Open Letter to an Impressive Ex-President

Mr. Jimmy Carter

Plains, Ga.

Dear Mr. Carter:

Last Sunday, we attended your Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. I don't suppose you remember us among the hundreds of tourists who show up at your service every year. My wife and I were wearing shorts--which your Secret Service man and your pastor said was permissible--and the 11-year-old boy in our party paid surprising attention to what you were saying. We sat in the second row, and I asked you a question about whether or not you felt there is room for a diversity of interpretation in the Christian faith you represent so well. And you said there certainly is. I liked that.

We were on our way from a week at Walt Disney World in Florida to a visit with dear friends in North Carolina. We came to Plains quite by accident--when I noticed while studying the map in our motel room that it would be an easy side trip both to Plains and to the site of the Andersonville Civil War prison. We didn't even know it was Sunday--a chronic condition among travelers--when we arrived in Plains and were told by the Park Ranger at your museum that you were not only in town but would be teaching your Sunday School class. And so we came.

To my wife and me, the hour we spent with you was the high spot of a two-week trip. It even rated right up there with my stepson in spite of some pretty heavy competition in both Florida and North Carolina.

We arrived in Plains with a feeling of deep despair about our national leaders and the direction that leadership seems to be going: long on public relations, short on both substance and compassion. And, I must admit, we also arrived with a preconception that you had not been a strong president. But after an hour in your class, we came away in a state of wonder that a man with your convictions could actually have won that office and with a much deeper understanding of your difficulties in applying those convictions within the cynicism of the federal government.

We also came away with an enormous wistfulness that the lesson of your defeat to professional politicians seems to be to give the American electorate the sizzle and to hell with the steak.

In the process of teaching us about the book of Judges--and you stuck admirably close to that subject--you demonstrated three qualities that have been in short supply in the White House since you left: honest-to-God humility, intellectual acuity and a willingness to admit that in some areas you are still seeking answers. I thought your reply to a question about abortion was admirable: that your social instincts tell you that a woman should have the absolute right to control her own body and your gut feelings render that idea uncomfortable when it comes to abortion. Uncertainty that translates to open-mindedness is no longer allowed to be seen in the White House. And it was used against you when you were there.

I was uncomfortable with some of your statements about being a "born-again Christian" when you were President. Fundamental Christianity makes me terribly uneasy in its black-and-white simplicity in a complex world. But after listening to you, I now understand that you were responding in a direct way to superficial questions that were never explored further. By applying biblical writings in your Sunday school lesson to some of the problems that faced you as President, you made it quite clear that the ethic you believe and practice leads to opening rather than closing the mind.

You may recall that one of your local citizens mentioned our failure to permit prayer in the public schools as a sin, and you suggested rather gently that you didn't agree, explaining in a wonderfully clear and concise way the importance of not only preserving but protecting and supporting the religious and ethnic diversity of this country.

So this letter is to thank you for sharing that hour with me and my family and for sidetracking me--at least temporarily--from a growing disaffection with the institutions that at present make up this society.

As I sat there in your Sunday school class, I tried to imagine Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan standing before us in such a situation, and, of course it didn't play at all. If there was one personal trait that caused problems for you as President, it was probably your disinclination to use power ruthlessly. But that same trait has clearly made it easy for you to give up the power of that office and resume life as a concerned private citizen, still following your own convictions. You don't just profess the importance and necessity in our society of helping the poor and powerless and needy, you do it. And you do it because--quite simply--you believe in it.

We visited your library in Atlanta a few days after attending your class in Plains, and both my wife and I were struck by the emphasis on teaching young visitors about the history and power of the presidency. And the clear-eyed look the exhibits took with both the major thrusts of your Administration and the problems of putting them into practice--particularly as they related to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the American citizens kidnaped by Iran. The portion of your library labeled "Commitment to Human Rights" explained to me for the first time why you took the United States out of the 1980 Olympic Games. I may not agree, but at least I now understand and respect your reasoning.

So thank you for demonstrating to me and my family that it is still possible--or at least it was in 1976--for a man to achieve the presidency of the United States with a real commitment to respect and to encourage the rich diversity of our people and feel compassion for and give help to those in need without in any way compromising your own personal convictions.

That's what we took away from your lesson on Judges. We won't forget it soon.


Joe Bell

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