Jimmy Carter set a high bar for public life after the presidency

September 5, 2023 4:55 am

Former President Jimmy Carter and wife, Rosalynn, talk prior to the start of a 2010 baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants. (Jamie Squire | Getty Images)

We pay a lot of attention to our world leaders while they are in office. From following policies, successes, failures, and speeches, our media and information sources provide much for us to consume. The same cannot be said, however, of our attention to a leader after they have left office. Several of our American presidents quietly retired from public life following their tenure in the White House, but Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency has been quite long and active.

When I visited the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta this July, I began to consider how our past presidents have chosen to return to life after their time in Washington. An incredibly powerful place, the museum also caused me to deeply consider Jimmy Carter the leader and Jimmy Carter the man.

In a photo on display at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta in July, the Carters and Mondales pose on Inauguration Day in 1977. (Courtesy of Zach Camenker)

Despite conflicting feelings about his presidency, many see Carter, who entered hospice six months ago, as a good, honest, and decent man above all else. While his tenure in the White House has often ranked as mediocre among scholars and critics, rarely has a president’s post-presidential tenure and overall character been regarded so highly

In visiting the museum, I was struck not only by Carter’s impressive intellect, resume, and devotion to his family and faith, but also the fact that few people, no matter their political party, have a bad word to say about him. I learned that he took it upon himself to study subjects of interest from a young age and got involved with local politics first, not often the case among our world leaders. Despite positive views of Carter the man, his presidency was filled with challenges. Inflation, the Iran hostage crisis, economic difficulties, and domestic failures were major issues that critics focused on during his presidency. Since he left office, many historians see Carter’s tenure in a new light due to the difficulties he faced in assuming office in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate.

Carter’s accomplishments are also highlighted well at the museum. In particular, the Camp David Peace Accords, strengthened relations with China and Latin America, the establishment of the Departments of Education and Energy, installing solar panels on the White House roof, and championing causes such as mental health and equal rights for women are celebrated as some of his top victories. Carter also allowed his wife, Rosalynn, to sit in on Cabinet meetings as first lady and be a part of his work. Additionally, he chose Walter Mondale as his vice president. This may seem like nothing special, but it’s clear that Mondale transformed the office of the “veep” into a co-leader who is a central part of the decision making alongside the president, which is the model for the office today. 

Jimmy Carter has earned the designation of most impressive “ex-president” in our country’s history among many scholars and historians, in large part thanks to his longevity, but also due to his decision to carry out a vision of serving others beyond his presidential tenure. This is highlighted extensively at the museum through a focus on Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, with whom he has shared an incredible 77 years of marriage, deciding to open the Carter Center. For over 40 years, the center has been committed to waging peace, fighting disease, and building hope. Thanks to this vision, voting rights have been restored, diseases eradicated, and hope sought, largely in developing nations. 

Zach Camenker in the Oval Office replica at the Carter museum in Atlanta in July 2023. (Courtesy of Zachary Camenker)

Here’s how I see it. Jimmy Carter was too humble and ordinary to be the president of the United States. He lacked the Washington insight, chops of dirty politics, and deep privilege of many others who held the office. The museum conveys that it was Carter being a Washington outsider and his promise to be a new type of Democrat that got him there. I’m sure that had something to do with how he arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but I also think his character stood out even then, particularly at a time of major mistrust in our government. 

Did he have failures while in Washington? Yes. Did he have successes? Yes. Will he go down as one of the greatest and most influential presidents ever? Probably not.

But will he go down as a successful ex-president? Most certainly. And will countless Americans admire him for his humanitarianism and devotion to his fellow man? Most of all, I think.

Suffice it to say, there may never be a former president as universally admired, deeply humanitarian, or with such a long post-presidency as Jimmy Carter. As we reflect on his life of service and as he spends his final days at home, it’s high time we remember that Carter has left us with a hugely important message, which is that we can and should seek peace and hope for all people, both home and abroad, regardless of fundamental differences. 

May God bless Jimmy Carter just as he has blessed so many.

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Zachary Camenker
Zachary Camenker

Zachary Camenker is a Concord resident and a member of the English faculty in the Bedford School District. He serves on the board of directors for New Hampshire Humanities and on the steering committee for the New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival.