An Ode to Jimmy

Jimmy Carter in church, at Plains Georgia.


I didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976. In fact, I didn’t vote at all that year.

I’m not proud of that, but there it is. It happened mostly because I was away from home on election day, and because I wasn’t scared.

That autumn I was trying to write a novel about Quakers on Nantucket island off Massachusetts, who were caught in the riptides of the American Revolution.

The novel was a good idea. Still is, if I had an extra ten years or so to put into it.

The Quakers there didn’t believe in joining wars, so during the revolution the British didn’t trust them, figuring they were secretly sympathizing with those damned colonial rebels. And the “patriots” (rebels) didn’t trust the Quakers either, because of vice versa, thinking they were secret Tories.

As far as sentiments, among the actual Quakers some leaned one way, some leaned the other. And they all had a tough time; that war was hell on the island. But that’s another story, or rather stories.

I spent several chilly weeks on the island, doing research and scribbling a few opening  chapters, boarding with a local family.

One evening there was a presidential debate: Jimmy vs. Gerald “Gerry” Ford, the accidental president, who succeeded (and unpardonably pardoned) the disgraced Quaker Richard Nixon. I watched it with the boarding family, on what I think was a black & white TV.

Carter(left-Ford debate, 1976

I don’t remember what they said; but my post-debate  impression remains: Carter had a funny Southern accent, which I didn’t then much care for; and Ford was a Republican, which I disliked, but he was a Republican who didn’t scare me.

Maybe he should have; but I don’t think so: like many, I compared him to Ronald Reagan, who had recently finished two awful terms as a rightwing crusading governor back home in California.

Ford might win, I figured, and he hadn’t really been all that terrible after Nixon; and everybody knew Ronald Ray-gun, as we called him, was the greater menace. He was no accident: Reagan for sure wanted to take the White House; but he had lost out to Ford for the GOP this time. So I stayed wrapped up in my novel, and let the deadline for absentee ballots slide past.

But what the heck; Carter won anyway. I soon went back home to the Bay Area and my “career” as a budding journalist; alas, the novel was quickly lost in the shuffle.

My next encounter with Carter was closer in, but still secondhand: in 1977 I was trying my journalistic hand at freelancing in Washington DC. Unexpectedly, in late 1978, a California Congressman, Paul “Pete” McCloskey, a Bay Area Republican whose 1976 re-election campaign I had covered, unexpectedly hired me.

Pete wanted me to be an investigator for the ill-fated House Merchant Marine Committee, of which he was a member. It produced plenty of investigative fodder: the merchant shipping industry, which included ports and lots of unions, was steeped in corruption.

McCloskey was a maverick, semi-liberal Republican (Yes, Virginia, they really did exist in those long ago days, though even then were an endangered species). Pete said he wanted me to dig into the abundant corruption, and help him make it public. A cleaner industry would be a better one, he believed.

Pete McCloskey, as a congressman 1970s-early 1980s.

It seemed there was plenty of criminality to go around. Two previous Merchant Marine Committee chairmen had been charged with taking bribes; one beat the rap, the other didn’t. And a third chairman, Democrat John Murphy of Staten Island, New York City,  who was in charge when I came on, didn’t know it, but the FBI was preparing an indictment to drop on him too.

I was eager, but getting up to speed took a lot of homework. I mean — the feds were spending hundreds of millions on subsidizing merchant ships, to keep them afloat as a wartime reserve for carrying war cargo; and international ocean shipping was one of the oldest businesses of all, with lots of history, complexity, smuggling and pirates.

Plus, the committee was totally not sexy, and the industry’s problems only rarely caught public attention, even in Congress. I knew nothing about it, and told Pete so upfront.

“That’s the best place to start,” he assured me — mainly because it probably meant I was not already bought and corrupted by some maritime interest group.)

But my career as a tough maritime anti-corruption gumshoe was cut short– actually completely aborted by –who else, Jimmy Carter.

My boss Pete had hopes that Carter would propose a big maritime reform bill; but for reasons no one ever explained, it didn’t happen.

(Well, c’mon man, there were a few other things going on: peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt; then a revolution in Iran, in which they kicked out the dictatorial Shah, and after Carter let him take refuge for medical are in the U.S.,  the Iranian rebels took 60 Americans taken hostage. That hostage thing lasted more than a year, and Republicans made the most out of it. And the Russians invaded Afghanistan (a stupid, deadly mistake we would repeat a couple decades later).

There were other things going on at home too: in January 1980, I got married (second time around), and decided to honeymoon on — of all places — Nantucket! Cold! Windy! Sandy! Expensive!  As the old adage said, the triumph of hope over experience.

But then, one evening we turned on the news — and forgot the weather. The talking heads reported that Congressman John Murphy, Chairman of the Merchant Marine Committee, had just been indicted for taking bribes.

That kinda harshed the honeymoon buzz. I didn’t exactly work for Murphy; my boss, Pete, was squeaky clean; we were on the right side of the law. But with the committee chairman indicted, spending all his time trying to stay out of jail (didn’t work; he served three years) the Committee simply ground to complete halt for the rest of that fateful year.

I kept getting paid, but basically nothing happened there. My investigative work plans disappeared like a cloud of old-time Congressman’s cigar smoke. Months dragged by; desktop computers hadn’t quite been invented, so  I was totally bored. My job ended in early 1981, when my boss decided to run for the Senate (he didn’t win) .

Outside the funereal committee walls, though, there was action: Ronald Reagan did run for president in 1980, and I for sure voted for Jimmy then. But Reagan cleaned Carter’s clock.

Soon both Jimmy and I were out of a job (Being broke was a bummer, but otherwise I didn’t really mind. Congress looks exciting from the outside, but for many, including me, inside it can be tedium squared).

Jimmy’s departure was the more dramatic: on inauguration day, from my office window on an upper floor, I could see the cars bringing the newly-freed Iran hostages arriving to add their huzzahs to Reagan’s triumphal hoopla. And in Union station a few blocks over, the place was swarming with new Reaganites pouring from the trains. looking to party hearty, take the place over, wreak havoc and get rich.

Which is pretty much what they did; but Jimmy went back to Georgia and his peanut farm, and quietly began the most remarkable post-presidency ever.

I can’t possibly do it justice, or match the big media tributes, which should be a marathon. One glimpse: they say he wrote 30 books (I believe it); and one day in the 1980s, I stood in line for an hour or so outside a suburban bookshop in northern Virginia, and was able to shake his hand, mumble a few words, and have his signature on a book. Don’t recall which one; it’s been lost in one of the following decades. But that’s the sum of the Jimmy-Chuck facetime; about as long as it takes to read it.

Doesn’t matter; he was still influential, in a lot of ways.

One of these only showed up at the end of the millennium: I wound up for awhile in central Pennsylvania near Penn State, living with a woman, Lynne, who was an expert carpenter.

Jimmy, in the interim, beside heading off a few wars, eradicating some awful diseases, teaching Bible classes every Sunday at home in Plains, Georgia, kept writing a stack of books.

He even wrote a novel, The Hornet’s Nest,  the first by a U. S. President. There were parallels between it and my long ago fictional project: it too was about the Revolutionary War, and it had Quakers in it. The big difference: Jimmy got it done. I think there’s a lesson in that.) Plus a bunch of other projects.

Jimmy and his novel.

One of these others was becoming a mainstay of Habitat for Humanity. Lynne was a stalwart of Habitat too, around our  county in central PA, where there was lots of mostly hidden (aka = white) poverty. Her group was versatile and adventurous: they built one house in either 24 or 36 hours, start to finish, from a hole in the ground. Then another was erected by an all-woman crew. She loved it.

Then one day Lynne told me about how every summer, Jimmy and Rosalyn ran a Habitat house-building camp in some other country: people who could afford it paid their way there, brought their tools and skills and built dozens of houses in a productive, sweaty frenzy; and she planned to go that summer.

Which she did — to South Korea. I think it was one of the high points of her millennium. She returned exhilarated and full of stories, connections with new friends, and lots of pictures, all of which made me feel close to the action and its spirit, not bad for a destination which was almost 7000 miles away.

Some of Lynne’s most memorable snapshots showed how Jimmy and Rosalyn took part in the work every day, in the sun, hammers in hand, making sure to schmooze with almost everybody, posing for pre-cell phone selfies like it was another winning political campaign. I’ve read that these summer stints yielded close to ten thousand houses; not bad for a side hustle.

One thing I didn’t do, and I regret it, was jump in the car and drive headlong to Plains to sit in on one (or maybe more) of Jimmy’s Bible classes. I came close a couple of times; but for me the flesh is weak, and the mind too easily distracted.

Even from my backslider’s distance, though, I could feel the spirit that breathed through them — the kind that didn’t have to shout and go multimedia glitzy, but could stand up to the bigtime political preachers that have turned so much of his beloved Baptist brethren into foot-soldiers for division and repression. It was sad when he quit the reactionary Southern Baptist Convention in 2000; he didn’t go to church looking for fights; but he knew the score, and stood up when it was time.

Jimmy wasn’t preaching to “steal their sheep” and build a megachurch, or the accompanying personal empire. He could hardly be more famous anyway; and his tastes were always on the modest side. In fact, he puts to shame my tribe, the Quakers, who prattle a lot about our testimony of “Simplicity,” but seem awful eager to keep up with the gadgets and the fads.

And when I sink into the fog of doubts about God and religion, which happens at least every other time I look at the news, or the many evil parts of the Bible, after awhile — not every time, but often enough — I kind of blink hard and think: Well, all that awful stuff may be so, but on the other hand, there’s Jimmy. And Rosalyn.

Jimmy’s globetrotting, peacemaking, disease-banishing  and home-building adventures went on so long — 42 years since he left the White House– that I suspect there’s many more like me who felt like he was almost as solid a fixture of America’s landscape as Mount Rushmore; except with wheels, and would go on more or less forever.

Jimmy’s peanut butter cake!

Of course that wasn’t true, but he sure made for a welcome companion for an awful lot of our twisting, turning, tumultuous ride since then, even. I hope we can bottle a bit of that; or maybe better. When I was a Catholic boy, we had holy water.  Quakers have oatmeal. But in Plains, Georgia, I’d give it up for some of Jimmy’s homemade holy peanut butter cake. (I’m not making that up! And of course, there’s a Carter family cookbook too.) Amen!


8 thoughts on “An Ode to Jimmy”

  1. Great read , Chuck. I once shook Pete McCloskey’s hand in the gorgeous envelope conference room of the Society fo the Protection of New Hampshie Forests. I was fired up. I had little interest in that southern navy vet people seemed so excited about. In fact I worked for Ted Kennedy, much to my regret. Only later did I understand what we had lost in Jimmy Carter. But he wasn’t lost, luckily, and has been inspiring us ever since. My favorite writing of his was a small book that explained the Israeli Palestinian crisis – starting with just the geography. I had a lot to learn.
    I posted your story on Facebook. It’s special. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Anne! Ted Kennedy was good in his own way, I think, but I was never much taken with the “Camelot” charisma. Carter seems to have lived out the old cliche about getting lemons from life, and making lemonade. Except that he also made a big lemonade emporium, lemon groves and a research lab that came up with dozens of ways to make life & the world better with citrus, and even ways to use them for peacebuilding. (Substitute peanuts for lemons . . .) Never gave up, never hogged the spotlight, never lost touch with his roots, or his realistic but optimistic outlook. . . .

    2. Thank you, Anne. Yes to cursive! And we’re all lucky (or maybe blessed) that Jimmy & Rosalyn Carter have been as dedicated and indomitable as they have been for so long. And for that matter, Ted Kennedy was a credit to the Senate & the country in his way.

  2. I’m grateful that you wrote this story of the interweaving of your life and and the life of President Carter. I had forgotten many of the details of the politics of the time, and you’ve refreshed my memory. My children were friends with one of his granddaughters several decades ago, that’s as close as we got, but I so admire how he has lived his life. Again, thank you for this, and all that you write.

  3. Thanks for writing about Jimmy Carter. I too didn’t properly appreciate him until he was out of office although I felt great respect for him. His life after the presidency has been so admirable that it speaks to us all

    1. Appreciate the kind words, Pat. Not only does Jimmy’s post-presidential record impress on its own, it looks even better compared to what we have had to put up with in Washington instead. There’s a crooked but direct line from there to the mess we’re trying to cope with now . . .

  4. And then there’s the Friendship Force! Jimmy and Rosalyn were big supporters from the start. If you ask Google who founded Friendship Force it will probably tell you Jimmy Carter, but that’s not quite true. It was Wayne Smith’s idea but the Carters made it take off by their support and publicizing. Certainly when I went on a FF trip everybody knew about the Carters’ connection.

  5. Thanks, such a thoughtful romp thru the history that I watched from the sidelines of life! When my daughter was in high school she went to Georgia to work on a Habitat project. My husband wanted to send a plane to Jimmy Carter. It was a treasured old plane in my husband’s collection of working planes. Our caught was embarrassed, but daddy insisted. “I won’t see him…” So she took it reluctantly. Jimmy Carter was out of town on some other project, so she left it with the local head of Habitat. About a year later, my husband received a thank you note from Planes Georgia.

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