Perspective: Jimmy Carter, now in hospice, has become a national treasure
Though ranked by historians as a mediocre leader, Carter has strong marks for ‘moral authority’ and he is the standard bearer for former presidents because of his faith
On lists of the best and worst U.S. presidents that emerge every so often, usually around Presidents Day, Jimmy Carter usually rates a “meh.” In its rankings two years ago, C-SPAN put him at No. 26 out of 46, right below Grover Cleveland and just five spots higher than Richard Nixon.
One of 10 presidents who lost their bid for re-election, Carter’s successes (to include the Camp David Accords) were overshadowed by the 1979 energy crisis, a recession and his inability to end the Iran hostage crisis during his term. The country seemingly had tired of the simple and frugal ways of the “Man from Plains” and was ready for the glamour, boldness and showmanship that Ronald and Nancy Reagan promised.
So Carter, then 56, returned to his hometown in Georgia with his wife, Rosalynn, intending to live on his presidential pension, teach Sunday School and write books. (He later told a reporter for The Washington Post that he didn’t want to profit from his time in the White House, saying with characteristic kindness that he didn’t blame those who have done so, but “it just never had been my ambition to be rich.”)
And he did just that, along with the thing for which he will be most fondly remembered: becoming a regular volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit to which he was so devoted that in 2019 he showed up on a job site with 14 stitches and a black eye, just after he took a bad fall. He was 95 then.
A timely reminder that after turning 95 years old, President Jimmy Carter suffered a fall that left him with a black eye, bruises, and 14 stitches — and still went out the next day to build homes for Habitat for Humanity.pic.twitter.com/UgYxyD7fqG— Goodable (@Goodable) February 19, 2023
Now 98, Carter has entered hospice care at home; it’s unclear for what he was most recently hospitalized, but he has been treated on and off for cancer and once said that when doctors diagnosed melanoma that had spread to his brain in 2015, he thought he only had a few weeks to live.
The extra years have been a gift, not only for Carter, but for all of the country.
The longest living former president, Carter has put forth the model of an exemplary post-White House life, one without bitterness and partisan rancor, one in which he put the ideals of his Christian faith into practice. While other presidents have also forged friendships across partisan lines after leaving the White House (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton among them), there has always been something extraordinary about Carter in the way that his innate goodness and humility seemed unaffected by privileges afforded the occupants of the Oval Office.
In fact, it was his character that, in some ways, seemed to make him ill-suited for the White House. “Many people thought Carter scrubbed some of the luster off the presidency by carrying his own suitcases onto Air Force One and refusing to have ‘Hail to the Chief’ played,” Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan wrote for The Washington Post.
And in his new book “Dinner with the President,” Alex Prud’homme writes that over the course of Carter’s presidency, initial praise for the couple’s down-home ways “turned to sniping about the Carters’ low-budget-informality, which made them — and therefore the nation — appear cheap, naive and not to be taken seriously.”
But Carter, a man whose ruling principles derived from God, not polling, stayed the course in ways that seem unusual today, and people respect him for that, even when they don’t agree with his politics. It’s telling that in the C-SPAN polls, in which he always occupies a middling place, Carter rises to be among the best presidents in terms of moral authority, where he ranks No. 7, behind Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama.
Carter’s work for Habitat for Humanity is inspiring not only because he continued it long past a time that others would have understandably retired because of their age or physical condition, but because he wasn’t there for the photo op. As Rebecca Watson wrote on Twitter, he was doing the hard work of building homes, not lending his celebrity to the cause.
Carter explained his work with Habitat this way: “One of the things Jesus taught was: If you have any talents, try to utilize them for the benefit of others. That’s what Rosa and I have both tried to do.”
Widespread knowledge of Jesus’s “parable of the talents” is likely a casualty of this age of biblical illiteracy. But Jimmy Carter’s example of it, his faithfulness, shines brightly amid the ugly rancor of politics today.
In lieu of flowers, may all people of faith strive to live the Carter way.