[This was a recent photo of President Carter, I believe taken earlier this year]
I have long been a fan of President Carter. Although I was in elementary school during his presidency and didn't really understand the nuances of the various troubles that plagued his administration or why the Camp David Accords with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were so significant, Carter struck me as a man who stood by his convictions, no matter what the political fall-out.
[Jimmy Carter, Roslynn Carter, and their daughter Amy]
My impression of President Carter as an ethical and dare I say moral man was heightened in college when I took an intro to Poli Sci class and wrote my research paper on Jimmy Carter, a figure that both my TA and I agreed had been maligned by history and would, hopefully, one day be vindicated in the progressive measures his administration undertook--like creating a national energy plan that focuses on conservation and renewable, non-polluting energy sources and signing the clean air act (all things that now, in 2009, we take as a given). Almost everyone agrees that President Carter's work after his presidency has been exemplary and more impressive than the work done during his administration (although I think that people sell Carter short--especially in terms of his work in energy and foreign relations). Both Jimmy and Roslynn Carter's support and actual labor for Habitat for Humanity shows that this couple doesn't just do lip service: they actually sweat and work alongside people for causes they believe in. Which is also the message of the Carter Center, the president's institute for working on the world's problems of inequity, poverty, disease, and war, and, of course, his good works have been acknowledged with one of the world's most prestigious awards: the Nobel Prize for Peace (click here for Carter's eloquent acceptance speech).
[Jimmy and Rosslynn working on a habitat house]
And after watching Jonathan Demme's documentary Man from Plains, I was so moved by the humanitarian portrait of Jimmy Carter that I wrote him a letter this past September--here is an excerpt:
"I know you must get hundreds if not thousands of letters each year, and I realize that this letter may never actually reach your eyes (but I hope it does—whoever is reading this, it would be a great honor if President Carter could be handed this letter). Ever since I read your Nobel Prize acceptance speech to my class at Mount Holyoke College (I taught there as a visiting Assistant Professor before joining Southern University) I felt compelled to write to you to say that I have appreciated all the good works that you and your wife Rosalynn have done during your career in public service, and particularly after your term in the White House. Your life is an example of what we can achieve if we only recognize that we should try to live each day with compassion for others. I confess that I get mired in the minutiae of my daily life—I do not do enough to make the world a better place. But each time I encounter a reminder of your own works in this world, I am spurred to once again try harder—to live my life with compassion and care for others—to try to alleviate suffering in the world. I hope that the world, in whatever small way, will be better because I have lived in it. I know that this world is a much better place because of your dedication, hard work, strength of conviction, and kindness. Thank you for your work in human rights President Carter; thank you for being such a good person."
[This is President Carter in Nigeria, on a trip to promote ending guinea worm by promoting clean water practices as well as treatment]
A month later, to my utter amazement, I received back a photocopy of my letter with a message by President Carter written in the upper right-hand corner:
"To Jennifer: Thanks for your beautiful letter & your high ideals. Best Wishes, Jimmy C."
[I am 99% positive this is actually President Carter's handwriting--I held it up to the light and looked at the Carter Center website and it's definitely his signature so I think President Carter actually wrote to me!]
I have framed this letter and it has a prominent place in my office. I know people may disagree with my assessment of his administration, but I think everyone acknowledges that President Carter's humanitarian efforts post-presidency has been nothing short of incredible. And for that, President Jimmy Carter--and Rosslynn Carter, who is a true partner in every sense of the word--deserves a T.G.I.F.