When the Carter presidency began I was an 18-year-old Rockefeller Republican. By the time it ended, I was so liberal my own grandmother called me a Communist.
My transformation may have been the inevitable result of eating the brownies at Wesleyan University, but I think it is more likely that it was Jimmy Carter’s time in the White House — with its remarkable mash-up of triumphs and failures — that helped me better understand my country and myself.
As the former president enters the final stages of his senescence, I have been thinking a lot about who I was when I first encountered him, and how the country got where it is today. I am still grateful to Mr. Carter for demonstrating that it is possible to govern with morality, honesty and grace. It would be nice if those values didn’t seem so strangely old-fashioned.
But I am still angry at him, too.
It was Jimmy Carter who brought the Israelis and Egyptians together at Camp David; who brought about SALT II, limiting the nuclear capabilities of the United States and the Soviets; who urged Americans to embark on a path of moral renewal.
But it was also, arguably, Jimmy Carter who gave us Ronald Reagan, the first president who made hating your own government fashionable. In so many ways, the Tea Party movement, the QAnon conspiracy and the Jan. 6 insurrection are all results of what Ronald Reagan started; supporters of each distrust government and find authoritarian figures strangely attractive.
I was on a semester abroad in London when Mr. Carter brought about the seemingly impossible — forging a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. I remember how proud I felt. That night I was in a pub in Marylebone, and a stranger, learning that I was an American, bought me a Guinness. “God bless America,” he said. “Greatest country in the world!” He was a little drunk, but still. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a moment like that since.
Camp David was not enough. In July of 1979, Mr. Carter told my fellow Americans we were suffering from a moral crisis. He called for a moral revival in the country. He said that “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
I was working at the campus radio station that summer. I remember one of the other D.J.s saying, “Damn right.” After the long years of Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam and the staggering effects of skyrocketing inflation, and a shortage of gas, and all the many other ways in which the United States was just exhausted with itself — a moral revival seemed like just the thing.