The homemade peanut butter ice cream is great. The gnats are awful; they dive-bomb your eyes.
Plains, Georgia hasn’t changed much since Jimmy Carter returned home after losing re-election 40 years ago.
It’s still a pretty isolated place to my urban eyes. The only restaurant in town just shut down, which is why the hundreds of out-of-towners here on this hot and steamy summer Sunday to hear President Carter teach Sunday School are having ice cream for lunch.
Some get there as early as 7 the night before, sleeping in their cars to be among the first in line to enter the Maranatha Baptist Church. There is an overflow room for those who don’t make the cut.
Interest in Carter as a moral leader has increased since he called out President Trump in June as an “illegitimate” president. Too bad 94 isn’t the new 74.
He enters the church using a walker and grumbling about his slow recovery from a broken hip in May. (He’s actually made a stunningly swift recovery). He tells churchgoers he hopes this is the last time they see him with the rolling thing. He says Russia’s role in electing Trump can never be quantified. “Then I said a little more than I should have said,” he tells the appreciative crowd.
The lesson this Sunday in July was about Moses and Joshua, and the Battle of Jericho. Carter asks if anyone knows the names of Moses’ parents. After a pause, a man in the back of the church shouts out the correct answer. Carter challenges him, “Did you look it up?” No, the man replies, he saw The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, prompting Carter to confess his “arrogance” in assuming no one would know the answer.
For those who know Carter, this was all in character. I covered his campaign for Newsweek in 1976, and when his longtime media adviser, Jerry Rafshoon, asked if going to Sunday school with the former president was on my bucket list, I said yes.
Accompanied by my son Robert and his wife Hillary, we were seated in a front pew set aside for the Carters. It was their 73rd wedding anniversary. In mid-September, they will surpass the record of George H.W. and Barbara Bush as the longest married presidential couple.
The church was packed and Jill Stuckey, whose late husband helped Carter win the crucial Florida primary in 1976, instructed the crowd on the rules about photos (mostly forbidden) and the proper protocol. It’s President Carter, not Mister President, since there’s only one president at a time. And when he enters the church, do not stand or clap.
That reminded me of the time as president when Carter banned the playing of “Hail to the Chief” when he entered a room. His election was a reaction to the excesses of power during the Nixon era. As a candidate, he projected humility by always carrying his own garment bag. His signature promises, “I’ll never lie to you,” and “I’ll give you a government as good as the people,” stemmed from the same values.
Back then he was mocked for what some critics thought were affectations, but four decades later, sitting in the church next to Carter and sharing the hymnal, the depth of his commitment to this faith community was on display. Over the altar there is a simple wooden cross that he made from cypress wood. The collection plates are handcrafted by Carter.
Visitors are asked to take up “Jimmy Carter’s challenge,” which is basically a commitment to undertake acts of kindness toward our fellow human beings. No one came forward the Sunday we were there to make a public acceptance, but there are plenty of takers on the church’s website.
Senator Cory Booker, who is running for president and earlier this year attended the Maranatha church, told the Daily Beast that Carter is his inspiration. Booker studied how Carter set himself apart in 1976 in a crowded field of 17 candidates with a message rooted in his faith that spoke to voters looking for meaning beyond partisan politics.
“Faith is at the center of my life,” says Booker, who seeks to set himself apart from his fellow Democrats with his call for “a new civic gospel.”
The people who flock to Carter’s Sunday school classes are mostly white, and they’re not all Democrats, or liberals. A woman from Tennessee told me, “I’m a conservative Republican, but he’s my brother in Christ.”
The Carter Center held a symposium on human rights last month where Carter’s treatment of refugees from Vietnam stood in stark contrast to the current president’s treatment of refugees from Central America. In 1979, Carter announced that the United States would double the number of refugees it accepted from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 7,000 a month to 14,000 a month. It was a very unpopular move by a president facing re-election the following year. A CBS/New York Times poll showed that 62 percent of Americans disapproved.
Carter lost re-election in a landslide, and Republicans picked up 12 seats in the Senate. By Carter’s count, five of those lost seats stemmed from his decision to accept so many more refugees from a country where 57,000 Americans had lost their lives. Contrast that to President Trump’s comment about the horrific conditions at the southwest border. “We’re not in the hospital business. We’re in the border security business at the border.”
Carter is proud of the fact that in his four years as president, he did not commit the United States to any war. He often points out that in this country’s 243 years, only 16 years have been without war somewhere. His reluctance to authorize military action was on display during the Iran hostage crisis when his national security adviser, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, briefed him on the logistics of a risky rescue mission. Carter wanted to know whether the Iranian students holding the hostages at the American embassy could be subdued with a stun gun instead of killed.
The rescue attempt never got that far. It was aborted when a cargo plane and a helicopter collided in the desert. Brzezinski had tried to convince Carter to bomb Tehran so if the mission failed, it would be a side bar to the main headline, “Carter bombs Tehran.” Carter refused, not wanting to kill ten or fifteen thousand innocent Iranians just to save face. In the end, the hostages returned home safely, but Carter for a long time was seen as weak for the way he handled his presidency.
That is being reevaluated through a different lens as the virtues Carter ran on are viewed by generations who know little about his presidency but appreciate his clear voice and his good works. People wonder why a former president who could live anywhere chooses Plains, Georgia. In his book, An Hour Before Dawn, about growing up in South Georgia, Carter explains its allure: the land, the churches, the simplicity of life.
“There is a sense of permanence in Plains, of unchanging values and lasting human relationships, and the town has been a haven for us during times of political or financial crisis,” he writes. He says it is where he expects to be laid to rest.