Several years ago, I heard an address given by a leader who was nearing retirement; he expressed concern, with such a short time remaining to serve in his role, about what kind of legacy he would create.
His comments were puzzling for me: This leader had been established in his vocation for decades, and he had enjoyed a number of years in the role from which he would retire. Surely, I thought, he must know that his legacy wouldn’t be determined by what he would accomplish in the time remaining before his retirement, but rather that his lifetime of accomplishments would be the gift with which he would leave the world.
Four years did not define him…
I would venture a guess that most historians would say that James Earl Carter, Jr. built his true legacy not in the single term that he served as 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981, but throughout his life – and especially in the years following his term in office when, in his own words, he continued to “do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can.”
Carter was born on October 1, 1924 in Plains, Georgia. He served his country in the United States Navy, after having graduated from the Naval Academy in 1946. He left active duty as a decorated Naval officer in 1953 to return to his family home – and peanut farm – in Plains, Georgia.
It was Carter’s commitment to the Civil Rights movement that brought him to the attention of area Democrats and propelled him into elected office. Carter first served on his local school board, was then elected to the Georgia State Senate, and became Governor of Georgia in 1970. Just six years later, he was elected President. He served only one term as President, and returned home to Plains in 1981.
History may not view Carter as what many would have called a successful politician
History may not view Carter as what many would have called a successful politician: He won’t be known for the kinds of sweeping legislation attributed to the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Baines Johnson. He won’t be remembered for the oration of Ronald Reagan. He won’t be remembered as a war hero, as were Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. Those were not the places where he built his legacy.
But he built a legacy, nonetheless, and taught us all incredibly significant lessons about living life fully and well.
What has Jimmy Carter really taught us – especially the millions of Americans who were born well after he had left the White House?
Carter taught us that we can come from humble beginnings and rise to unimagined heights.
Carter taught us that we can come from humble beginnings and rise to unimagined heights. Carter came from a farming family in Plains, Georgia. He was able to attend and graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy (the only President to-date to have done so), and serve his country as a Naval officer. But after his father’s death, a drought brought hard times to the family farm, and Carter returned home to take the helm, reimagining its operation, pouring himself and his gifts into keeping it afloat and continuing to employ persons in his hometown.
Carter taught us how to face public disappointment – and the stinging defeat of a Presidential election – with dignity.
Carter taught us how to face public disappointment – and the stinging defeat of a Presidential election – with dignity. Carter struggled in office without support of Congress, and was unable to advance reforms which he advocated. Inflation and high interest rates overshadowed job growth and a decreased budget deficit during his administration, and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the capture of American diplomats as hostages likely proved to be Carter’s undoing. He was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential election.
Rather than allowing his defeat to thwart his vision, he moved forward instead with grace. He and his wife, Rosalyn, established the Carter Center, in partnership with Emory University, “to improve the quality of life for people in more than 80 countries…” through a commitment “to advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary human suffering.” Through the work of the Carter Center, he continued to bring together world leaders to negotiate peaceful resolution to conflict, secure fair elections, expand global health initiatives to eradicate diseases and increase access to mental health care, and advance democracy in more than 80 countries. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
Carter taught us to treat life as precious, and to make the most of all of the time that we’re given on this earth.
Carter taught us to treat life as precious, and to make the most of all of the time that we’re given on this earth. After having been diagnosed with cancer in 2015, Carter trusted God and his physicians’ recommendations for treatment. He survived and thrived. So, in his 90s, he was still helping to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, making it possible for working-class Americans who longed for the American dream of home ownership to realize it. He was still authoring books, with 30 to his credit. And he was still teaching his famed Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Georgia – the class that people lined up on Sunday mornings to visit.
Carter is teaching us to face death as nothing to be feared, but as our inevitable ending.
Carter is teaching us to face death as nothing to be feared, but as our inevitable ending. Having refused further medical treatment, Carter returned to his home, to receive hospice care. His own faith has surely prepared him for this time: Having achieved more than his three score and ten years, he prepares to face his Maker trusting that God will keep his going out and his coming in from this time on and forever more.
History may not remember Jimmy Carter as a successful politician. But history will remember him as a human being who persevered for human rights and health, and whose life exemplified his faith. May President Carter and his family know the comfort and peace of God throughout his final journey to eternity.