When allegations of corruption are aimed at the current occupant of the White House – that he’s twisting the arm of a foreign leader, or hosting international lobbyists and American military personnel at Trump hotels – some critic will inevitably riff on an old joke: Wow, Jimmy Carter had to put his peanut farm in a blind trust!
The 39th president did indeed put the thriving family peanut business in a blind trust when he was elected in 1976. But it’s actually more depressing than that. When Mr. Carter limped out of Washington a one-term loser – a victim of the economy, or the Ayatollah’s wrath, or his own political shortcomings, or Ronald Reagan’s deadly talent with a TV audience – his peanut business was ground to a paste. Mr. Carter had been too principled even to get annual reports from his trustee, and after four years of mismanagement and three years of Georgia drought “we had accumulated a very large debt,” he writes in his memoir, A Full Life. He worried he’d lose the land, and the family home (don’t worry: Archer Daniels Midland stepped in to buy the business).
Instead Mr. Carter and his beloved wife, Rosalynn, who had turned down his first marriage proposal because she wanted to finish college, returned home to Georgia and put in a new floor for their attic. By themselves. It’s served them well, this skill with saws and levels and hammers. Every year, they build houses for needy families with Habitat for Humanity. They’ve been doing it for 35 years, and they’re going to do it again next month, even though Mr. Carter is in remission from metastatic cancer. He’s also recovering from surgery, having broken his hip in a fall in May. Oh, and he turns 95 on Oct 1. Just in case you wanted to feel a tiny bit depressed about the time you’ve clocked on the couch.
Every once in a while, as the garbage hurricane swirls and threatens to blind us to all but the worst behaviour, it’s worth looking around and seeing that there are decent humans in the eye of the storm, quietly going about their business. Young women who aren’t afraid to endure mockery in their fierce desire to protect the Earth, or an older gentleman who has earned every right to spend his afternoons dozing on a porch swing, but prefers advocating for human rights, monitoring foreign elections, teaching Bible school and building tidy new homes instead.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump are made of the same human clay. For example, one of them wrote a book about women’s rights, in which he noted that "the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls.” The other … did not. But that’s the American project for you. There’s always a fun fair or a car accident around the corner. Only two years after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, a shattered and mistrustful country elected Mr. Nixon’s opposite – a decent man who was not the most adroit political operator. The same thing could happen again. (Except this time, it may well be a decent woman.)
It’s clear that Mr. Carter would welcome a new member to the one-term club, and not just out of Christian charity. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, Mr. Carter mused about who he might vote for in 2020. “I’m going to keep an open mind. One of the major factors I will have in my mind is who can beat Trump. I think it will be a disaster to have four more years of Trump." Ms. Carter, alarmed at the way Mr. Trump “encourages racism,” said: “I think we need a new president.” This may be the secret to staying married for 73 years: Agree to say no to authoritarianism, compromise on dishes.
A thread of decency has run through Mr. Carter’s public and private life (he was one of the American naval officers brought to Ontario in 1952 to help prevent a meltdown at the Chalk River nuclear reactor, a story he doesn’t pull out to get free Timbits nearly enough). At the beginning of his political career, he made a personal pledge not to lie, which seems almost quaint in the current maelstrom of mendacity. But that old-timey sternness gives him a gravity, a moral weight, to speak out about the disaster in the White House. Certainly he’s spoken his mind more plainly than any of the other living ex-presidents. Maybe once you pass 90, you’ve burned through all the figs you once had to give.
While Mr. Carter may not be remembered as the most successful U.S. president, he was visionary in one way that’s particularly relevant today. He was green in a sea of seventies brown. He was the first president to give subsidies to the wind- and solar-power industries. His administration poured money into research on alternative energy sources. He put solar panels on the roof of the White House, and Mr. Reagan had them torn down. Ellin Stein recently explained this transition in Slate: “Americans don’t like limits, speed or otherwise. Ronald Reagan promised them they didn’t have to have any.”
And so we find ourselves here, in this place without limits. At least we still have Mr. Carter. Apparently, he doesn’t want much. No dirt on his political opponents, nor gold toilets. His wife has an idea: “All he wants for his birthday is for everyone to make a renewed commitment to peace and everything it entails, including improving health and building hope among the world’s poorest people.”
I didn’t say it was a simple request, did I? He’d probably also be happy with a hammer, or a nail. Or a new commander in chief.