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America's Greatest Ex-President? - September 24, 1997

Richard Brian McCarty

I had an opportunity to see former President Jimmy Carter in person last Wednesday night due to the generosity of a friend. (Thanks Jill). I was surprised at what I saw in the former President, and I have read as much as I can since then about what he has done since leaving office. For those of you afraid I switched parties, I am still a Republican. But, I will admit I left liking Jimmy Carter, the man. I offer no apologies for it. Thanks for reading.

Being hailed by a college kid dressed as a skeleton/spirit is not the way one expects an ex-President to begin an appearance. However, that was the case last Wednesday night at Emory University. "Dooley," known as the spirit of Emory University, paid homage to former President Jimmy Carter as the former president prepared to start his 16th annual Emory town hall meeting.

Former President Carter is certainly one of the mysteries of our time. His Presidency is rated as mediocre at best by historians, but his ex-Presidency ranks among the likes of Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft. ( Hoover organized the relief of the nations ravaged by World War II, and Taft went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.)

Carter's works have been out of the Emory University based Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He has monitored elections around the world, and stepped in places where governments and organizations either could not or would not go. For that, he is to be lauded. Further, in Korea, Haiti, and Bosnia, he has worried Clinton Administration officials by upstaging their accomplishments. A Sunday School teacher, Carter has written twelve books on a variety of subjects and has been active in Habitat for Humanity. However, the past jokes and laughs still seem to dog him. In those lie the mystery of Jimmy Carter.

The past jokes were evident in the first question Carter received from the audience last Wednesday night. It was about the UFO he saw during the 1960s. The man who brought a temporary peace to the Middle East, and who eyed the North Koreans, explained to his audience what he saw outside a Lion's Club meeting in rural Georgia. There were smiles around the room. At least the former President had the presence to say he knew of no extra-terrestrial beings and that he did not think any were on the UFO he saw.

There was something notable about Carter that had changed since his Presidency. He laughed a bit, and smiled during his answer. He saw it was absurd to some degree. I wonder where that Jimmy Carter was when he told the nation about killer rabbits attacking him in Georgia and about conversations with then 11 year old Amy about defense matters in the 1970s. I don't believe the Jimmy Carter of today would have put on that sweater and told us to turn our heat down.

Carter appeared calm and relaxed the rest of the evening as he answered questions about nearly every hot spot on the globe, including Africa and South America. His knowledge of the world was surprising. Several things he said show him to be an honest liberal.

When asked about the first thing he would do if he were the President again, Carter answered in a way that surprised the crowd. He called the campaign finance scandal "disgusting" and said he would call for a special counsel to investigate it. The argument that all the ex-Presidents raised money from the White House by the current administration seem to be contended with there. Carter made it a point of saying there were no such scandals when he was President. Though he did not mention the Paula Jones case and the like, it certainly came to mind.

He peppered his remarks with two homespun stories and a smile or laugh here and there. Ex-President Carter seemed to be a lot like President Reagan in his approach. That is certainly ironic. He even joked in his opening remarks about being President " half as long as I had planned. "

But, of course, his idealogy is Liberal in the core. He defended affirmative action and other liberal positions. However, on one issue his sincerity came through in a way his press aides would have made a deal with the Devil to have gotten in the 1970s.

The issue was the California initiative banning the children of illegal immigrants from attending public school or gaining medical care. Carter believes it is wrong. His answer was quick and direct. He explained that the United States had been blessed with wealth, and that those children did not choose to be here. The thought of denying those children education or medical care when the United States is by far the wealthiest country on Earth was unconscionable to Carter. Carter made me think. Carter's clarity and confidence in his conviction were again remindful of Reagan's conservative answers to questions asked years ago. His answers also served as a painful reminder of the present day administration, with all its spinning and whining. At least Jimmy Carter believes in the liberal positions he takes without having to refer to a poll. I respect him for that.

Perhaps the absence of the pressures of high office allow one to be direct and sincere. But, I think there is more to Jimmy Carter than that. He said he used the Presidency as a "stepping stone" to his work at the Carter Center. The statement was light hearted, but it rang true.

The Jimmy Carter of 1997 takes himself less seriously than twenty years ago. His convictions are clear. And, though, I may disagree with many of them, I respect him for his honesty and directness. Jimmy Carter appears to be at peace being a man of peace. As a man of peace, he and his Carter Center have had far-reaching positive impacts around the world. It seems to be God's will for the Ex-President. Carter will go down as one of America's greatest ex-presidents as a result. Maybe that's why he can laugh now at the things he took so seriously years ago. For Jimmy Carter has found his calling.

Richard Brian McCarty has worked on several political campaigns of conservatives. He holds a Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina and a BS degree from Lander University. An experienced writer, McCarty's columns are written from a distinctly Southern point of view. He is sometimes Southern, sometimes conservative, sometimes humorous, and sometimes all three.


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