The battle over the legacy of an American president begins the moment they leave office. Historians debate their contributions, reporters examine their records, and the public weighs in with their memories.
Partisans also enter the fray, with each side attempting to elevate their favorites while working to discredit those with whom they have political differences. At stake is more than the standing of the president. In saluting their heroes, activists are trying to elevate their political philosophy and its currency. It is in this context that liberals and conservatives continue to debate the legacies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
I want to posit different metrics by which to judge the legacy of those who have held the highest office in the land: humility and compassion for others. Using those metrics, I judge Jimmy Carter, far and away, to be the greatest former president of the United States.
From the beginning of his race for the presidency, Carter—who recently entered hospice care at the age of 98—came across as a refreshingly different candidate. The public took note of the fact that he carried his own suitcase, engaged in honest, humble, and direct conversations with voters on the campaign trail, and was never shy about acknowledging his Christian faith, though not in a pompous, holier-than-thou manner.
Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were a breath of fresh air in the White House. After a few successful years, his presidency was done in by domestic and foreign policy crises that he did not create and which proved beyond his ability to control. When he left office, “pundits” were in agreement that he had failed and would be forgotten. That was not to be the case.
On leaving the White House, one of the first things Carter did was to become closely identified with a nonprofit volunteer project, Habitat for Humanity. During its initial two decades, owing in large measure to Carter’s sponsorship, Habitat became a household name in communities across the US, building over 100,000 low-cost homes for over half a million people in the US and in 60 countries around the world.
Well into their 70s, Jimmy and Rosalynn were still spending one week each year volunteering with Habitat. He became so identified with the group that when thinking of him, more Americans probably called to mind Carter in denim with a hammer in his hand than Carter in a suit in the White House.
In 1982, just two years after leaving office, Carter further burnished his credentials as a great leader when he created the Carter Center, which described its role as “waging peace, fighting disease, and building hope.” Many of the Center’s initiatives were led by Carter himself, including monitoring elections in dozens of countries; negotiating peaceful resolutions to conflicts in Africa, Asia, and the Americas; undertaking programs to help eradicate dreaded diseases that plagued parts of Africa and Asia; and assisting farmers in Africa to increase their yield and improve their lives.
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Working tirelessly to address these global concerns, Carter established his legacy as the greatest of our former presidents.
I never met Carter while he was in the White House, although since I was running the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I had several interactions with his administration—some good, some not so good. Early in his term, I was invited to an ethnic leaders’ meeting at the White House with Vice President Walter Mondale. Three days after the meeting, I received a tearful call from a White House staffer telling me that I wouldn’t be invited to the follow-up meeting. Someone had complained that I was a pro-Palestinian activist, and so the White House had decided that it would be too controversial to have me back again.
My wife and I, however, were invited to the White House lawn in 1979 to greet Pope John Paul II on his visit to Washington. The wind was blowing that day, and the pope’s cape kept flying up over his head We were moved by Carter’s very humble gesture of standing next to the pope and holding on to his cape for the duration of his speech.
When Carter was at Camp David, in 1978, negotiating with Israeli and Egyptian leaders, I hired a pilot to fly around the perimeter of the camp (though I was careful to remain outside of the restricted airspace) with a billboard that read “Palestinians are the key to peace.”
After he lost his reelection bid, in 1980, I wrote Carter a note expressing my disappointment at his defeat and thanking him for his efforts, though incomplete, to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace. I was surprised to receive a lengthy response in which he expressed his regrets and his hopes to continue to work for justice for Palestinians.
When I finally met Jimmy Carter, years later, I told him about both my exclusion from the White House meeting and the Camp David flight. He was offended by and apologized about the former, and about the latter he said, “That was you! I wondered who did that. It was a great reminder.”
I met with Carter on a number of other occasions in the next few decades. I had the honor of serving under his leadership as an election monitor in Palestine in 1996. His very presence was an inspiration to Palestinians, especially as he fought to ensure that Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem would be able to vote.
In 2016, we appeared on a panel together at the Carter Center before a group of Palestinian clergy to discuss the challenges to religious freedom imposed by the Israeli occupation. My flight was delayed by bad weather, so I arrived after the session had begun. In an act of characteristic Carter humility, he stopped his remarks as I entered the back of the room, and said, “Oh good, Jim Zogby has arrived. Let’s wait until he can be seated up here on stage.”
Most memorable, though, was a lengthy discussion I had with Carter in early 2001, where we discussed a number of hot-button Middle East topics. He expressed his frustration that he hadn’t been able to do more to secure Palestinian rights and noted the pushback he received both domestically and in Israel for his efforts. And he told me of his dismay that, in the years after Camp David, despite what he felt were Israeli commitments to him, Israel continued to deepen the occupation with settlements while successive US administrations “looked the other way” and allowed it to impede the prospects for peace.
While acknowledging that Saddam Hussein was a “callous dictator,” Carter was deeply critical of the US-led sanctions against Iraq, which he noted were “counterproductive,” had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, and played into the hands of the Iraqi regime. He also took time to single out for commendation the leader of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed, for his role in building his country and for providing extraordinary assistance to many important health care projects across Africa.
With all this in mind, I took personal note of the news of Jimmy Carter’s decision to enter hospice and was reminded of a quote from a talk he gave to his church in 2019: “I didn’t ask God to let me live, but I asked God to give me a proper attitude toward death. And I found that I was absolutely and completely at ease with death.”
This is the legacy of Jimmy Carter: a great former president who taught us how to live a life for others, and, as he approaches his end, is teaching us how to die with grace.