Rights Warrior

Jimmy Carter Was a Lot Better President Than Almost Anyone Ever Admits

In or out of the White House, Carter has been a man of principle unafraid of hard truth. In his 22nd book, he documents the plight of women around the world.

Amr Dalsh/Reuters

The mindless and childish hatred for President Jimmy Carter, across the right and among a surprising number of liberals, exposes the obscenity and flaccidity of American political culture, where cliché overwhelms insight and bromide mutes the truth of history.

At the CPAC circus and over the airwaves of talk radio, the mere mention of Carter’s name is sufficient to provoke self-satisfied cackles and chortles from the audience, while liberals relegate Carter to the dubious distinction of “best ex-president”—a backhanded compliment equivalent to calling someone the best “non-medalist Olympian.”

Right wingers compare President Obama to Carter, believing it is the ultimate insult, and Obama won’t invite him to speak at the Democratic National Convention or, according to Carter in a recent Meet the Press interview, seek his advice on matters relating to national security and international affairs—a first since Carter left the White House.

Meanwhile, the former president from Plains, Georgia continues, in a soft but steady voice, to recite a refrain against all the resistance—“I will not go quietly.” He maintains direction at the Carter Center—monitoring elections for fairness, reporting human rights abuses, and negotiating deals between NGOs and Third World governments. He volunteers, with leadership and labor, for Habitat for Humanity, and he relentlessly and tirelessly writes.

In his post-presidency, Carter has written 22 books, on a range of subjects including his childhood, the intersection of religion and politics, and most controversially and courageously, the miserable treatment and oppression that Palestinians suffer at the hands of the Israeli government.

His new book, A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, enhances his role as elder statesman and human rights warrior by focusing entirely on the enslavement, degradation, and torture that women endure around the world. In June 2013, Carter convened a commission of religious leaders, scholars, and activists at the Carter Center to examine the globalized abuse of women and propose potential solutions. A Call To Action is, with Carter acting as curator and commentator, the public record and statement of that conference.

In a gentle, plainspoken style, Carter has crafted an important book that should serve as a reference guide and instructional manual for dealing with the atrocities against women so brutally horrific that the author’s descriptions made me momentarily forget I was reading a contemporary account—these could have been pages out of a history of the Middle Ages.

Chapters on legalized rape in Africa and the Middle East, “honor” killings throughout the Islamic world, and the disturbing trend of imprisoning greater numbers of women for nonviolent offenses in the United States and elsewhere—these are all vivid reminders of the severity of the struggle for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women.

Carter is at his strongest and weakest when he writes about his own devotion to Christianity—a religion with a monstrous record of misogyny. Compared to Islam, Christianity might seem tolerant, but it is nevertheless cruel and chauvinist, largely because of the sexism found repeatedly in both testaments of the Bible.

Likely because of his own faith, Carter tries—and fails—to excuse the biblical mandate for reducing women to chattel. Moses and St. Paul are equally contemptible offenders against women’s liberation and gender equality, and Carter’s pleas for “understanding the historical context” should fall on deaf ears, especially considering that the contemporary application of Paul’s prohibition of women speaking in church led Carter, and his wife, Rosalynn, to justly and bravely walk away from the Southern Baptist Church: When the knuckle-dragging Southern Baptists, in the year 2000, forbade women from serving as deacons, pastors, chaplains in the armed forces, or professors in seminaries, the Carters disavowed the denomination and left for the more liberal Maranatha Baptist Church.

An overly forgiving biblical interpretation is hardly a sin worthy of damnation, especially when weighed against Carter’s life of moral integrity, which makes him an ideal spokesman for the international march towards women’s emancipation from the subjugation and violence of political dictators, clerical bullies, and everyday thugs.

Carter writes in A Call To Action, “When a civil conflict erupts, women are the primary victims of bombs and missiles, the displaced adults in charge of children, and the victims of rape.” The undeniable reality of history that women are often war’s worst sufferers makes the accomplishments of the Carter administration even more profound and worthy of celebration.

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As president, Carter negotiated a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt—a ceasefire still standing today. He made human rights central to American foreign policy by cutting off funding for dictatorial regimes running torture chambers. He directed U.N. ambassador Andrew Young to make opposing apartheid in South Africa central to his work. He deregulated the trucking, airline, and beer industries, and those deregulation policies—mysteriously never mentioned by the right—led to flourishing entrepreneurialism and consumer choice in all three fields. He is the only president who has tried to start a national conversation about reducing our dependence on foreign oil through conservation and the use of alternative energy sources. And he spent four years as commander in chief of the world’s largest and most lethal military without dropping one bomb, launching one missile, or firing one shot.

Carter’s awkward leadership style often obscured his genuine accomplishments. For example, the tone of the infamous “malaise speech” (in which that word is never used) might have been unappealing, but its content, as historian Kevin Mattson makes clear in his excellent book What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, was prescient and illustrated true leadership, as Carter challenged Americans to change their ways of thinking and living, so that they might become more prosperous, unified, and free. And there is no disputing that he brought peace to formerly violent parts of the world, advanced the agenda of human rights, and used the powers of his pulpit to start new and necessary conversations about American life and America’s role as superpower. For his trouble, the American people expelled him from office and replaced him with a man who sponsored death squads in Latin America, said ketchup was a vegetable, and in the words of Norman Mailer, “was shallow as spit on a rock.”

Since then, no president has spoken to the American people with so much candor, directness, and vision. And yet the public—apparently unable to decipher the clear lessons of history—continues to wonder why its leaders are consistently dishonest, obfuscating, and frivolous.

Despite the limitations and disappointments of American political culture, Jimmy Carter continues his call to action—now focusing on the freedom and welfare of women. At the age of 89, he is still moving faster and further than his country.

David Masciotra is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star, and the author of All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky.