and seemingly constant misleading of the public by politicians from all parts of the spectrum, but what I want in a president is someone that I can trust is trying to do the right thing.
Jimmy Carter was and is a good man. A moral one. When he failed, he took responsibility. When he succeeded, he focused on what remained to be done. He led the country with principle. He believed doing what he thought was right, regardless of what consequences it might have on his political career. He cared about the citizens of the world, not just the United States. I don’t agree with everything he did. Part of that is that I have the benefit of hindsight and I know the consequences of some of those decisions. Part of it is a disagreement on policy. But I would never suggest he’s anything other than a decent person because for decades now, he’s demonstrated that he cares about improving the world we live in. He thought about his decisions and cared more about peace than the perception of strength.
I want that honesty today. I wish that there was someone out there in politics with that fundamental goodness, someone that appeals to our better angels. To me, that is inspiration. Not meaningless platitudes and lofty speeches, not scapegoating and misdirection. A president that remembers he is supposed to be a public servant. A president that acknowledges that this country is far from perfect, and that we can’t make it better.
Carter left office and became a citizen that uses his voice, his time, and his labour to draw attention to worthy causes and contribute to helping people in need. It’s a good reminder. Most of us will never become president or go into politics at all. We won’t have the ability to reach nearly as many people. But we can still help in our small way, and together, we can make a difference. We can become better people, and we can make the world a better place.
It makes me feel better to remember there are Jimmy Carters out there. The world is a scary place. So often, politicians astound me with how far they can stretch a lack of compassion. Every time I think that there’s nothing anyone can say or do that’ll surprise me anymore, they prove me wrong. But then I remember that there are people like Carter, blasted for naivety and being overly idealistic, and I smile, because the world still has decent people. We should all aspire to be even a little bit more like them.