The Peanut Farmer Hero

The Peanut Farmer Hero

This week, on my podcast “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” I pay tribute to a remarkable man: former President Jimmy Carter. Our conversation (listen here), originally taped in 2014, is unique for a number of reasons.

For one, Carter was the first man and one of only a few men to ever be a guest on this program, because women were and still are the priority. For another, he holds forth frankly with astonishing clarity, strength, and principled politics about such issues as violence against women, the vast sexual sexploitation industry and its power, the sexual enslavement of girls and women in prostitution and pornography, the role religion tragically plays in all this, and the primal necessity for global feminism to ensure the peace and security of all nations. He says flat out that, “The oppression of women is at the root of all other oppressions.”

A few weeks ago, The Carter Center for Human Rights, based in Georgia, announced that former President Carter, at age 98 the longest living president in US history, had decided to forgo further medical treatment after a series of short hospital stays, and would enter hospice care at his home, “to spend his remaining time at home with his family instead of [receiving] additional medical intervention. The Carter family asks for privacy during this time, and is grateful for the concern shown by his many admirers.”

The Center did not elaborate on what conditions had prompted the recent hospital visits or his decision to enter hospice care. Mr. Carter has survived a series of health crises in recent years, including a bout with skin cancer–melanoma–which spread to his liver and brain, as well as repeated falls. He lives with his wife, Rosalynn, age 95, in a modest ranch house the couple built in Plains, Georgia, in 1961.

It’s preferable, I think, to honor someone while they’re still alive to possibly enjoy it, rather than staging deathbed reconciliations or waiting until they’re “safely” underground. Thus the re-run conversation, and this blog.

Like the Energizer Bunny, Carter just kept going, and going well. In one of his last public acts, he filed a brief in 2022 — just last year – supporting an appeal by conservation groups seeking to overturn a court decision permitting a gravel road to be built through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. He argued that the construction would undercut the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, which he had signed into law. He was said to be working on that issue as recently as this past February. In the brief he wrote, “My name is Jimmy Carter. In my lifetime, I have been a farmer, a naval officer, a Sunday school teacher, an outdoorsman, a democracy activist, a builder, a governor of Georgia, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And from 1977 to 1981, I had the privilege of serving as the 39th President of the United States.”

Indeed. It was a characteristically accurate yet humble understatement.

Carter was a political sensation in his day, a new generation Democrat who, after a single term as governor of Georgia, shocked the political world by beating a host of better known rivals to win his party’s presidential nomination in 1976, then besting the Republican president, Gerald R. Ford, in the fall.

Over his four years in The White House, he sought to restore trust in government following the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, and by ushering in reforms that were meant to transform politics. He struck a sour note with us feminists when he fired then Congresswoman Bella Abzug of New York from her post as co-chair of the Women’s Commission for daring to say that economic issues were important to women–e.g., not only reproductive freedom–but when virtually the entire Commission resigned in protest, he apparently learned a major lesson.

He went on to negotiate the landmark Camp David Accords, making peace between Israel and Egypt, an agreement that remains the foundation of Middle East relations. But an uneven economy and a 444 day hostage crisis in Iran in which 52 Americans were held captive undercut his public support. Despite Carter staying awake night after night trying to engineer the hostages’ release, he lost his bid for reelection to former governor Ronald Reagan of California in 1980. Carter’s chief aide on Iran during the hostage crisis, Gary Sick, wrote in his book October Surprise that Reagan’s campaign manager, William Casey, had reached out to the Iranians during the campaign to urge them to delay releasing the hostages until after the November elections (because the hostage situation was largely responsible for Carter’s falling popularity numbers), and had encouraged Reagan to promise the Iranians financial benefits if they did. This was admitted later by the Reagan Administration. And it worked. Immediately after Reagan’s inauguration, a Secret Service agent pushed through the crowd at the U.S. Capitol to tell former President Carter that at 12:33 P.M. the first plane carrying the hostages had taken off from Tehran, and the second left nine minutes later. Reagan got the word at the inaugural luncheon. It was the first official announcement he would make, coasting on Bill Casey’s carefully planned and executed delay. The hostages, on the 444th day of their captivity, were set free.

It’s an inarguable fact that Jimmy Carter basically invented the post presidency. Previous presidents had taken to golf and elite retirement, with maybe having a book or two ghost-written and playing king-maker for candidates in their own party on the side. But Carter went into a second bloom more impressive than his electoral one. He and Rosalynn spent his post presidency on a series of philanthropic causes around the world: building houses for the poor, combating guinea worm, promoting human rights in places of oppression, monitoring elections, and seeking to end conflict. The Carter Center in Georgia is a nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization founded in 1982 by Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter partnered with Emory University just after his defeat in the 1980 presidential election.

In 2000, he and Rosalynn publicly left the Southern Baptists’ Convention (the US’s largest Protestant denomination, with 15.9 million members), despite their both being devout persons of faith, because the Convention refused to ordain women as deacons in the church. Carter said at the time, “I’m familiar with the verses they have quoted about wives being subjugated to their husbands. In my opinion, this is a distortion of the meaning of Scripture. … I personally feel the Bible says all people are equal in the eyes of God. I personally feel that women should play an absolutely equal role in service of Christ in the church.” Carter’s work as a former president in many ways has eclipsed his time in the White House, eventually earning him the Nobel Peace Prize. It also set a standard for other post presidencies. What was not expected, though, was that he would declare that women’s worldwide struggle for equality and freedom was the key to ending all other oppressions.

These days, words like “people of faith” are becoming fighting words, since sadly they are used as boastful self-identification and to describe populations in this country that have chosen to be willfully ignorant, nativist, bigoted, racist, sexist, homophobic, and rabidly right wing. And then, to our surprise, along comes a genuine article or two. Thus we have Rosalynn Carter and Jimmy Carter. Serious Christians with a sense of humor.

I met them both–and shared a stage with him–at a conference held at the Carter Center in Georgia, inspired by the original conversation on my podcast, a conference on the sex industry and its coordinated, hugely well-financed assault on women and girls through pornography, prostitution, and trafficking in sex; in commercial birth surrogacy and harvested organs, and the horrific systems upon which all these depend: drugs, alcohol, kidnappings, poverty, violence. It was an amazing conference.

Mr. Carter has defied illness and death for years, outlasting two presidents who followed him, as well as his own vice president. After his melanomas spread to his brain in 2015, he drew praise for announcing it publicly. Even as he went through treatment, he continued to teach Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist church in Plains, as he had promised. Within months, he announced he was cancer free. In 2019, he fell at least three times, at one point breaking a hip and at another requiring 14 stitches. Each time he bounced back, even showing up for a Habitat for Humanity home-building project shortly after one tumble. But he has slowly retreated from public life and couldn’t attend Biden’s inauguration in 2021, though Biden made a pilgrimage to Plains in April of that year to pay his respects.

Meanwhile, Rosalynn and Jimmy steadily persisted in their faith and in their works, never resting on any laurels, always pushing the possibilities. May what’s left of their time here, so well earned, be joyful, and may their faith, laughter, and love sustain them.