“Do not go gentle, Jimmy”

isMy 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.

Intellectual Curiosity

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.


6 thoughts on ““Do not go gentle, Jimmy”

  1. I noticed that (in fairness, before President Carter announced his diagnosis) Ted Cruz made a point of telling people that the Iranians released those hostages the very moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in. He wants his fans to assume Carter was a wimp and the Iranians cowered in fear before Reagan. In actuality, Carter ordered a rescue mission which his military wasn’t able to accomplish, and, partly in response to that heretical decision, Ayatollah Khomeini withheld the diplomatically-obtained release until the inauguration was over as one final poke in Carter’s eye. But that’s ancient history — which is what putzes like Cruz count on.

    • I agree. In part my desire to see Carter re-elected was a visceral reaction to the Ayatollah using hostage taking to help effect a regime change in the US. Carter was aggressive in ordering a rescue but, because of his general non-presidential demeanor came off as looking weak and uncertain. On the other hand, the stronger looking Reagan was actually selling arms a half a dozen years later to these very same Iranians in hopes of freeing other hostages…an unsuccessful, illegal, and far weaker response which only further
      encouraged the idea that American hostage-taking was a profitable strategy. Yet he came off being considered strong because of his more presidential carriage. Go figure.

  2. Thank you for this lovely tribute, John. I’ve always felt a connection to President Carter’s era as his election was the first I could really follow as a young voter and because I lived through what can only be termed a Carteresque-storm-of-the-century. As it turned out, I was a political science student during the last several months of his failed re-election bid. We were modeling the polling results on a weekly basis (terrible statistics memories, those) and watched his late lead slide into a loss in the final 9 days of campaigning. Coincidently, two of my roommates at Washington University in St. Louis were Iranian girls whose parents were trying to flee after the Shah was deposed. To add yet another layer, St. Louis was close to Rocky Sickmann’s home town, and the airport where he landed when he returned from debriefing after the hostage crisis. (Rocky was one of the hostages who endured 444 days of captivity.) With all of these influences, I was deeply affected by those dark days in the Fall of 1979 and the hostage liberation in early 1980. President Carter could have gone back to his farm, but I’ve always thought part of the motivation for his tireless dedication to the world during retirement was some sense of penance on his part for having failed to successfully address the Iranian issue. There have also been some disturbing accusations of anti-Semitism, which I’ve never been able to shake completely. If you are sensing some conflicting thoughts and emotions, you would be correct. Thoughts?

    • Thanks. That is an interesting background….

      I think Carter did what he could. He initiated an unsuccessful rescue mission and refused to barter for the hostages. He simply looked weak doing so. Reagan, on the other hand, looked strong while pursuing a much weaker strategy of actually selling arms to Iran in hopes of freeing Iranian held hostages in Lebanon…also unsuccessful. But because he was the great communicator he came out of it looking strong rather than weak even though his policy likely did far more long term damage.

      I do not believe Carter was anti-Semitic. I do think he was the first US President (or ex-President) to temper enthusiasm for Israel with a recognition that the Israeli position on Palestine was untenable in the long run and the solution (if there is one) to the Palestine/Israel problem is not likely to be solved focusing solely on the Palestinians. But that is not anti-Semitism.

  3. Carter is without a doubt one of our best, maybe our best, former President. He has been a great force for good and an example of the committed life. I used to have a dim view of him as President along the same lines as you, but a few years ago I did a fairly intense review of recent Presidents and their performance on national security that caused me to change my mind. Carter was dealt a very weak hand when he took office–a country that had just lost ignominiously in Vietnam, its military in disarray, an economy starting to sink under high energy costs and foreign competition, not to mention the lingering effects of Watergate. Despite this Carter was able to negotiate a new arms deal with the USSR; he negotiated the peaceful transfer of the Panama Canal; he pretty much single-handedly pulled off the Camp David accords; and I think he responded forcefully to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His personal views were fairly dovish but he kept the hawkish Brzezinski as his NSC advisor deliberately because he wanted a range of advice–which shows a lot of self-confidence. The hostage crisis tarnished his reputation and letting the Shah into the US was probably a mistake, but I’m not sure he could have done much more than he did, especially when the military option failed. He negotiated relentlessly and got all the hostages back, unharmed. Really not a bad performance under the circumstances.

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