A Man of the People

It was back in 1976 that Georgia took the world stage by storm when we sent the first and only Georgian to the White House, Jimmy Carter.

Johnson Tharon Square 200For many of us, Georgia became the center of the political world in 2020. As polls showed one of the tightest elections in the country between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, news organizations from every corner of the country and globe descended on the state with up-to-the-nanosecond coverage. Georgia was a key piece of our national elections in a way we had never seen before.

That is, almost never. It was back in 1976 that Georgia took the world stage by storm when we sent the first and only Georgian to the White House, Jimmy Carter. Carter was born in 1924 in humble Plains, which at the time didn’t even have a population of 500. (It has since ballooned to nearly 550 people today). The son of a registered nurse and local entrepreneur, Carter worked his way through school before achieving his dream of attending the United States Naval Academy. On his first summer break, he began dating Rosalynn Smith, whom he had known since childhood; they married when he was 22.

He spent seven years with the Navy, rising to an executive officer with the submarine program. His career shifted in 1953, however, when his father passed away and he returned to Plains to take over the family peanut business. During that first year home, he lived in public housing as he worked to use his scientific and technical skillsets to expand his peanut farming business.

A decade later, his career in politics began with a run for Georgia State Senate in 1962. He served for two terms before making his first run for governor in 1966, finishing third in the Democratic primary. His loss was only a brief setback, however, as he ran again just four years later and won, finishing with a commanding 59% of the vote in 1970.

In his inaugural speech, Carter declared “the time of racial discrimination is over,” a statement which would serve as a guiding star for many of his proposals.

Jimmy Carter Portrait

President Carter, Atlanta, Georgia, 1993 Credit: The Carter Center
In 1982, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter became a university distinguished professor at Emory University in Atlanta and founded The Carter Center. Actively guided by President Carter, the nonpartisan and not-for-profit Center advances peace and health worldwide. Carter Center staff and partners join with President Carter in efforts to resolve conflict, promote democracy, protect human rights, and prevent disease and other afflictions.

In his inaugural speech, Carter declared, “the time of racial discrimination is over,” a statement which would serve as a guiding star for many of his proposals. He pushed several reforms through the legislature, providing equal state aid to schools in the wealthy and poor areas of Georgia, setting up community centers for mentally disabled children and increasing educational programs for convicts.

His decision to run on the principles of equality, fairness and optimism that propelled him to the governor’s mansion also sent him to the White House in 1976. Entire books have been written about that political campaign but at the core of it, Carter was everything that the recently disgraced Richard Nixon was not, giving him a unique appeal to the American people.

He entered office amid multiple administration-defining crises, including several global conflicts, a domestic economic downturn and an energy crisis. He took on all these challenges with his signature integrity and resiliency, always putting the American people first. In his sole term in office, he expanded the national parks system, created the Department of Education, bolstered Social Security and championed human rights across the globe.

For many presidents, the post-presidency is a time for book tours, speaking engagements and kicking back a bit. Not for Carter. His post- presidency has been perhaps even more defining to his legacy than his presidency, as he spent the decades since advocating for peace, eradicating disease abroad and building homes for Habitat for Humanity with his own two hands, even into his 90s.

There are precious few people in politics shaped in the mold of Jimmy Carter and even fewer who have risen to his level of prominence and electoral success. What makes Carter so special, and what makes Georgia all the luckier to call him our own, is that he is a great man. Not because of what he has accomplished, a list which is too long for print, but because of his selfless dedication to the betterment of all. Whether it’s the couple living next door or a sick family on the far side of the world, there is nothing that Carter would not do if he thought he could make a difference.

His humility sets him apart as well. He has never sought attention or accolades, behavior which seems all but required for modern-day politicians. He gave us everything he had and didn’t ask for anything in return.

There are many lessons to be found in his life and legacy. As national politics become more defined by cruelty and self-gain, a little Carter-style kindness would go a long way.

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