Jimmy Carter is still at it.
At 96, the former president says he is “disheartened, saddened and angry” at the attempts by Georgia Republicans to restrict voting in his home state.
This is classic Carter. The 39th president has spent his public career fighting for fair elections. His first target was literacy tests. Then, a half-century ago, it was the whole system known as Jim Crow. He used his first speech as Georgia governor to shock the country with a declaration that “the time for racial discrimination is over.”
If that seems like no big deal by today’s lights or even seven years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it’s worth remembering that Carter’s Lt. Governor, Lester Maddox, became governor in 1966 as an avowed segregationist best known for chasing African Americans out of his Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta with a bare pickaxe handle. Carter had courage.
Today, Carter’s fight is with new attempts by GOP state legislators to eliminate Sunday voting and clamp new requirements on vote by mail. Driving the Republican efforts is the same mission that drove those of the bad old days: the goal of white conservatives to keep black American citizens from voting, the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act be damned.
For Carter, the Sunday school teacher, the fight for greater electoral participation by Black Americans is part of a larger commitment. Carter is a small-d democrat. He champions the right of people to choose their governments. He has spent his years in and out of politics encouraging honest elections around the world.
Carter also believes in the worthiness of those who run for office. Those who worked for him, as I did as a White House speechwriter, know the extent of this.
Soon after I lost a Democratic primary for the Congress in 1974, the Georgia governor sent me a letter expressing the urgent hope that I “stay actively involved in Democratic politics.” Along with it came a direct ask for help. “I would appreciate any information or advice you might have that would help our efforts in Pennsylvania or other states. Please feel free to contact me personally or Hamilton Jordan,” a reference to the architect of his unlikely presidential victory in 1976 and later de facto chief of staff.
It was signed “Jimmy Carter.”
Two years before the 1976 election, he was out there recruiting which, at the time, seemed insanely early to seek a party’s nomination. Unlike the other presidential front runners, he was focusing on those who’d just suffered a loss. An outsider himself—“Jimmy Who?” was a common sneer when he first ran—he was asking other outsiders to join him.
There was kindness in this but also political savvy. With this and other gestures, he was presenting himself to his fellow voters as one of them, not someone above them.
As Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s legendary speechwriter and counselor, once told me, “How do you vote against someone who has slept on your couch?”
The fact is, there was always something remarkably democratic about Carter’s approach to public office. Having lost an election for governor himself in 1966, he was encouraging those who’d tried but came up short. Once on the outside himself, he was launching his national campaign from the shoals with the shipwrecked. I owe my first job in the Carter White House to Richard Pettigrew, who had just lost a primary for U.S. senator from Florida. There were many others like him, those whom Donald Trump would disdain as “losers.” We found ourselves in the Carter administration and were given the chance to do great things.
Decades after his time in the White House, Carter today is again fighting to keep our democracy inclusive. Having spent much of his post-presidency monitoring elections in other countries, he is demanding fairness in his home state which he never left for New York or Washington. It’s not that Carter was or is a saint. In the early 1960s, as a state senator, he kept his distance from racial protest in his district. That said, the great trajectory of his life has been towards inclusion, tolerance, and championing free and open elections. His Carter Center has monitored 119 elections in Asia, Africa, and South America. It’s also pushed back on digital threats to democracy in countries as widespread as Ethiopia and Bolivia.
From the moment of his inaugural in 1977, the Annapolis graduate reduced the distance between the voter and the elected official. After being sworn in, Carter’s first step on the parade route was to leave the presidential limousine and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, something that no commander-in-chief in modern memory had done. (Now, it’s become customary for a new president to walk at least a few steps.) After the hubris of Vietnam and the criminality of Watergate, he wanted to walk the imperial presidency back to a civic status consistent with a constitutional republic.
At the end of his term, Carter was still trying to redress the distance between the voter and those elected to serve. Here he is in his farewell address to the country in 1981. “In a few days, I will lay down my official responsibilities in this office, to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of president: the title of citizen.”
Forty years ago, we might have taken those words as rhetorical. Given Carter’s record in fighting for voter rights, we can see they are real. Joe Biden can carry the Georgian’s torch by doing all he can to pass his new voting rights bill.