February 19, 2023
As a Georgia boy, it was a big deal when the peanut farmer from Plains was elected as President of the United States in 1976. I was 12-years-old and remember my mother showing off her drivers license that was signed by “Governor Jimmy Carter.” His election was a rejection of all the Watergate era corruption that had tanked America’s faith in government. It was meant to be a return to normal, with an ethical Southerner who had admitted to Playboy Magazine that he had lusted in his heart. Seemed better than Gerald Ford falling down the stairs again.
I could write pages on how history will kindly remember the 1977-1981 term that Carter had in the White House. Having a human rights advocate who loved Willie Nelson and the Allman Brothers stood in stark contrast to what was to come. Sadly, much of my high school experience was to be marked by the Iranian hostage crisis. One of the 52 Americans held in Teheran was Col. Charles Scott, of Stone Mountain, Georgia and his daughters went to my school. When they were finally released on January 20, 1981, we covered our town in yellow ribbons.
Fast forward to my 1984-1985 senior year at Emory University, in Atlanta. I had become a sociology major and dedicated a large percentage of my waking hours to protesting whatever Ronald Reagan was doing that week. By my senior year, I had pretty much taken every sociology class Emory offered and added Political Science as a second major. I needed the scholarship to inform my activism. I would wear my Sandinista t-shirt to Professor Juan del Aguila’s Latin American Politics class and spar with him over the CIA’s role in the 1954 overthrow of Guatemala’s democracy for the benefit of the United Fruit Company. Good times.
My favorite classes were Professor Thomas Remington’s Soviet politics class. This was at the peak of the cold war when the U.S. and USSR were positioned, like two tribes, to wipe each other off the face of the map. On the first Wednesday of each month, at noon, the air raid sirens on campus would wail to remind us that Emory’s CDC (and all of us college kids) were the likely target of a nuclear strike. Remington’s classes seemed vital to understanding the Russian bear.
So it was great excitement that Professor Remington told us that President Carter would be doing a series of guest lectures in our Soviet Foreign Policy class. Carter had accepted a professorship in 1982, during my freshman year, and we would occasionally catch sitings of him on campus, but to sit in a classroom listening to a former U.S. president, instead of reading about him, was a privilege beyond belief.
It might not surprise you that I was the kid in the front row with his hand constantly darting up in the air. While Carter had an unrestricted forum at Emory, I was suddenly a 20-year-old with unrestricted access to the President of the United States. I took scrupulous notes and channelled my inner Arnold Horshack to pepper him with endless questions. Like this classic; “President Carter, why did you authorize Presidential Directive 59, authorizing the use of nuclear weapons if the Soviets advanced past Afghanistan?”
At times it seemed like it was just Jimmy and I in the room. He kindly addressed each of my questions with clarity and as much declassified intel as he could share with an overly earnest college kid. I imagined that the eyes of my fellow students were rolling as I continued the one-on-one but I was eternally grateful to Dr. Remington for creating this space that revealed the real world complexity of governing that was dramatically different from my Marxist-wannabe dogmatism.
The pay off was on a spring day in 1985 when I was sitting on the steps of Cox Hall with my gang of misfit Emoroids. We’d have our lunch there to talk about upcoming punk shows and make fun of frat boys. Suddenly, President Carter came out of Cox Hall with a small group, and stopped to say, “Hi Randy! How are your classes going?” As he walked away, my friends were just silent.
The following year Carter hosted a summit with Gerald Ford at Emory on foreign policy. I attended every session (and remember Ford falling asleep at the dais). After that, Carter opened his Carter Presidential Library across the street from my apartment in Little 5 Points. President Reagan came to speak at the opening and Carter (much to Reagan’s chagrin) allowed the event to be open to the public so we arrived to shout rude things at Ronnie. While I was in graduate school at Emory, I would have my Social Problems class work on pressing issues with the Carter Center, submitting my students work to the newly empowered Clinton Administration. Living across the street from his library I would occasionally see Jimmy walking the grounds and picking up trash (can you imagine Donald Trump doing that?) and thank him for those lectures in our Soviet politics classes. “I hope I wasn’t too obnoxious,” I said to him one fall day. “Not at all, Randy. You always asked the questions I wanted to talk about,” he said.
The four-year presidency of James Earl Carter was a tiny fraction of the nearly century long life of this man. Everyone that met him following his tenure in the Oval Office tells a similar version to this little story. A journey of a man guided by intention, service, and humility. It seems like the polar opposite of our current generation of political “leaders.” I was glad to know him and we were lucky to have him.