Jimmy Carter: Leadership by example


It isn’t big, but it’s a model of what one person and a small town can do to secure the future. This February, Plains, Georgia, began getting half its energy from a small solar installation. Former President Carter leased 10 acres on the edge of town for this project. 

The solar farm will generate 1.3 megawatts of power a year. That translates into 3,600 tons of coal. For the small town of 760 people (in the 2010 census), it’s a big deal. And for the climate, it demonstrates what one person and one community can do to ensure we have a livable future.

You may remember that Carter was the president who installed 32 solar panels on the White House. At the time, he said, “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.” Since his successor Ronald Reagan took the solar panels down, perhaps they are now lodged in one of the Smithsonian museums, an example of a road not taken. The “greatest adventure” still awaits us.

In the same way, Carter was the president who asked us to slow down and use less fuel. Instead, we sped up. He’s the same president who at the age of 94 is building affordable housing for those who need it with Habitat for Humanity. He and Rosalynn went to Canada right after their 71st wedding anniversary for a five-day building blitz. They helped build 150 homes across the country. At one point, he became dehydrated and had to be taken to the hospital, only to turn up again for work the next morning at eight. 

There’s a pattern here. The former president recognizes the basic needs of people for electricity, clean air and water, a livable climate, affordable housing and he goes to work to make it happen. At 94, and with only personal resources, he can only do so much, but do it he does.

One more thing needs to be said about this longest lived President. He’s a man of faith and Christian character. He’s been married to the same woman for 72 years. If you’re old enough, you may remember he almost lost the election because he expressed dismay at looking at women with “lust in his heart.” In an interview with Playboy magazine (another politically incorrect choice), he quoted the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. “I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery.” Then he went on to say he had to confess he had committed adultery in his heart many times. A public that thrives on the salacious was not all that welcoming of humble confession and truthfulness.

Carter teaches Sunday School at the Maranatha Baptist Church. He limits his teaching to twice a month these days since he and his wife have decided they need to slow down a bit. 

There are usually 300-400 people who attend, many lining up the night before in order to get a seat. One of the requirements is you have to stay for church. You can’t just ogle the former President and then leave.

He’s written 33 books. Many of the books are about his faith. When he left the presidency and was thinking about what he would do next, he decided he would write. 

Their peanut farm had taken a serious financial hit in a blind trust while he was president, and went some  $1 million in debt. That was no longer a viable project. He decided against the financially lucrative speaking circuit of other ex-presidents and he and Rosalynn returned to their $167,000 home in Plains. 

As taxpayers, we spend less on this former president than any other. He doesn’t even have health insurance from the federal government as you need to be an employee for at least five years. They fly commercial when they fly, a little different from a private jet with golden plated bathroom fixtures. He writes from a converted garage. He says he was never interested in getting rich.

Many remember the Carter presidency for long gas lines and the hostage crisis with Iran. I remember it as a time where we brought those hostages home without killing thousands or millions of people and when we were asked to begin thinking seriously about our use of fossil fuels and alternative energy sources. 

I remember an emphasis on human rights and the peace accord between Israel and Egypt that helped the president win the Nobel prize. But perhaps the most remarkable virtue of the Carter years was truthfulness. Missing was the misinformation, manipulation and outright lies of political image making. 

In a recent interview Carter called the present occupant of the White House a “disaster.” Then he concluded, “the nation’s ‘moral and ethical values’ are still intact and Americans eventually will ‘return to what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s decent and what’s indecent, and what’s truthful and what’s lies.’ But, ‘I doubt if it happens in my lifetime.’” 

I’d like to see him proved wrong!