‘An example I thought was admirable’

I wrote a brief reflection on Jimmy Carter last summer and Kevin Sullivan’s and Mary Jordan’s profile gives me another reason to reflect:

Jimmy Carter finishes his Saturday night dinner, salmon and broccoli casserole on a paper plate, flashes his famous toothy grin and calls playfully to his wife of 72 years, Rosalynn: “C’mon, kid.”

She laughs and takes his hand, and they walk carefully through a neighbor’s kitchen filled with 1976 campaign buttons, photos of world leaders and a couple of unopened cans of Billy Beer, then out the back door, where three Secret Service agents wait.

They do this just about every weekend in this tiny town where they were born — he almost 94 years ago, she almost 91. Dinner at their friend Jill Stuckey’s house, with plastic Solo cups of ice water and one glass each of bargain-brand chardonnay, then the half-mile walk home to the ranch house they built in 1961.

On this south Georgia summer evening, still close to 90 degrees, they dab their faces with a little plastic bottle of No Natz to repel the swirling clouds of tiny bugs. Then they catch each other’s hands again and start walking, the former president in jeans and clunky black shoes, the former first lady using a walking stick for the first time.

The 39th president of the United States lives modestly, a sharp contrast to his successors, who have left the White House to embrace power of another kind: wealth.

Even those who didn’t start out rich, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have made tens of millions of dollars on the private-sector opportunities that flow so easily to ex-presidents. …

“I don’t see anything wrong with it; I don’t blame other people for doing it,” Carter says over dinner. “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”

“I am a great admirer of Harry Truman. He’s my favorite president, and I really try to emulate him,” says Carter, who writes his books in a converted garage in his house. “He set an example I thought was admirable.” …

As Carter spreads a thick layer of butter on a slice of white bread, he is asked whether he thinks, especially with a man who boasts of being a billionaire in the White House, any future ex-president will ever live the way Carter does.

“I hope so,” he says. “But I don’t know.”

There’s so much power in that simple statement of preference: “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”

Russell Arben Fox reflects on the profile above in a beautiful way:

There is a way of talking about the virtues that Carter brought to the presidency: republican, in the small-r sense. Those kind of virtues aren’t a good fit for the presidency today, and–realistically speaking–hadn’t been a good fit for it since the Civil War, if not before. So it was a singularly odd thing that this pious Christian man, this “good old Southern gentleman,” as one of his many friends in Plains described him, this product of farms and the Depression and the military and a slow, traditional pace of life,  could have made his way to the position of, arguably, the most powerful person in the world’s most powerful military, economic, and cultural empire. His time there didn’t last, but in the exhausting, depressing era of Trump, one is tempted to say that James Earl Carter, Jr., has outlasted the American presidency. Good for him.

It’s a simple and obvious enough thing to defend the pursuit of wealth by pointing out that wealth lets you do a lot, and that it buys not only material things but also immaterial things like time. But it’s as simple (though maybe less obvious) that you can do great things without wealth, too.

Where Carter and Truman were coming from was a much older place in the story of America and our people’s character and values. You can get at part of that story by understanding the role that good sense and frugality has always played in a nation of pioneers and bootstrap-settlers. But you can also get at that story a bit by considering just how unseemly and downright corrosive to the public consciousness it is to see one president after another (and politician after politician, generally) literally cash in the chips of prestige, of knowledge, of trust for personal enrichment after his or her time in office has come to an end. Watching that happen often enough makes the phrase public servant unbelievable.

Will future ex-presidents live the way that Carter does?

We’ll need them too.