Dear President Carter
Dear President Carter:
I know you told me to call you Jimmy, but I couldn’t then. And I can’t now.
In 2004, you invited me to sit next to you in the presidential box at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. It was truly one of the great honors of my life. It also did you no favors, and in that moment I wondered why would you want to suffer the attacks for placing beside you the person who just a year earlier was booed off the stage at the Oscars for dressing down the commander in chief as a war criminal on the fifth night of the Iraq War.
But you didn’t care about the political reaction to you cozying up to me, the backlash you’d get from the 70% of the American public who supported the invasion of Iraq. You weren’t offended by me who had stood in front of a billion people stating that we were being lied into this war, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, that we would find zero weapons of mass destruction, and that thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were about to die.
In fact, you agreed with me.
Adding more fuel to the fire as we sat there in your box was the fact that in 2,000 theaters across the country that summer, audiences were making Fahrenheit 9/11 the only documentary in history to become the #1 grossing movie in North America.
Right wing media went bananas over the shot on live TV of you wanting me to sit beside you as we watched over the nomination of the Democrat who would almost remove George W. Bush from office.
I had a great conversation that night with you and Rosalynn. Your running commentary on the Democrats was priceless. Your sense of humor was making it all bearable for me.
The news last weekend that you’ve decided to enter hospice — an “end of life” hospice as the news reports called it — was devastating. I broke down and cried. People will say that at 98 years old you’ve been blessed to live such a long life. And of course, that is true. But I’m not crying over you. I’m crying for us. We need 10,000 more of you, not one less as you leave us. Pundits will continue to “explain” and misunderstand your presidency. The Right despises you because you’re the Christian they fake-claim to be themselves. You’ve lived like a true Christian — humble, kind, forgiving, and always making sure your actions matched your words. You could have had a lucrative post-presidency, raking in the big bucks by sitting on corporate boards and investing in growth capitalism (greed).
Instead, you chose to be a carpenter. You spent your weekends for free building homes for the poor. Most of us had never heard the words “Habitat for Humanity” before you. You set up a center to promote democracy and you personally traveled all over the world to help oversee free and fair elections. For decades you did this — until sadly we needed you to protect us from our own anti-democracy authoritarians at home.
You also traveled the world helping to eradicate disease and perhaps save the lives of millions. For the better part of the three decades after you returned to Plains you wrote nearly a book a year. Few presidents have been as literarily prolific. Who would’ve imagined, almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century, that simply not being an illiterate was the new bar for a politician? You set the highest of goals: Thinking matters. Words matter. Reading and more reading is essential. Listening to others, and caring about what they say and what they need is everything.
You were the first president to speak out for the rights of the Palestinians. Almost 50 years ago, back before it was too late, you installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. Ronald Reagan made a big deal out of tearing them off the roof as one of his first “official” acts as president. You never started a war and when Iran kidnapped Americans as hostages and held them for over a year, you didn’t retaliate by wiping out Iran. You were not on the Left (you signed the Hyde Amendment and you brought back required registration for the draft, but years ago you said you regretted both and today, your idea of a Democrat is much closer to Bernie and AOC than, say, to the former senator, Joe Biden).
Speaking of which, one thing I remember about that day in your presidential box was that, in addition to meeting you, I got to spend time with your son Chip and your very cool daughter Amy. And it’s where I met Joe Biden for the first time. I guess he heard you had quite a spread of food so he just popped in to grab a plate of goodies. He saw me there with you and flipped out with glee. “I was raised in the Flint of Pennsylvania!” he exclaimed. Like someone who was proud of the comparison, and I was happy he made it. It was the first moment I saw what would later become the new Joe Biden — regretful of his treatment of Anita Hill, acknowledging the racist “mistakes” of the 1994 Crime Bill, and becoming the loopy, too-honest BFD VP to our first Black President. I sat and had an intense talk with Biden in that dining area of your box, and twelve Biden F-bombs later, I decided I liked him. He didn’t have to be me. And I didn’t have to be you for you to invite me to sit with your family.
FOX News kept cutting away to what they were calling the “Odd Couple” shot of you and me. Or of you and me and Rosalynn. Back in those days it must have seemed weird. But with the installment of an idiot like George W. Bush — America had already entered its CrazyTown Era, and we had begun our slow creep to the edge.
I know that you’ve lovingly decided to spend your final days with your family. So I haven’t called or emailed or texted. If your family wants to read this to you because it’ll bring a smile, then great. But mostly I wanted to give the public a chance to join with me and thank you for what you have done for humanity and for this planet. Please take all this gratitude with you. Please know that you mattered to all of us, you made a huge difference, you fought for those who had the least, and for those deemed to be the last you did your best to make them first.
Jimmy, we love you.
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Thank you Michael for writing this beautiful tribute to Jimmy Carter. The tears, I’m shedding now are based on your beautiful words about you and your time with him, and feeling hopeful that someday we can turn around and lead that kind of country again. At 71 years old I’m so happy I lived during the time that someone like this was President of the United States, and I hope things will become different so my grandchildren can feel the same way.
Amen. His goodness has touched me deeply, as he has millions upon millions. His shining light will be deeply missed. Thank you, Michael, for this post.