This editorial was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jimmy Carter has secured a legacy as probably the greatest former president in modern American history. The former chief executive -- whose one term is generally viewed as an almost unmitigated disaster -- has spent his many post-presidential years promoting human rights and building houses for the underprivileged while living modestly in his Plains, Georgia, home. As Carter enters hospice there at age 98, his example of selfless public service should stand as a rebuke to many of today’s self-interested Democratic and Republican politicians, and an inspiration to a nation that lately has too few of them.
When Carter emerged on the national scene in 1976, he seemed an antidote to Watergate-era corruption: an unassuming Georgia governor whose genuine religiosity manifested itself in an embrace of civil rights and honest government. In those times of disillusionment with Washington’s political insiders, his virtual anonymity outside his home state was, to many, a selling point.
Among Carter’s first acts after defeating incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976 and taking office in January 1977 was to pardon all Vietnam War draft evaders, helping close the still-lingering national wounds from that misbegotten conflict. That and Carter’s central role in achieving peace between Israel and Egypt with the Camp David accords stand as major accomplishments.
But they would be dwarfed by his presidency’s failures: failure to effectively lead as inflation pummeled America, projecting weakness to the point that Soviet Russia felt undeterred in its invasion of Afghanistan, and most of all, failure to effectively respond to the Iran hostage crisis. Republican Ronald Reagan’s landslide 1980 victory that unseated Carter was, by that point, a surprise to no one.
Modern post-presidencies are generally a time to build self-aggrandizing presidential libraries and to accumulate wealth with book-writing and speeches (and in one case, to continue relitigating the last election). For Carter, in contrast, it has been a time of continued and selfless public service.
Carter won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for the work of his human-rights nonprofit, the Carter Center, conducting global conflict mediation, election monitoring and disease control. His role in expanding and promoting Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for the poor, has been so effective and high-profile that many Americans might mistakenly believe he founded the organization.
For decades, Carter has provided a voice of reason and compassion on national and global issues. By the time a Christian Science Monitor headline dubbed him America’s “best ex-president” in 2016, it was already a common declaration.
While the person elected to the White House that same year continues to devote his post-presidency bellowing his grievance to anyone who will listen -- and as the other ex-presidents engage in less pathetic but mostly unimportant, albeit lucrative, post-presidential endeavors -- Carter in the final stage of his life still embodies a rare political decency. It’s an example that American politics could use right now.
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