I’ve been slacking – big time. Old habits have been kicking at the door and, without thinking, I opened it. Thus a spate of weeks with no Inspirer and, as is always the case, lost momentum that makes getting back into gear like restarting a diet.
But I committed, and if I must now play a bit of catch up, so be it. Surely the folks I’ve been chronicling would do no less. They conquered (some continue to) far more than simple laziness, and it is in their honor that I rededicate myself to this yearlong project.
Where better to regain traction than with a man who, after a humble start in life, made his way to the highest office in the world – and after he finished with it, went on to do even greater things?
Born in 1924, James Earl Carter grew up modestly in Plains, and later, Archery, Georgia. He fulfilled his first dream in 1943 when he was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It was while there that he would meet and fall in love with his sister’s friend, Rosalynn – they married shortly after he graduated in 1946.
As a member of the Navy’s fledgling nuclear submarine program, he saw the devastating potential of atomic energy when he led the cleanup after a partial meltdown at Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories. It was an event that shaped his thinking and led him to cease development of a neutron bomb in the 1970s.
Carter began his political career in the early 1960s, as racial tensions in Georgia intensified after the Brown vs. the Board of Education anti-segregation ruling. He became a prominent member of the community and when a state Senate seat opened up on 1963, he ran, with Rosalynn providing sharp political instincts. Though fraudulent voting cost him the race initially, he challenged the results and won a new election.
A few years later he would run for Governor, and lose. But he had learned to play politics well, positioning himself as a populist as ran against mainstream Democrats. And though he made a priority of civil rights – including an increase in appointments of African-Americans – there were other decisions made to keep conservative supporters happy that were decidedly not progressive ones. Carter reinstated the death penalty (which he later said he regretted), but also pushed education reforms aimed at helping poorer communities.
He was a relative unknown when he ran for the 1976 Democratic nomination for President – but he beat his primary opponents and in November he beat Gerald Ford to become the 39th Commander in Chief. It was a difficult time economically for the U.S. and around the world, there was turmoil. Carter brought Israel and Egypt together to sign the Camp David Accords, then faced a horrific challenge when the Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in Teheran – 52 Americans were held as hostages for 444 days, and not released until after Carter had lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.
He returned to his peanut farm (which he had placed in a blind trust to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest) after the devastating defeat. It’s difficult to contemplate how one returns from such a loss; but like many of my Inspirers, it didn’t take long for his next mission to appear.
For it is in his post-presidency, now the longest in history, where this ex-President took on causes and global challenges in a way that he never could as America’s chief executive. He established the Carter Center in 1982 to work on issues such as eradicating diseases across the world. The Center has also monitored elections and supported human rights defenders from Haiti and Bosnia to Ethiopia. In 2002 President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work “to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development” through The Carter Center; he is unique in receiving the award for his actions after leaving the presidency.
Among all of President Carter’s good works, he is perhaps best known for his alliance with Habitat for Humanity. He and Rosalynn worked on their first project in 1984 and according the the organization’s website:
“To date, President and Mrs. Carter have served with over 92,260 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate and repair 3,944 homes.”
As advocates and fundraisers, the couple has helped Habitat to become internationally recognized and their rallying of volunteers has been essential to its growth. Pictures abound of the former POTUS on job sites, not merely serving as a famous face but as a hands-on participant in building houses that change the lives of those who move into them. He has been part of constructions throughout the world, including across the United States (from New York City and Chicago to Memphis and Miami) and in the Philippines, South Africa, and Haiti – 33 years of giving families in need a foundation from which to grow and thrive.
Not one to court the press, President Carter did make news recently when, on his latest Habitat project, in Canada, he was taken to the hospital suffering from dehydration. It was rather amusing to see a few people criticize those who had “allowed” a 92 year-old man to be in that position – they obviously don’t know much about him and his determination. I know I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell him to take a break.
One of the reasons this particular post took awhile is that as I looked to mark Independence Day a few weeks back, the founding fathers confounded me. There is much greatness in them for sure, and gratitude for what they created. Still, their other great legacy – that of enslaving a group people who were turned into commodities, setting the stage for atrocities that still linger – reared its head every time I thought about how to frame them.
Jimmy Carter is by no means a perfect man – surely this is one of the first things he would say about himself. But at a time when there is ever more emphasis on big personalities, loud arguing, and seeking of attention, his steadfast commitment to those in need – and his use of his position to help them – is unparalleled, certainly for a former head of state.
He speaks to those of us who wonder about our purpose and whether it’s in our power to make a difference. Whether one shot of greatness is all each of us gets, or if it’s possible that beyond what seems to be the pinnacle of success, there is much more to give, and to gain.
I say “I’m tired” a lot. After I’ve walked a few miles, or sat in front of the computer for too many hours, I complain (sometimes silently, sometimes not) about aching legs or eyes, about how there’s not enough time in the day for me to get all of the things done I say are important.
Perhaps the next time I am tempted to that frame of mind, I’ll be smart enough to pull up this post and remind myself of the nonagenarian who, after a full lifetime of service, continues to give his all, each and every day.