Former U.S. first lady Rosalynn Carter passed away on Nov. 19 at the age of 96. Her memorial service was held on Tuesday at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the campus of Emory University. Many dignitaries attended, including US President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp – and the living first ladies, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Melania Trump and Jill Biden.
The most powerful image was when former President Jimmy Carter was brought in. The 99-year-old has been in home hospice care since February. He reclined in his wheelchair, covered by a blanket with his wife’s face, while his four children sat near him.
Journalist and TV host Judy Woodruff, who delivered the eulogy, made this interesting remark, “Without Rosalynn Carter, I don’t believe there would have been a President Carter.”
There’s a great deal of truth in that assessment.
Her son, Chip, said in his heartfelt speech that she was the “glue that held our family together through the ups and downs and thicks and thins of our family’s politics.” The Carters were married for an astonishing 77 years and, by most accounts, cared deeply for one another. Without her love, support, advice and guidance, the successful peanut farmer likely would have never become Georgia State Senator, Georgia Governor and President of the United States.
Which leads us to a different topic. How will Carter’s life, career and presidency be remembered? Here are a few thoughts.
Carter was a lifelong Democrat. Like many of his Southern political contemporaries, they either disliked or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the Republican Party. His own political leanings were difficult to peg down at times. Peter G. Bourne’s Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography From Plains to Post-Presidency contained a quote where Carter described his ideology during the 1966 Georgia gubernatorial election as “Conservative, moderate, liberal and middle-of-the-road…I believe I am a more complicated person than that.”
The same scenario evolved when he was in the White House. Pollster Louis Harris noted in August 1977 that only 15 percent of American respondents regarded him as a liberal, which was down from 30 percent on the eve of the 1976 presidential election. Meanwhile, 41 percent placed him as middle of the road (up from 32 percent) and 26 percent considered him conservative (up from 17 percent).
By today’s standards, Carter would be regarded as a centrist Democrat. He wasn’t (and isn’t) as liberal as some modern Democrats, and he’s definitely not a conservative. Then again, Ronald Reagan, who beat Carter in the 1980 presidential election, wouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a conservative Republican in today’s GOP.
Times change, and so do political ideologies.
With respect to his presidency, Carter is widely regarded as a political mediocrity by most academics and historians. There’s little to dispute in this regard. He wasn’t a strong leader on the domestic and international stage. His relationship with Congress ranged from mildly difficult to badly strained. He didn’t handle the economic malaise or energy crisis with a firm hand. He struggled mightily with the Iran hostage crisis, and looked incredibly weak in the public eye.
He had a tiny handful of successful moments as President. The Sept. 1978 meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David was certainly one of them. There have also been some recent attempts to adjust Carter’s record of failure with respect to the hostage crisis. Many of the political players have passed away and can’t verify this information, leaving plenty of doubts on the table from here to eternity.
There’s no question that Carter’s post-presidency has been more successful.
The Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, has helped build affordable housing for thousands of poor and disenfranchised families in the US and around the world. He founded the Carter Center in 1982. He taught at Emory University for nearly four decades. His international campaign to eradicate the Guinea worm disease had helped create millions of water filters and safer drinking water. He’s been involved in peace and human rights campaigns in countries like Darfur, Sudan and even North Korea. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He’s received many other accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, Hoover Medal, Harry S. Truman Public Service Award, National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal and three Grammys for best spoken word album.
These are accomplishments to be proud of. Yet, he has remained humble and soft-spoken throughout his life and career.
Here’s a perfect example. In February, National Geographic’s Erin Blakemore mentioned Carter’s “unusual” 2016 letter to the editor. It was in response to a story the magazine had published about ending blindness. The former President noted they hadn’t broached the subject of preventable blindness and infections caused by flies and parasites. “It was pure Jimmy Carter: gentle in tone, pragmatic in approach, and deferential to changemakers working to improve the world for all,” Blakemore wrote. “But characteristically, it downplayed the president’s own contributions to making the world a better place – contributions that not just changed the world but may have saved it.”
Maybe, just maybe, that’s how Jimmy Carter will be remembered. His beloved Rosalynn would surely be pleased by this.
Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.