Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jimmy Carter: The Long-Distrance Runner Who Won The Race That Matters The Most

Cal Thomas, nobody's idea of a Ted Kennedy Democrat (or any kind of Democrat, for that matter), recently published this column about Jimmy Carter that was surprisingly generous in its treatment of him.  Maybe the generosity shouldn't be considered surprising, since both men are evangelical Christians.  But Thomas' assessment of Carter's faith, and the way it has informed both the former President's life and the perspective he is maintaining in the face of cancer, is somewhat at odds with Thomas' assessment of Carter's presidency, which has been (and no doubt still is) far less charitable.

Thomas, sadly, is typical of most evangelicals in embracing the tenets of a political philosophy that is wildly at odds with the terms of the Book that evangelicals think they exalt (whether they've actually read it or not).  Their chosen philosophy, political conservatism, encourages them to worship both God and mammon.  It demands that they beat their plowshares into swords.  And it demands that you not only cast the first stone against a sinner, but that, if the sinner is female, you take careful aim at her uterus.

Whether as a President, or in his personal life, Jimmy Carter never compromised his faith by the demands of secular society, including politics.  In fact, that aspect of his walk with God brought him into conflict with prominent members of his own party, such as Kennedy and Tip O'Neill.  He wanted, for example, to temper the growth of the social democratic project in this country to ensure that it could be sustained fiscally.  On the other hand, he challenged the more militaristic tendencies of Republicans (and even some Democrats) by insisting that American foreign policy be informed by a concern for human rights.  Above all, he insisted that we confront our own desire to "have it all," and face the fact that it was unsustainable.  

No aspect of his Presidency illustrates this insistence more than his energy policy, combining conservation with alternative resources, and insisting, to use his own words, that the struggles for energy independence is the moral equivalent of war.  George Will, a media tribune for the party owned by the oil industry, attempted to mock this philosophy by reducing it to the cute acronym "MEOW" (as he would later attack Carter by stealing his briefing book for the 1980 presidential debates).  Carter was the first President to install solar panels on the roof of the White House; his successor, Ronald Reagan, immediately removed them upon taking office, and later sold arms to an oil-producing country that held our people hostage.  (That latter feat is something to remember as you listen to today's Republican candidates promise to "NEVER" do deals with our "enemies.")

If politics is the art of short-term success, than there can be no doubt that Carter's one-term presidency was a disaster.  If, on the other hand, it can be seen as the patient planting of policy seeds, with a willingness to sow so that others can reap, Carter may arguably be seen as having spent his time in the White House more wisely than perhaps any other President in the 20th century. All of the goals he championed--fiscal responsibility, human rights, and energy independence--are all axiomatic for politicians in both major American parties.  But championing these goals in the 1970s took qualities that no other politician had at the time, or had since.  It took courage.  It took a willingness to put the needs of the many ahead of the few, or the one (in the Oval Office). Perhaps, above all, it took faith.

That is why no one should be surprised that Jimmy Carter is facing death with amazing grace.  He is facing it with the same qualities that informed his presidency.  Above all, he is facing it with the perspective of a man who has lived, and continues to live, his life for the long run.  A President who helped to popularize jogging, Carter has always understood that the race is never about the journey, but about the destination.

Our 39th President has always understood that life is the race that matters the most.  No matter how much longer you will be with us, Mr. President, congratulations on winning the race.  And, at the same time, showing the rest of us how to run it.  May we as individuals, and as a nation, always be worthy of your example.

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