Jimmy Carter wasn’t a very popular president. It wasn’t until FDR that it was a legal requirement, and not a precedent, that a president could only serve two terms. Since that time, eight of the sitting presidents did serve two terms. Carter is one of only three who did not. His time in office was flagged with economic stagnation, being considered soft footed on important issues, and even faced the unusual situation of having to face a challenger within his own party during his bid for reelection. He was walloped in the election too, losing by more than 50% of the popular vote and only gaining 49 electoral votes. Reagan won 489.
In other words, this could have been a very embarrassing end to an unimpressive presidency. He could have chosen to simply write a book and ride off into the sunset. Arguably, few would have judged him for it. And it begs the question, “Where does one go when they’ve been to the top?”
I suppose, that question really only matters if you think of the U.S. Presidency as the top. But it seems that Carter, like our first president, never really looked at it that way. He simply thought of the presidency as another way to serve. Many people have written better works on how maybe he didn’t serve well during his time in office and I’ll leave it up to them to do so and for you to research it and debate those realities in those forums.
My fascination with Carter is rather the idea of what it means to serve, to love, and to fail with grace.
Before the invention of social media, very few people had the distinct honor of failing publicly. Sure, we all failed in different ways and felt shame in the micro. Our reputations could be soiled in our community. But the distention of absolute public ridicule was left to celebrities and politicians. Occasionally, mere mortals would be dragged into the public sphere but generally those were for very heinous crimes, either as the victim or the perpetrator. So what does someone do with their life after they’ve failed in the biggest capacity possible? Losing a reelection camp again so profoundly the the majority of the nation no longer wanted to see your face on TV again?
You delve deeper, try harder, and give more. At least that is what President Carter chose to do. Once he left office he got back to work founding the Carter Center, of which the motto is “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope.” 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.”
Since his time in office, Carter has utilized his time negotiating peace with world leaders and helping to fight disease both at home and abroad. One of the areas he’s most notable for is his constant help with Habitat for Humanity and the fact that, at 94, he’s still out there swinging hammers to built homes and hope.
Whereas other former presidents have presidential legacies ravaged with controversy, wars, and revenge, maybe Carters biggest sin as president is that he didn’t do much of anything at all. He was neither forceful nor interesting. Most of his policies were bland and at the end of the day, he was just considered someone who didn’t accomplish much. However, it leaves the question for us is how much is a president really supposed to do while president? Should we really count on them to do much more than lead gently but carry a big stick to protect us if necessary? Was it ever really supposed to be so much more than that? Maybe not.
I think the lesson President Carter taught us, and continues to reach us, is that life is not a singular accomplishment or a mountain top to reach. There is just as much victory as the ascent from the peak as there is looking out from the highest vantage point. That the knowledge and power we obtain from the top is only benefitial if we bring it down with us to help shape us and also to give to others. Life isn’t about an event, but a series of events. Most of us, myself included, only focus on the major accomplishments or keystones of a person's life. They were in an award winning movie, they became CEO of a company, they were elected president.
How much more we can accomplish when it isn’t in the big achievements or the massive failures that we define ourselves or others but in a total life lived as best we can.
Nathan Monk’s new book, Charity Means Love, addresses many of our cultural blind spots in how we give. Order your copy today!