If memory serves, this country’s political process was the result of an impersonation of Jimmy Carter. A civic-minded seventh-grade teacher asked for three students to prepare a speech that reflected the views and politics of three presidential candidates—Jon Anderson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. After the speeches, we were told we would debate each other and the students would vote for the candidate of their choosing. This had to be 1980; I must have been 12 years old.
I don’t know why, but my hand shot for Jimmy. For all I know, it might have been my interest in regional dialects or my taste for peanuts. In retrospect, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. As the kind of student who sat at the back of the class, hopelessly drowning in a horny ocean of pre-adolescent hormones, this would have been last thing I would have normally done, much less volunteer for. Standing up in class, impromptu, was enough to cause a life’s worth of priapic mortification.Terrified at what I’d gotten myself into, I wrote a short speech after listening to a campaigning Jimmy Carter on the radio. Then I went to the bathroom and smiled with all my teeth and practiced becoming President Carter.
“Deaha Americun citizens,” I began the next day in class. My classmates erupted in laughter. I smiled ever more broadly in caricature. “We are gathered here tuday …” I don’t remember the rest of the speech, nor any of the debate with Anderson or Reagan. I only remember my version of Carter won the election and a few months later Jimmy Carter didn’t.
And I think I may have cried a little. Had I known then that my formative years ahead would be spent with Ray Gun and father Bush—12 long years to be exact, plus eight years of Bush redux—I might have wept a little harder or killed myself prematurely. Nevertheless, that day in the classroom I became one with Jimmy Carter in my political leanings.
As we’ve all heard, life has a way of coming full circle. It’s just the circles whirl faster while we spin around the sun, the years shorter with each passing. In this case, nearly 30 times before I saw, in the flesh, the man that had unwittingly given rise to my political consciousness. Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer, politician, president, peacemaker, painter, poet, sitting not but 10 feet in front of me at Emory University in Atlanta with a large bandage on his hand.
He’s older of course—85 years and counting—but the same broad smile was wholly intact. So, too, the Plains, Georgia accent, though not as thick as I remember, thinned perhaps by belonging to the world now rather than a single Southern state. Carter had come to talk about creativity. About his poetry, novels, his memoirs, non-fiction (25 books in all) and his woodworking, painting; how all this ties into his life, a former president who has, without question, lived larger than any other past presidents.
He’d spent the previous day feeling nauseous and was half way through a blood transfusion when he appeared on the stage. “I slipped out of an IV (at Emory Hospital nearby),” he said, holding up his bandaged wrist, “to be with ya’ll.” Two Secret Service bad-asses scanned the crowd. A guy with a large medical bag looked nervous. Carter would leave in the morning for Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China on another Habitat for Humanity mission. He needed to be in full health.
He spoke of his influences—William Faulkner, James Agee, Dylan Thomas, Vincent van Gogh—and the importance of optimism in creative thinking and endeavors.
“I don’t consider myself to have a particular talent,” he said. “I think anyone can do something new, something creative, and learn to do it in a satisfying way. You have to have a dream that you will succeed, otherwise it would be too hard to pick up a paintbrush or a pen or a woodworking tool.”
In a lot of ways he was right on both accounts. Carter won’t ever gain the distinction of being this country’s best and brightest poets or writers. He’s stretched to the limits of time as it is being the most prolific former president in history. It’s a wonder he’s managed to fit so much into his days. Some of the furniture he makes by hand requires more than 300 hours to build. Oh yeah: Carter took up skiing at the age of 62 and considers himself a fairly dedicated birdwatcher these days. And the Evangelical wing of the Republican Party should appreciate the fact that Carter has given the Bible study at his church for the last thirty years, a task that takes hours of contemplation and mediation … but they probably won’t.
It seemed that Carter had grown tired of talking about himself and his creative process. He’d already elegantly connected the creative process to his 30-year goal of bringing peace to Israel, his long-standing affiliation with Habitat for Humanity, the growing chasm between the rich and poor. “I’ll read a few poems, then,” he said.
A poem about growing up in Plains, his African-American childhood friends whom he fished with, until one day when he turned 14, he learned the terrible truths about prejudice. Another about his days in the Navy in a submarine, listening to the calls of humpback whales. And a love poem about his wife, Rosalynn, which ended with the lines: “With shyness gone and hair caressed with gray / her smile still makes the birds forget to sing / and me to hear their song.”
Corny? You had to be there. Had to hear the faltering in Carter’s voice as he fought his way through the emotion of simple words for his wife. Amidst a standing ovation he bowed, smiled broadly and disappeared off the stage. We stood there, clapping, still smitten by the peanut farmer’s presence. I don’t know what we were expecting—an encore, perhaps? But when he didn’t return, we slowly, and very quietly walked out of the auditorium into the late-afternoon rain.