During our recent visit to Atlanta, we walked to the Carter Center, a short distance from where we were staying. The museum and library are located in Freedom Park, a tranquil area woven into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods. The center is surrounded with ponds, a rose garden and numerous places to simply sit and enjoy nature in the midst of a dynamic metropolis. In innumerable ways the center seems to capture the spiritual essence of the former President and First Lady.
One of the most important features of Freedom Park is a trail connecting the Carter Center with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, symbolically uniting all the citizens of the South, regardless of color.
Personally, I have long believed that Jimmy Carter is our most underappreciated modern President, a man whose heart was in the right place and who continues to devote his energies toward the goals of peace and human dignity. I also believe that the biggest weakness of his administration was the quality of some of his staff – the Georgia mafia as they were called back then – who went to Washington with him. Sadly, many of them took the values of the Old South with them, not Carter’s vision for a better world.
I lived in Tallahassee when Carter was elected governor of Georgia, replacing the openly racist Lester Maddox, perhaps the most repugnant Georgia governor in modern times. I have fond memories of Carter’s campaign for President in 1976, because it was the first time I voted for a winning presidential candidate … and the last until I voted for Obama in 2008.
Carter is perhaps the one modern President who grew up in a world I understand. Our families have much in common. Like Carter, my family farmed the same red clay that fills the fields of South Georgia and North Florida. Like Carter, I was raised a Southern Baptist. And, like Carter, I am a southerner who has struggled to overcome the racism and anti-intellectualism of the region.
The Carter White House is also the only one I was given an opportunity to enter. A college friend from Florida State was one of his speechwriters and treated me to lunch at The White House Mess. Certainly a memorable experience.
Touring the Carter Center I was reminded of the enormous responsibility that goes with being President and was struck by a quote by Rosalynn about how she had to learn to get used to the fact that one crisis simply follows another, that they never stopped coming.
Despite his early retirement in 1981, Carter did not retreat to the golf course. While the next President, Ronald Reagan, took the country in a very different direction, Jimmy and Rosalynn stayed true to their values. They continue to work for positive change, facing challenges such as affordable housing, universal health care, quality education, human dignity and world peace.
Change, of course, is never easy. It is a perpetual two step, forward and backward, forward and backward. We only hope that each step forward is a little bit bigger than the backward step that follows.
While there are some who still fail to appreciate the contributions of the Carters, especially in their native South, I believe history will ultimately come to recognize the numerous accomplishments that they’ve made toward building a better world.
© 2016 David Lee McMullen