I was saddened to hear that former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has gone home to die. A statement from The Carter Center read “After a series of short hospital stays, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter today decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention.”
I have always thought that Carter was one of the most decent men who ever served as U.S. president, and that one of Americans’ biggest mistakes was defeating him in his bid for a second term in favour of Ronald Reagan, one of his country’s more reactionary presidents.
Carter was from Georgia, a son of the south, and his early political career reflected southern sensibilities. When he ran for governor of his state he appealed broadly, including to segregationists. But when he won, he emerged as the Jimmy Carter we all got to know, declaring in his inaugural speech, “the time of racial discrimination is over,” shocking the good old boys to their roots. Black senator Leroy Johnson, who supported him, understood, remarking, “I understand why he ran that kind of ultra-conservative campaign. … I don’t believe you can win this state without being a racist.”
Civil rights became a high priority for Carter, as it did for another southern boy, President Lyndon Johnson from Texas, the man who busted Jim Crow.
After a term as governor he ran for the presidency and, to the surprise of many, won. On his second day in office he pardoned all Vietnam War draft dodgers. He stripped tax-exempt status from all-white religious academies. He introduced national energy and conservation policies that were ahead of their time, brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and negotiated the SALT II arms control agreement with the Soviets.
Unfortunately his term was cursed with a wave of bad luck: an energy crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and perhaps the biggest blow to his political future, the Iran hostage crisis. The result was sour relations with Congress and ultimately the loss of the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.
He is considered by historians as a below-average president, but it seems to me he had little opportunity to reach his potential. He did, however, have a highly successful post-presidency.
He established the Carter Center which has been active for decades in promoting democracy and human rights. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. He opposed the Iraq War, scolding his country for its warlike nature. He is also well known also for his work with “Habitat for Humanity.”
One of the lesser known events in his life but important to Canadians was his involvement in the world’s first nuclear reactor meltdown. In December, 1952, the experimental reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, experienced mechanical problems and operator error that led to significant damage to the core.
A young U.S. naval officer named Jimmy Carter was brought in and put in charge of the team containing the disaster. Carter and his people exposed themselves to radiation a thousand times the level considered safe by today’s standards. Each 3-man team worked 90-second shifts—a minute and a half was deemed the longest the human body could handle the radiation. Carter was told he would likely never have children. He has four.
He has lived a long, adventurous and productive life like few others. I wish him loads of love and peace over these last days.