Fanfare for a Common Man

Yeah, Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer. Perhaps he wasn't the greatest president to hold the office, but nowhere near the worst. And importantly, a decency we don't see much anymore.

Fanfare for a Common Man

I tend to write a lot about politics, and that tends to be, more and more lately, like cleaning the toilets in your home. Someone has to do it, but you want to take a shower when you're done.

The upcoming Texas Senate impeachment trial of our cretinous Attorney General, Ken Paxton, is a good case in point. Having dodged any sort of trial over two criminal indictments that hang over him like Marley's ghost, he has very obviously proceeded to help feather the nest of a big contributor, Nate Paul. Paxton even helped his mistress get a job with Paul so he could cheat on his wife without a commute. When some of his employees blew the whistle on this , he fired them, they sued, won and he tried to get the state to pay his fine.

Paxton's cuckolded wife Angela actually serves in the Senate and could actually vote on the impeachment if she doesn't recuse herself. And frankly, if she doesn't recuse for any reason other than to help vote his cheating ass out of office, I'll lose my respect for womankind. And, of course, because he supported the other cretinous Casanova who occupied the big place on Pennsylvania Avenue for four charmless years, there is a branch of the party that will rally to his side. This whole web of tawdriness just proves the adage that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. So, you see, just talking about this pettifogging reprobate means I will now have to take a break to wash up.  

But now that at least MY hands are clean, I'd like to take a moment to honor a different kind of politician. Just a few months after the 98-year-old former President Jimmy Carter went into hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia, his wife of almost 77 years, Rosalynn, has been diagnosed with dementia. He is the longest lived President, and theirs, the longest marriage of any presidential couple. Their 77th is coming up in July.

Now, I understand the conventional wisdom, particularly in conservative media, about Jimmy Carter. Weak, bumbling, ineffective and the cause of all our misery today, unless it was Clinton. No..had to be Obama. Well, at least they console themselves that it is assuredly Joe Biden.

But, you know, I'm feeling generous and really don't want to deal with these conservative media Punchinellos with their predictable take on everything, any more than the liberal buffoons whose analysis of any controversy is as skewed and often wrong as Jesse Watters, that intellectual wading pool who dominates the ratings now that the fishstick heir is gone.

No, I'd like to address a few, perhaps, forgotten items. Born in abject poverty in Georgia in 1924, James Earl Carter rose above his circumstances through hard work, study, and ambition. After entering college, he achieved his dream in 1941 of being accepted into the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Graduating in 1946, by which time he had married his sweetheart, Rosalynn Smith, he chose the submarine service and rose to the position of Executive Officer on a couple of subs patrolling the Atlantic and Pacific.

USS Pomfret, Carter's first assignment

He became one of the early converts to the idea of the nuclear navy - falling under the spell of the notoriously cantankerous Admiral Hyman Rickover.

Rickover was a zit on the nose of the regular Navy and never more so than when he retired in 1982 and in congressional testimony declared that in any future major conflict, there will be only two kinds of ships..."submarines and targets." Carter went to what was essentially, "nuclear school" to learn more and his heroic actions after a meltdown at a Canadian reactor - being lowered by cable into the reactor core to help facilitate a shutdown - formed many of his later feelings about nukes.

He had dreamed of commanding the second US nuclear sub, the Seawolf, then under construction in the early '50s, but it was not to be. His father died in 1953 and Carter's family implored him to come home and save the family farming business.

He sadly resigned his commission and went back to Plains, which didn't please Rosalynn, by the way, as she greatly enjoyed living in Schenectady. It wasn't easy and money was not just scarce but extremely rare. But he studied everything he could about farming and grew the peanut business into a thriving one. All the while, he became involved in politics first at the local level, then the state senate, and eventually he became governor in  1971.

We all know the rest. President Gerald Ford, another decent man I've interviewed, was hurt politically by the pardon of former President Nixon for Watergate, and Carter, the darkest of horses, narrowly won the White House in 1976. And, it began. He was firstly, easy to imitate. And he had the bad luck to enter the Presidency as Saturday Night Live premiered. The result was of course inevitable...

And let's face it, the public image was mild-mannered with a toothy, somewhat goofy smile, and we like our presidents resolute, even if they aren't. He began controversially by pardoning young men who had fled the country to avoid Viet Nam. In a country that hates Jane Fonda to this day, it was not popular. But it certainly required courage.

Inflation that had begun after Viet Nam (as it does after almost every conflict) plagued the Nixon/Ford administration. Remember "Win" buttons? Then the Iranian revolution ousted the Shah, oil production declined, and a year later, Iran and Iraq went to war. Prices shot up and supplies went down, though it is debated how much they actually declined, but the continued inflation from the 1974-75 recession, gas lines, and a recalcitrant Congress, even Democrats, all combined to present a picture of, well, a mess.

But through it all, while there were angry words and accusations of foot-dragging, much of it seemed to be borne of his lack of Washington experience. One can argue if that is an insult or a compliment, but he expressed that frustration at a press conference when discussing his proposed energy Reform bill. "I never dreamed a year ago in April when I proposed this matter to the Congress that a year later it still would not be resolved."

Well, there were probably thousands of folks who could have told him that, even the first major Democratic name to endorse him back in '76, Senator Joe Biden. But it didn't devolve into the petty name-calling and outrageous and idiotic claims we see today. No one was called a commie, groomer, or traitor out to destroy our democracy. Carter and Tip O'Neil just butted heads.

I have had a chance over the years to interview Carter's Press Director Jody Powell and chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan.

And of course, the former President himself. The Jordan and Powell interviews were enlightening and a reminder of his accomplishments.

Carter ended the divisions and potential conflict in Panama by signing the Canal Treaty. He created the Departments of Education and Energy. He signed the first nuclear arms limitation treaty with the Soviets, the Salt Treaty. He canceled wasteful programs like the B-1 bomber because he knew that waiting in the wings were the cruise missile and stealth aircraft. President Reagan revived the B-1 by parting out the plane and giving contracts to enough senators to get the program approved. That was outlined in a great book called Wild Blue Yonder.

And yes, the B-1 will be retired long before the B-52 it was intended to replace.

If you like making beer at home, or in microbreweries, thank Jimmy Carter. He deregulated the beer industry along with airline fares. He came close to giving America a true national healthcare system like every other industrialized nation (and several who aren't in that category) on the planet. Ted Kennedy, who wanted to take the 1980 nomination away from Carter, got in the way.

Lots of foreign policy goals, like eliminating apartheid in South Africa were thwarted by Congress. but one achievement outshone them all.

In 1978, a marathon of several days of diplomacy involving Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat resulted in the Camp David Accords - the first peace treaty between Israel and any of her Arab neighbors. And, it has held.  Zbigniew Brzezinski told me that after months of shuttle diplomacy, it was actually Rosalynn's idea to invite both men to the Presidential weekend retreat at Camp David. Carter and his staff went from cabin to cabin with the latest proposals, and the edits each leader wanted. Zbig played endless games of chess with Begin. Carter even took Begin and Sadat to the Gettysburg battlefield nearby as a metaphor for the conflict.

I wonder if Zbig let him win?

I met Jimmy Carter a few years later when he was promoting a book on fishing, of all things. The book tour included the Carter's anniversary, so Rosalynn joined him for his Houston stop. My wife Karen, also a Georgia peach, had to come to the studio to meet them, resulting in a photo I treasure.

I also got him to sign a magnificent book he wrote on the Israeli-Arab conflict called "The Blood of Abraham."

In our conversation, I couldn't draw him into any rancor about the problems he faced, the names he'd been called, or the harsh judgments from his political foes. He only wanted to talk about Habitat for Humanity, his missions to insure honest elections around the world, his faith, Rosalynn, and fishing. When we did talk politics, he expressed admiration for even his political adversaries and his closest approach to the kind of nastiness we see today was frustration that he couldn't get more of his proposals through. And even then he admitted that his naivete' and lack of Washington experience were largely to blame.

Even when the Iran Hostage rescue attempt ended in failure, he stood up the next day and took the blame. Like Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs, he could have blamed the generals who planned it, but he didn't (yeah, a couple of Navy guys). The Annapolis man took the arrows and vowed to keep working the crisis, which he did right up to Reagan's inauguration day.

I'm trying to picture that kind of self-effacing remembrance from any modern politico. But, look, I'm not trying to put Jimmy Carter into that pantheon of the greats like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and Ike. But he has been woefully mischaracterized by those with a political ax to grind and any real accomplishments purposely diminished for political purposes.  

So, as he and his beloved Rosalynn fade from the scene, I thought it might be nice to remember a man who wasn't anywhere near the greatest who sat in the Oval Office, but he's nowhere near the worst either. An honest man who tried and sometimes failed, but then again, sometimes succeeded. He loved his country; he loved the Navy and he loved his wife and his God. I've heard worse obituaries.

Or, maybe we should  just remember that Texas' favorite son Willie Nelson smoked a doobie with Jimmy's son Chip on the roof of the White House. I wonder if that could have speeded up Camp David?

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.