Jimmy Carter was the first president – nay, the first person seeking any office - for whom I cast a ballot when I became old enough to vote in 1976.
Fortyseven years later, I’m still immensely proud of that fact and consider it one of the best things I’ve ever done for this country.
I’m also proud of the fact that Carter was the first president to ever read me.
It’s like this: Three years into the Carter presidency, I went to work at the Atlanta Constitution newspaper as a copyboy and quickly ascended to the lofty position of obituary writer. (Well, it was lofty to me.)
Since the Constitution was the largest newspaper in Carter’s home state, I often imagined that when he picked up his daily paper, the first thing he did was to turn to the obituary section, where he read my handiwork while eating his sausage, grits and eggs and drinking his coffee.
This was in the days before the internet, so he couldn’t just click on his computer and call it up. No, each night a bundle of 200 copies of the newspaper’s first edition was driven to the airport, flown to Washington and delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Hmm, lemme see who my ol' pal Barry wrote about today.
Of course the president didn't say that, but a man can dream, can't he?
This is not - repeat, NOT - an obituary for the 98-year-old former president. Even though he recently returned home for hospice care and some reporters have taken up a macabre death watch in his home town of Plains, Ga., Carter’s astounding resilience from cancer and a fall, among other things, could mean that he’ll still be here to turn out the lights when we’re all gone.
This is meant, instead, as an appreciation for President Carter, a man who – despite attaining the highest office in the land – never got above his raisin’.
Plains residents who are having microphones shoved in their faces speak reverentially of plain old “Mr. Jimmy,” the unaffected man who, after leaving the White House, returned to his hometown and his peanut farm. From there, he sallied forth to help eradicate a deadly disease and build houses around the world for poor people.
That – his refusal to revel in the imperial trappings of the presidency - may have actually contributed to him losing to Ronald Reagan, a man who, if he’d comported himself any more imperially, could have been mistaken for Louis XIV.
Carter, to his political detriment, told us what we needed to hear, not what we wanted to hear. Who wants a president who tells us the way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil is to turn down the thermostat, wear a sweater and harness the energy of the sun when we can have one who cheerily tells us his election will miraculously herald “morning in America”?
Oh yeah, and that “government is the problem”?
To break it down even more elementally, the American voters just didn’t seem ready for a president who wore cardigan sweaters and carried his own garment bag off Air Force One, when they could have one who wore the hell out of a tuxedo and looked – at least to some - like he was straight out of President Central Casting.
The indisputable things at which Reagan succeeded were bringing back to Washington the diamonds-and-limo crowd and, in the words of the late New York governor Mario Cuomo, making it “cool not to care” for the poor and down-trodden.
This is not the place to enumerate all the ways Reagan’s presidency made America a colder, harsher place, but those of us who lived through it know.
Want tangible evidence that he made it colder?
Carter installed solar panels at the White House to save energy and set an example for the country; Reagan took them out.
Just imagine the energy independence, savings and the positive environmental impact if, as Carter had hoped, we’d adopted solar energy all those years ago?
It would be tough to call Carter our greatest president, but even his greatest detractors must admit that he is our greatest former president.
In his song Vincent, a paean to the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, Don McLean sings “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
At least in Washington, where cynicism is celebrated and rewarded, the same can be said for you, Mr. Jimmy.