Opinion | Jimmy Carter Made Me a Better American

When the Carter presidency began I was an 18-year-old Rockefeller Republican. By the time it ended, I was so liberal my own grandmother called me a Communist.

My transformation may have been the inevitable result of eating the brownies at Wesleyan University, but I think it is more likely that it was Jimmy Carter’s time in the White House — with its remarkable mash-up of triumphs and failures — that helped me better understand my country and myself.

As the former president enters the final stages of his senescence, I have been thinking a lot about who I was when I first encountered him, and how the country got where it is today. I am still grateful to Mr. Carter for demonstrating that it is possible to govern with morality, honesty and grace. It would be nice if those values didn’t seem so strangely old-fashioned.

But I am still angry at him, too.

It was Jimmy Carter who brought the Israelis and Egyptians together at Camp David; who brought about SALT II, limiting the nuclear capabilities of the United States and the Soviets; who urged Americans to embark on a path of moral renewal.

But it was also, arguably, Jimmy Carter who gave us Ronald Reagan, the first president who made hating your own government fashionable. In so many ways, the Tea Party movement, the QAnon conspiracy and the Jan. 6 insurrection are all results of what Ronald Reagan started; supporters of each distrust government and find authoritarian figures strangely attractive.

I had inherited my parents’ politics before I arrived at Wesleyan in the fall of 1976. (Their track record of G.O.P. support was unbroken from Barry Goldwater to Gerald Ford.) As a first-year student, I watched the presidential debates between Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter on a tiny black and white television on campus. In one, Mr. Ford insisted that there was “no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.” In a way I felt bad for him; I knew what it was like to get terrified when you had to talk in front of other people.

But then, I wasn’t the president. It gave me pause to consider, for the first time, if it was really a great idea to be led by a man who faltered, sometimes, when the pressure was on.

Still, in the 1970s it was possible for entire weeks to pass by without anyone thinking about the president. In my mind’s eye those four years were very much what we had been promised during the campaign: Jimmy Carter would never lie to us. He was so earnest. I can still see him, flickering on a TV, delivering hard truths while wearing a cardigan.

I was on a semester abroad in London when Mr. Carter brought about the seemingly impossible — forging a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. I remember how proud I felt. That night I was in a pub in Marylebone, and a stranger, learning that I was an American, bought me a Guinness. “God bless America,” he said. “Greatest country in the world!” He was a little drunk, but still. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a moment like that since.

Camp David was not enough. In July of 1979, Mr. Carter told my fellow Americans we were suffering from a moral crisis. He called for a moral revival in the country. He said that “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

I was working at the campus radio station that summer. I remember one of the other D.J.s saying, “Damn right.” After the long years of Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam and the staggering effects of skyrocketing inflation, and a shortage of gas, and all the many other ways in which the United States was just exhausted with itself — a moral revival seemed like just the thing.

It was not to be. My senior year was dominated by the Iran hostage crisis that began that November. As the crisis wore on, it seemed the consciousness of the entire country was hostage alongside those 52 individuals. It was nearly impossible to have a conversation about anything else. Mr. Carter’s failures were our failures.

As Mr. Carter scrambled, new voters like me began to think about alternatives. We wanted an American hero, not an all-too-thoughtful negotiator. California’s progressive candidate, Jerry Brown, had plenty of supporters on campus. So did Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. He came to campus to see his son, Ted Jr., in the fall of 1979. The visit was a zoo. It was like we were being visited by all four Beatles at once.

Mr. Kennedy’s campaign sputtered out as quickly as it was briefly lit, but the damage to Mr. Carter was done. Ronald Reagan stopped seeming — to some — like such an impossible joke.

That was when it occurred to me that the mirror Jimmy Carter held up to our flaws was not the thing we wanted. We didn’t want a guide to bettering our souls. We didn’t want to sacrifice for the common good. We wanted to be defined by what we owned, and what we wanted to own was as much junk as possible. We wanted to be told that we were great.

Sometimes, we wanted people to lie to us.

A few days after Ronald Reagan swept the national vote, I moved to New York with a single suitcase and an old Silvertone autoharp. I’d arrived in adulthood having been transformed into a progressive, not only by the liberalism of my Wesleyan education, but also by the ideals on display in the very best moments of the Carter presidency — and the call to action he had believed Americans might embrace. I’d become a Democrat at the exact moment that the wave of progressive politics had crested and begun to recede.

It was as if I’d arrived at Woodstock just in time to see all my beatnik pals heading back — not to their hippie vans, but to a fleet of BMWs.

I’ll always be disappointed that Jimmy Carter was unable to rally America around the idea of moral renewal. But I am forever grateful for the fleeting glimpses he gave us of the country we might still become.

Jennifer Finney Boylan (@JennyBoylan) is a professor of English at Barnard College and a 2022-23 fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

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