opinion | Jimmy Carter made me a better American

When the Carter presidency began, I was an 18-year-old Rockefeller Republican. When it ended I was so liberal that my own grandmother called me a communist.

My transformation may have been the inevitable result of the brownie at Wesleyan University, but I think it’s more likely that it was Jimmy Carter’s time in the White House – with its remarkable mix of triumphs and failures – that helped me better understand my country and me

As the former President enters the final stages of his senescence, I have thought a great deal about who I was when I first met him and how the country got to where it is today. I am still grateful to Mr. Carter for showing that it is possible to govern with morality, honesty and grace. It would be nice if these values ​​didn’t look so strangely old-fashioned.

But I’m also still angry with him.

It was Jimmy Carter who brought the Israelis and Egyptians together at Camp David; spawned SALT II and limited US and Soviet nuclear capabilities; who urged Americans to embark on the path of moral renewal.

But it was also Jimmy Carter who gave us Ronald Reagan, the first president who made hating his own government fashionable. In many ways, the Tea Party movement, the QAnon conspiracy, and the January 6th uprising are all products of what Ronald Reagan started; Supporters of any government distrust and find authoritarian figures strangely attractive.

I had inherited my parents’ politics before joining Wesleyan in the fall of 1976. (Her track record of GOP support was unbroken from Barry Goldwater to Gerald Ford.) As a freshman, I watched the presidential debates between Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter on a tiny black-and-white campus TV. In a Mr Ford insisted that there was “no Soviet rule in Eastern Europe”. Somehow I felt sorry for him; I knew what it was like to get scared when you have to talk in front of other people.

But then again, I wasn’t the president. It made me wonder for the first time if being led by a man who sometimes faltered when the pressure was on was really a great idea.

Even so, whole weeks passed in the 1970s without anyone thinking about the president. To me, those four years were exactly what we were promised during the campaign: Jimmy Carter would never lie to us. He was so serious. I can still see him flickering on a TV and delivering hard truths while wearing a cardigan.

I was in London on a semester abroad when Mr. Carter made the seemingly impossible possible – forge a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. I remember how proud I was. That night I was in a pub in Marylebone and a stranger, learning I was American, bought me a Guinness. “God bless America,” he said. “Biggest country in the world!” He was a little drunk, but still. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a moment like this since.

Camp David wasn’t enough. In July 1979, Mr. Carter told my colleague American we were suffering from a moral crisis. He called for a moral revival of the country. He said that “accumulating material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives without confidence or purpose.”

That summer I worked at the campus radio station. I remember one of the other DJs saying, “Damn right.” After the long years of Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam and the staggering effects of skyrocketing inflation, gas shortages and all the many other ways the United States just got along exhausted themselves, a moral revival seemed like the right thing to do.

It should not be. My final year was dominated by the Iran hostage crisis, which began in November. As the crisis continued, the consciousness of the entire country seemed held hostage alongside these 52 people. It was almost impossible to talk about anything else. Mr. Carter’s mistakes were our mistakes.

When Mr. Carter got confused, new voters like me started thinking about alternatives. We wanted an American hero, not an overly thoughtful negotiator. California’s progressive candidate, Jerry BrownShe had many supporters on campus. So does Senator Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts. He came to campus in the fall of 1979 to see his son, Ted Jr. The visit was a zoo. It was as if all four Beatles were visiting us at the same time.

Mr. Kennedy’s campaign fizzled out as quickly as it flared up, but the damage to Mr. Carter was done. Ronald Reagan no longer seemed like an impossible joke to some.

It occurred to me that the mirror Jimmy Carter held up to our mistakes wasn’t what we wanted. We didn’t want a guide to improving our souls. We didn’t want to sacrifice for the common good. We wanted to define ourselves by what we owned and we wanted to own as much junk as possible. We wanted to be told we were awesome.

Sometimes we wanted people to lie to us.

A few days after Ronald Reagan won the national vote, I moved to New York with a single suitcase and an old Silvertone auto harp. I had reached adulthood and transformed myself into a progressive, not only through the liberalism of my Wesleyan upbringing, but also through the ideals displayed in the very best moments of the Carter presidency – and the call to action that he had thought the Americans could embrace. I had become a Democrat just as the tide of progressive politics had peaked and begun to recede.

It was like I got to Woodstock just in time to see all my beatnik buddies heading back—not to their hippie vans, but to a fleet of BMWs.

I will always be disappointed that Jimmy Carter failed to win America over to the idea of ​​moral renewal. But I am forever grateful for the glimpses he gave us of the country we could yet become.

Jennifer Finney Boylan (@JennyBoylan) is Professor of English at Barnard College and 2022-23 Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/09/opinion/jimmy-carter-made-me-a-better-american.html opinion | Jimmy Carter made me a better American


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