Being Fair to Jimmy Carter

The highly combustible Benghazi hearings which started today have rightly focused Americans on the importance of international events.

Last week I attended an international conference in Panama with three hundred leaders from South, Central and North America. It included a delightful trip along the Panama Canal, one of the wonders of the world–where we marveled at the sight of huge container ships that brought five million dollars a day into the Panamanian economy and also at the lush tropical paradise which included crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas and toucans.

But the most instructive moment for me was a dinner conversation I shared with a long-time friend from Argentina who is both an attorney and highly influential political leader in that nation. What he told me about Jimmy Carter taught me a lesson on the importance of fairness.

First of all, I must confess that I am generally not a fan of our 39th president who was the leader of the free world from 1977-81.

James Earl Carter burst onto the political scene in the mid-seventies after a naval career which included expertise in nuclear physics on submarines and managing the family peanut farm in Plains, Georgia. He served two terms in the Georgia Senate, then became governor of the state as a launching pad for a run to the White House.

When I first heard about his presidential aspirations, I was encouraged that a man who said he was born again” was seeking the highest office in the land. But the more I studied his worldview and policies, I concluded that though he might be Christian in heart, it didn’t translate to his mind where public policies would be created.

How did I come to this conclusion? I was writing my first book in 1976 and decided to contrast the policy positions of Gerald Ford the current post-Watergate president with Ronald Reagan his primary challenger and Jimmy Carter who won the Democratic nomination.

Before the age of computers and e-mail, I wrote all three campaign headquarters asking for quotes from the three men on thirty areas of American public policy. I then compiled the quotes which were first of all published during the summer of 1976 in an Intercessors for America newsletter so that the Body of Christ could be aware of who they were voting for.

Thus, the first “presidential scorecard” was born.

At the end of the summer, I turned my findings into a small book which came our just before the national elections in October 1976. The book was called What About Jimmy Carter? According to many, I was the first Christian leader to raise questions about the worldview of  our 39th president.

The rest is history. Carter’s administration was characterized by “malaise” from the very beginning–a micro-management incompetence that hurt the America economy, caused large gas lines, made America look weak around the world (remember the botched attempt to free the hostages in Iran?), and led to a Reagan landslide in 1980.

Since that time, Jimmy Carter has been labeled one of the worst or most ineffective presidents of the 20th century.

So, for much of my life, I have shared that view and am known for it because I was the first to say so in print.

Now back to my Argentine friend. We were having a meal at a beautiful marina restaurant along the shores of the Panama Canal. Ships were passing by, the air was warm and humid, and I was excited about dining with my friend whom I had not seen in twenty years. During that time he had been very engaged in politics and renewal in his home nation including his law practice, a national television program, and close involvement with some prominent Argentine political leaders.

After catching up on the past decades, my friend turned to me and asked me an intriguing question:

“Ron – who do you think is the most respected US president in Latin America?”

I wasn’t sure, though my thoughts turned to Reagan, Clinton, and others. I even entertained the notion of George W. Bush who got the largest support of Latin voters for a Republican in recent memory.

Then my friend gave the shocking answer: “The most admired president by far in most of Latin America is Jimmy Carter.”

That sentence was hard to process. Jimmy Carter? The bungling technocrat who was the brunt mostly of jokes in the USA (except for his good work with Habitat for Humanity since leaving office). I could hardly believe what he was saying but was determined to hear him out.

My friend went on to explain that it was Jimmy Carter during the 1970s who championed human rights around the world and those ideas took route in Latin America. He shared how his own nation was deeply changed by Carter’s influence and cast off a cruel dictatorship as a result of his leadership. The same thing happened in Chile, Brazil and a number of Latin nations.

Over the course of an hour, my friend systematically presented the evidence (that’s what lawyers do) that Jimmy Carter’s human rights bully pulpit was the largest contributing factor to the liberation of the Southern Hemisphere. At the same time the sleepy Catholic continent was becoming largely evangelical and Pentecostal, Carter helped break the chains of political tyranny leading to free governments being born for the first time. These two developments were the main causes of Latin’s Americas surge in prosperity and global influence.

He also went on to say that Ronald Reagan was the second most admired president because he also championed human rights and expanded the view of freedom that Jimmy Carter began.

So I asked my friend, “So does that make Reagan more respected than Carter” (I was still hanging on to my bias). “No.” he replied. “Carter is the most respected president because his human rights vision began our pathway to freedom.”

Our meal ended and I felt a little convicted. I had been a merciless critic of Jimmy Carter for years, and now I had been presented evidence that God truly used him to help liberate the Hispanic world. I’ve always believed and taught that truth is based on evidence. So I needed to be fair, to re-evaluate my position, and learn from this new set of facts.

If you have a USA-centered view of life, it’s easy to view James Earl Carter as a presidential failure. He didn’t do much to help America; The economy got worse; He was a poor manager with a whiny personality; He was liberal on social issues and weak on foreign policy.

But Jimmy Carter, according to many Latin Americans, is the man that God used to free 400 million people from the clutches of political darkness.

If that’s true, he needs to be given credit for that blessing–and I, among others, must be fair to his legacy. It’s fine to criticize the poor economic policies or inept management style. But it’s also right to give him kudos for helping to liberate a continent.

No small feat indeed!

Dr. Martin Luther King once said:  “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

At the heart of this quote is the importance of humility when both viewing ourselves and the accomplishments of others.

Later in the week I was commissioned at a conference into a new leadership role. After the ceremony, a woman handed me a note which she said was an impression God had given her to share with me.

The note simply read, “Openness.” I got the point.

We must be humble and “open” to arrive at the truth about people and situations. Through my Argentinian friend and then my note passer, I learned a good lesson in Panama: God is just–he is fair. He does not go to extremes to label people or fail to note their positive qualities. I need to do the same. In our polarized world, it is important to not be narrow in sizing up people and situations. We need to see and applaud the good and speak up against the bad.

This may be one reason why Bill O’Reilly is the most trusted man on television.. He works very hard at collecting facts and attempting to be fair with political figures of all stripes. I don’t always agree with him, but his intentional desire to treat different points of view fairly is a good example.

His network–Fox News–tries to live up to the same standard with its motto: “Fair and balanced.” Maybe that’s why it is the most watched network in America today.

How about you? Are you fair when it comes to speaking about political leaders? Do you have the humility to lift up their strengths while criticizing their weaknesses? Or is it easy to whitewash everything because of bias or lack of facts?

On my trip to Panama I read a book (which shall be the subject of a future column) that shares a similar idea.

Dr. Mary Neal says, “Interpreting something that happens as being inherently “good” or “bad” is entirely a matter of perspective. Do “bad things happen to good people?” I’m not sure. Jesus was certainly a very “good” man. His crucifixion would certainly be interpreted by many as a “bad” thing. His disciples were devastated, yet the Old Testament prophecies would not have been fulfilled and a new covenant with God would not exist if Jesus had not been crucified.”

“From this perspective, it is difficult to declare that the crucifixion of Jesus was a “bad” thing. In fact, it is the very heart of the “good news” that Christians celebrate.”

I was quick to label Jimmy Carter as “bad.” But in Latin America, he is viewed as very “good.”

To be fair and just, there must be humility, honesty, and the pursuit of truth in our hearts to give credit where credit is due and warning where it is also necessary.

Gracias, mi amigo. I commit to greater fairness in all that I say and do.





1 Comment

  1. Nancy Ivy on May 9, 2013 at 5:28 am

    Thanks Ron. Very good word.

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