Among ex-presidents, Mr. Jimmy blazes on. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, both men who sandwiched him in office, are dead; George senior teeters; Bill Clinton tremors when tired and, at 71, has begun to fade before our eyes. (Meanwhile, Bill and Hillary have pocketed over $150 million from speeches.) George W. has retreated to a more low-profile, patrician life of painting and occasional aid trips to Africa, while Obama is just beginning a post-presidency that some have projected could be worth roughly $250 million in personal gain and includes the recent announcement of a multi-year production deal with Netflix.
With Carter now in his fourth decade as ex-president, his actual presidency feels more like a footnote, an aberration in the life of a holy man. The public servant in him, the impulse that led him to the presidency in the first place, has thrived in the aftermath of his former Beltway imprisonment. While he rejects pay-to-play speechmaking and appearances, his net worth—reportedly $7 million to $8 million—has come from the 30-plus books he’s written, many of them spiritual in nature. His activism and advocacy across the globe—in particular his success in eradicating Guinea worm in Africa and Asia, from 3.5 million estimated cases in 1986 to 30 last year—led to the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
But it’s on these Sunday mornings of Bible study in Plains that you see the real Mr. Jimmy, the humble, hometown Jimmy Carter who some thought, when he first burst on the scene, must have been putting on some sort of bullshit act. At his Plains pulpit, he appears as a silver-penumbra’ed teacher in a time when morals seem suddenly fluid and facts illusory. If our democratic highway has turned bumpy, Mr. Jimmy’s seen it all before: North Korea, strife in the Middle East, Iran, trade wars, stock-market roller coaster, etc. He talks in steadying tones about being a spiritual person in a political world. His mere presence gives perspective. If he’s one of the most vital living links between the past and the present, he’s also the hook-and-loop between different American civilizations, from the Jim Crow South to the New South, from Depression to recovery, from a rural America to an urban one, from post-Nixon doldrums to Trumpian triumphalism. [Continue reading…]