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Jimmy Carter, c. 1986
The Great Conciliator Comes to Raleigh

Château Lafite, 1978

Twenty years ago this fall I was a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, not two months into my history program and already bored with the program’s rarefied academic air, and airs. To make the experience more bearable I turned to writing columns for the Daily Tar Heel. The third of what proved to be a lifetime in the genre was about a visit to a nearby college by Jimmy Carter. Clunkiness aside (I’ve cleaned up what bad editing and bad writing I could), the piece, originally published on September 18, 1986, could have been written yesterday: Carter’s message is as fresh and necessary as the Carter bullying has been, since the 1970s, the constant to his biographical backdrop.pt

It is somewhat sad to witness a lecture by a former president of the United States. To begin with, Americans don’t care to listen to their past leaders. Those who do are drawn more by their solidarity for past ideals that The Removed represent, rather than by the hope to learn something new. Meanwhile the president-turned-lecturer, the president who refuses the corporate talk circuit and lucrative board-room pasture, must shoulder the burden of acting like a living monument. He parades himself on college campuses where the applause helps, but the message to him is clear, polite, contemptuous: “Nice to see you around.” Nothing more. Reporters cover the event, but once it’s over the crowd vanishes and the president washes his hands from excessive handshaking. And then he journeys to another town, another college. Perhaps he’ll drop in at a Veterans Administration hospital for a change of scenery. He may even go home and rest a while, or tend his garden, or write a book to pass the time. Or twenty-two books. A former president is only too free.

Last Thursday, Jimmy Carter traveled to Meredith College in Raleigh to give a speech. The occasion resembled the playing of the string quartet just before the lecture: gay, hurried, occasionally faulty, but no one minded—no one listened. Overplayed Mozart was then drowned out in cascades of applause. The colorful yet Baptist crowd of nearly 4,000 came to its feet. Some people whistled. Others screamed their support as if cheering a touchdown. To the left of the ampitheatre, Jimmy Carter appeared.

Carter had once been a Sunday school teacher, and he looked the part that evening. He was fit and feisty, looking to preach. The two secret service men flanking him seemed out of place. After some forgettable opening remarks that included an obscenely flattering introduction by John Edgar Weems, the Meredith College president, Carter fittingly noted the “unpredictability of introductions” as he stepped up to the microphones. He then addressed the subject of the lecture, which by now seemed as out of place as his secret servicemen: “ America: A Champion of Peace?”

The crowd heard the man who made his reputation from telling people what they do not want to hear. He reminded them that we live in a precarious age in which “how much we can decide what is moral” was difficult for a president and a nation. And that for the sake of survival, it was necessary to have “love for people who don’t deserve to be loved.” The words may have been borrowed from an NBC family show, but the Plainsman was quick to add that he “couldn’t have sacrificial love for others at the sacrifice of those who’d elected me.”

To solve the dilemma, he offered the idea of justice and that “the whole world should know that the United States is a champion of peace.” The audience applauded loudly, as if they were pleasantly surprised to hear the terms “justice” and “peace” associated with the United States again. “Bullying is not characteristic of a nation that professes to tight standards of love,” Carter continued, one again interrupted by applause. He spoke of the shame of “sending the Army on a small island or a small nation in Central America.” And when he voiced approval of the Contadora plan for peace in the region, applause greeted him again.

The voice of the Great Conciliator was being heard anew, and it was refreshing. His arch-rival, the Great Communicator, has long ago driven Carter from power and replaced a foreign policy based on negotiation and human rights with gunboat diplomacy to please an electorate whose political affinities never exceed Rambo’s. Despite the applause, however, it did not look as if a former president lecturing on a campus lawn might alter prevalent trends.

A recent Gallop Poll, for example, shows that 62 percent of the public approve of the Reagan presidency; only 30 percent disapprove. Statistics can be deceptive, but not in this case. In politics, the public prefers appearance over reality. It’s more comforting, less demanding. That’s why Carter lost the election in 1979, and that’s why candidates like him don’t have a chance at winning in the future unless they’re master showmen as well — an unlikely combination for those who can’t hibernate their integrity for the duration. Carter’s lecture at Meredith College was a reminder that the age of the substantive politician in the United States is over, that today power rests on that trinity of demagoguery, humour and charm. Carter is recalled merely as a well-intentioned, ineffective president. But compared to whom? To Reagan’s showmanship? To Ford’s forgettability? To Nixon’s megalomania? To Johnson’s warmongering?

Carter will be most remembered for his supposedly ineffective handling of the Iranian hostage crisis. “I could have sent the Air Force to destroy Teheran in 15 minutes,” he said, “but that would have protected the honor and integrity of this nation.” Neither would it have spared the lives of 52 Americans and thousands of Iranians. Instead, “every hostage came home,” as he said. He was applauded, but characteristically of Americans, he was applauded too late.

“Excuse me for saying so,” Carter said in his closing marks, “but I think we should follow God’s will.” Notwithstanding Carter’s bothersome tendency to interject God every time he exhales, it is a sad comment on the Republic that its former president needed to apologize for having tried to be a humanitarian as well as politician during his presidency. As the lecture came to an end, the feeling one got from it was similar to that of a memorial service—where the congregation feels drawn to a great man who like his principles, has fallen victim to an age of popular misconceptions.

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