Jimmy Carter was a rather low-key, understated President; but I came to know more about him and admire him while I was in Stanford, as this column from Business Standard of 12 June 2000 shows.
LIFE AFTER THE DEBACLE
Nixon left his US Presidency in considerable ignominy; tainted by the Watergate scandal, he had to resign, and hand over the presidency to his Vice-President, Gerald Ford, whom Carter defeated in the 1976 election. Herbert Hoover presided over America’s worst depression, and was defeated on that account by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 election. Lyndon Johnson, Nixon’s predecessor, was depressed by defeats in the Vietnam war, and retired to his Texas ranch to lick his wounds. Franklin Pierce took to drink.
But no president’s reputation was so comprehensively destroyed as Jimmy Carter’s. Jimmy Carter came to his Presidency amid considerable goodwill and hope. Vietnam and Watergate had mauled America’s psyche; Carter came with a clean reputation and promised to restore America’s self-regard. He, like Bill Clinton, had been governor of a small southern state, Georgia, and seemed the right man to resist the military-industrial complex that had taken the US into its own military defeat. There was an air about him of decency and calm; America looked to him to heal the national wounds.
But he was unlucky. Two years into his Presidency, Islamic militants toppled the Shah of Iran and assumed power. They raided the US embassy and took the personnel hostage. The hostage crisis lingered on, and the pacific Carter found no way out of it. Then, in his last year, oil prices suddenly shot up; that really made car-riding Americans mad. Inflation flared up, and interest rates went up to 21 per cent. In the midst of the crisis, Carter had to fight for a second term against Ronald Reagan, that beguiling charmer. It was no contest; Carter lost. What happened to him? His career after the defeat was recently described by Sara Rimer in the New York Times.
When he lost the election in 1980, Carter was 56: he still had a long life ahead of him, but his life seemed to be tatters. Carter went back to his farm in Georgia to find that he owed $1 million. He used to project himself as a simple peanut farmer, though he had been many other things, including a naval officer in a nuclear submarine. In 1961 he left the navy and built a modest ranch house in Plains, Georgia, a village of 600 people, where he still lives. Then, one day, instead of putting on his work clothes, he got into his Sunday suit. Rosalynn, his wife, was alarmed: had someone died, she asked? No; Jimmy was going to file his nomination to the Georgia senate. In 1962 he was elected and began his political career.
He did grow peanuts, but he also had a business of agricultural supplies in Atlanta. When he became President, he placed it in a blind trust. Poor management combined with droughts to ruin the business and leave it deeply in debt. He had to sell his peanut business to pay off the debts. But he still owns 3000 acres, most of it a timber plantation.
Till he was defeated, he had never stayed at home; whether as businessman, farmer, governor or president, he had had an office or a farm to go to. After his defeat, he set up an office in his garage; his wife set up her own in a bedroom. He has always been an early riser; he would get up at 5 and get to work. After he retired to Plains, there was little work, and he would finish by 9 AM – just when Rosalynn, his wife, was ready to get to work. Then he would turn up in her office for a coffee. Finally she put up a notice on her office, saying “Do not interrupt. Office hours 9 to 12”.
Anyway, in 1982 they together founded Carter Center to promote peace, human rights and health care round the world. They are helping and supporting a number of health and nutrition projects round the world.
It was Carter who brokered the Camp David accord between Israel and the PLA, which ended Arafat’s terrorism and made him ruler of Palestine. Since then, Carter has turned peacemaking into a wholesale business; whenever an honest broker is needed, people think of him. Look at his recent engagements. He brokered an agreement between Uganda and Sudan. In December, when Panama became independent from the US, he represented the US government. The previous month he monitored the elections in Mozambique; till now he has monitored 29 elections. For his work in disease prevention, he was given an honorary doctorate by the London School of Tropical Medicine. His Center runs a project that brings better agricultural techniques to villagers in Mali.
All this worldwide activity involves considerable travel; so Jim and Rosalynn accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles. They use the miles to take their children and grandchildren on holiday at Christmas. They have three sons and a daughter, and the daughter has just had a son, Hugo – 21st of their descendants. The clan has been on holiday to Disneyland, Colorado, Mexico and Belize.
In the middle of all this traveling, Carter manages to do quite a bit of writing. He has written 14 books, including one on the virtues of aging; another, written with his wife, is entitled “Everything to gain: making the most of the rest of your life”. At the moment he is writing a novel – no, not Primary Colors Vol 2. He is an expert carpenter; he does all the repairs in his house; he has made his own bed, and he makes furniture to relax. Emory University has made him a distinguished professor; there he lectures on various topics such as politics and health care. He started skiing at 62, climbed Kilimanjaro at 64, and Mount Fuji at 70.
But maybe this late precocity is not unusual in the son of Miss Lillian, a registered nurse who ran a nursing home. At 68 she joined the Peace Corps and came to India for two years in the 1960s. (That was before Indira Gandhi banned the Peace Corps volunteers, saying they were spies; the government is still to remove the ban, or indeed the draconian restrictions on long-stay visitors that L K Advani’s home ministry administers.) She went back to the States and gave 500 speeches on being active in old age. She died at 85. Today, at 76, her son is one of the old people the Americans admire most.
Carter’s example encourages me, for I too thought that my career had been destroyed at 57 by the kiss of death that my brief time in the government proved to be. But I survived, thanks to BS, and I have gone on to do things I would once have thought impossible. I am not sure I would go and climb Kilimanjaro. But anything is possible. And one does not have to wait to get old for it to happen. Who knows? It may happen to you tomorrow. But you have to go and build your own fortune.