My first foray into door to door grassroots campaigning came in the fall of 1980 when I boarded a bus full of other students in Boston and rode to Nashua, New Hampshire to walk leafy neighborhoods on behalf of Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful presidential re-election campaign. Had I been more experienced in campaigning I might have noticed that there were far too few of us and we were far too uninspired for that point in an election year. Of course, Carter lost resoundingly to Ronald Reagan.
I suspect that historians will one day admit that Carter was neither quite as bad a president, nor Reagan quite as good, as is popularly held today, but I cannot contend that Jimmy Carter will go down as one of our great Chief Executives. The office seemed big and even in his best moments he seemed small and ill at ease in it. I have only had that feeling again once since, and that was with George W. Bush for whom the presidency always seemed like a man’s hat on a boy’s head.
No, Carter certainly wasn’t a great president. But as he announced this week, at age 90, that he has cancer, I experienced a surprising swell of admiration for him and I know why.
Jimmy Carter is a terrific retiree.
I know a little about this as I grow older myself and my professional efforts have morphed…if not into retirement, at least into something unconstrained by the conventional demands of my former corporate life. I’m moving on and as I do so several characteristics of Carter’s post-presidential career influence my own journey through the second half.
Exercise of Faith
Carter was a very public evangelical Christian as president and has been unembarrassed in suggesting that his personal spiritual convictions have shaped his views on public policy issues of all stripes. But at a time of life when many faithful are content simply to reinforce and protect our comfortable spiritual bias Carter demands that his faith and the messy world around him interact. It hasn’t always been pretty and he has created many detractors to his right and left but his faith clearly is something more than a mild palliative taken once each Sunday morning.
Thinking is an adventure. There are many retirees whose world has become smaller with age but one gets the sense that Jimmy Carter’s world has continued to enlarge. Virtually every president, Democrat and Republican has been on the receiving end of Carter’s thoughtful, if unsolicited, insights whether on the War on Drugs, Guantanamo, Iraq, drone use, privacy, women’s rights, etc. and his personal involvement in the Carter Center has yielded results from North Korea to Cuba, from rigged elections to Guinea worm disease. It is an amazing testimony to mental acuity and the willingness to engage intellectually.
Breadth of Conviction
But mental acuity and strong opinions alone can simply produce curmudgeons and they just annoy rather than inspire. What generates affection for Carter is not the depth of his convictions but rather their breadth, by which I mean that his passion for purpose manifests itself across a broad range of activity and isn’t restricted to what is seemly and elevated.
If most Americans are asked to describe Carter’s post-presidential life, they likely remember him in a denim shirt with a hammer at some Habitat for Humanity construction site. While many celebrities restrict their good works to appearances at tony fund-raisers, Carter got dirty and modeled to America that sometimes as citizens it is simply about showing up on a volunteer workday.
It is a powerful image that speaks to us all. I may well not found a world-renowned peace center or win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I can lift a hammer or mow some grass…just like the President. For the things that make him a beloved ex-president are precisely those things that are accessible to all the rest of us semi-retirees: making the small efforts purely for the benefit of someone else.
So good for you, President Carter. I am glad I was there back in 1980. I hope you recover and on behalf of all of us semi-retirees, please keep it up.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Burn and rave, Jimmy, burn and rave.