As twilight approaches Jimmy Carter

As twilight approaches Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter is an ailing man today.

In November 1976, when we were young, Jimmy Carter became President of the United States. He had defeated Gerald Ford. And for those of us who watched post-Watergate politics unfold in distant America from home here in Bangladesh, it was a thrilling moment.

Here was a man, absolutely an unknown quantity in high stakes politics --- and he was a peanut farmer who had served as Governor of the state of Georgia --- who through sheer grit and determination had risen to the top.

It was the debates Carter engaged in with President Ford that we watched at the American Centre in Dhanmondi and which convinced us that he was unbeatable. At one of those encounters, Ford made the terrible gaffe of stating that there was no Soviet influence in Poland.

The remark devastated the Ford campaign and was certainly one of the reasons why voters put Carter over the top. We celebrated --- my friends and I --- when Jimmy Carter triumphed over Gerald Ford.

That was decades ago. Decades on, Carter's life draws to an end at his home in Georgia, home where he is taking hospice treatment as he waits for the sunset. He is ninety-eight, the oldest former President to have lived to such an advanced age.

It would be easy to regard a declining Carter as just another episode in American presidential history, but the record of his post-presidential years precludes that possibility.

Carter's greatness has fundamentally been his achievements since the end of his single term in the White House in 1981, when a changing America, a conservative America, saw Ronald Reagan beat him hollow at the presidential election in November 1980.

And yet it would not be proper to ignore the light emitted by the Carter presidency, particularly through his efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East. He reached out to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, convincing them to come to Washington and reach a deal that would transform the history of the region.

The Camp David Accords were an achievement that should have brought him the Nobel for Peace, but that prize went instead to the Egyptian and the Israeli. It would be a long number of years later, not till 2002, that Carter would have the Nobel come to him.

As Carter waits serenely for death to come to him, it is the nobility in the man which serves as a reminder of the decency that has consistently underscored his worldview. He began his presidency on a plank he thought would be appreciated by the world.

Human rights, he fervently believed, would underpin American foreign policy on his watch. And yet the ways of the political world soon made him realise that realpolitik was not about noble ideas but about tough global imponderables.

He travelled to Tehran in the fading days of the Shah's rule and mistakenly described Iran as an island of stability. Months later, the ayatollahs sent Reza Pahlavi packing. An embarrassed Carter was then treated to the indignity of seeing Iran's Revolutionary Guards seize the US embassy and keep America's diplomats hostage for as many as 444 days.

Good men, in every region of life, are often tripped up by unexpected roadblocks of misfortune. And so it was with Carter that bad tidings undermined his presidency at nearly every turn. The economy was a mess, so much so that the President himself informed Americans that a malaise was abroad in the land.

Americans did not like what they heard. Carter's efforts to spring the diplomats in Tehran to freedom came to naught when helicopters sent out on the rescue mission crashed in the Iranian desert. Leonid Brezhnev undermined him when he sent Soviet troops into Afghanistan in December 1979.

At home, his popularity plummeting, Jimmy Carter was compelled to use every ounce of energy to beat back the challenge for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1980 from Edward Kennedy. He survived the challenge, but with the Republicans coming forth with a confidence-inspiring Reagan as the election approached, Carter's was a doomed candidacy.

All the stars seemed aligned against him. He lost badly. Moments into Reagan's inauguration in January 1981, the Iranians freed the hostages. The ayatollahs had seen to it that Carter lost his bid for a second term but were quick to ensure the hostages did not become an issue for his successor.

Like so many of his presidential predecessors, Carter could have walked quietly away into the sunset and into oblivion. But that was not to be his style. With wife Rosalynn, a woman devoted to him and his causes beyond measure, he set up the Carter Centre as his way of attempting solutions to the manifold problems confronting nations in the deprived regions of the world.

He went into the noble job of observing elections where politics has largely been in a state of chaos. The health of underprivileged, malnourished children in Africa and Asia brought him squarely up against the thousand and one maladies societies have historically been laid low by. Bad governance he railed against.

Carter, despite advancing age, showed not the least fatigue in jetting off to trouble spots around the world, where government leaders and civil societies waited for him. Trust was what they equated with Carter, who dispensed with protocol as he sat talking to impoverished villagers in the hamlets of Africa and argued for credible elections before the mighty in Asia.

It was much the same he did in Latin America. Purity of character lit up his very being as he commiserated with the world's underdogs.

For Jimmy Carter, religion was a powerful element which sustained him in politics and beyond politics. A born-again Christian, he was not averse to speaking from the heart, even though he knew it might lead to problems for him. At the height of the presidential campaign in 1976, he candidly told a journal that he had committed adultery many times in his heart.

The comments led to an uproar, with some even fearing they might cost him the election. Carter did not seek to clarify his remarks. He was not ready to engage in semantics to explain what he had so truthfully stated.

At age ninety-eight, Jimmy Carter is the embodiment of a career which shines far more brilliantly than the careers of so many of his predecessors and successors in the White House. He has never pretended to have been a great President, but the world has since his sad departure from office increasingly come to regard him as a great former President.

The moral arc which has defined him --- as a politician, as a husband and father, as a man of God --- will remain his claim on history.

Jimmy Carter is and will be a powerful, insistent political metaphor --- in our era and beyond.

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