On Nov. 2, 1976, the night Jimmy Carter won the presidency, I was the news editor of the Columbus (Ga.) Enquirer. My job each day was to put the paper together for publication.
I prepared two front pages: "Carter Wins" and "Carter Loses." What I didn't count on is that, by the time the printers were hollerin' to begin rolling the presses, Carter hadn't won or lost.
It was a long, coffee-fueled, profanity-laced night.
Finally, I told my crew: What the hell, we might as well have some fun. So, I had the pressroom run 50 copies of a fake, "Carter Wins" front page. Editors and reporters piled into cars and we sped to Plains. Just as we wheeled into the campaign headquarters parking lot, the radio blared that Mississippi had fallen to Carter — thereby giving him a razor-thin victory over Gerald Ford. We rushed up to the stage where Carter stood, his big-tooth grin as wide as a flood-swollen Chattahoochee River. He'd just learned about Mississippi.
Dodging Secret Service suits, we pushed our way to the front of the crowd and one of us handed a copy of our bogus paper to Carter. He cooperatively held it aloft. The cameras started flashing, and that was the photo — Jimmy and my front page — most of the world saw the next morning. That front page was bronzed and for years hung at the Miami headquarters of Knight Ridder Newspapers.
I owe Jimmy.
Carter's presidency was a roller-coaster — from the triumph of the president coaxing two old warriors, Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin, to shake hands, to the humiliation of 66 Americans held hostage for 444 days by Iranian militants. The nation witnessed the humorous (Carter being attacked by a "killer" rabbit), the scandalous (the allegedly shady bank dealings of Budget Director Bert Lance) and the bizarre (anything to do with first brother Billy).
Through it all, Carter remained a real person, not a two-dimensional, soundbite creation who lived, as the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. does, in a bubble surrounded by an impenetrable phalanx of worshipful aides. Carter had his keepers, but they were hardly an iron wall.
In 1980, Carter was trounced by Ronald Reagan. His life since then has been described by the great cliché: He's America's greatest ex-president. Whether building Habitat for Humanity houses or monitoring 62 elections around the world, he's put to shame the other members of the world's most exclusive club of has-beens, who seem more happy with $45,000 speaking engagements, playing golf and cranking up the corporate side of the war machine.
Carter's perspective on his own achievements suggests another telling contrast between him and the other ex-presidents. In an interview last month at the Carter Center in Atlanta and in his 2005 book, Our Endangered Values, Carter expressed pride in the fact that he never went to war as president and never ordered an execution, either as the nation's leader or as Georgia's governor.
Speaking with the passion of a man of deep faith, Carter condemned the "pre-emptive" war strategy of the Bush administration. "Not surprisingly," he said, "leaders of the religious right opposed the majority of evangelicals" on such values-based issues as wars-of-choice and global warming.
Carter and I talked about the recent Palestinian elections ("practically perfect" in their fairness, Carter reported, adding that America can't say the same about our voting). We talked about softball (he still plays). But mostly, we talked about how America is wrestling with the collision of faith and politics.
Religion is the national preoccupation, whether the wedge issue du jour is gay marriage, abortion or immigration. Carter thinks Democrats were mistaken to abandon the religious debate to the right wing, that his party has morality on its side.
"There are certainly weird religious concepts," Carter said of the fundamentalists. He decried the religious right's campaign "to break down the wall between church and state."
Carter fittingly used a parable to illustrate how he'd like to see the political/religious debate unfold.
"I was teaching a Sunday school class two weeks ago," he recalled. "A girl, she was about 16 years old from Panama City, Fla., asked me about the differences between Democrats and Republicans.
"I asked her, 'Are you for peace, or do you want more war?' Then I asked her, 'Do you favor government helping the rich, or should it seek to help the poorest members of society? Do you want to preserve the environment, or do you want to destroy it? Do you believe this nation should engage in torture, or should we condemn it? Do you think each child today should start life responsible for $28,000 in [federal government] debt, or do you think we should be fiscally responsible?'
"I told her that if she answered all of those questions, that she believed in peace, aiding the poor and weak, saving the environment, opposing torture ... then I told her, 'You should be a Democrat.'"
Carter emphasized that faith permeates his position on just about every issue, and the Democrats stumbled when they allowed themselves to be cast as purely secular.
"There are so many examples that are important," he said. "Gun control, for example. I'm an avid hunter. But the [National Rifle Association] wants to make armor-piercing ammunition and machine guns available. That's wrong, as the police will tell you. That's morally wrong."
And, of course, the hottest of all hot buttons is abortion. Carter isn't fond of either extreme — a view shared by most Americans who, polls show, want to keep abortion legal but who also want alternatives wherever possible.
"Every abortion is the result of tragic errors," Carter observed. "It is one of the most divisive moral issues of our time, and there is little that can be done to reconcile the extremes. I have always felt that we should do our utmost to reduce the number of abortions. ... We need to encourage adoption, and unfortunately many [anti-abortion activists] don't extend their concern for the fetus to include the child once it is born."
Similarly, Carter acknowledges the moral thorniness of capital punishment. The United States, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran account for 90 percent of the world's executions, hardly a good club for our nation, he points out.
"The death penalty is not a deterrent," said Carter, whose book notes that states with the most executions — Southern states — also have the highest murder rates. "And it is applied in a way that discriminates against the poor and minorities. That is not moral. Jesus taught us mercy. What would Jesus do?"
It's clear that the Republican Party has turned religion into a potent election weapon. I asked Carter what he would advise Democrats about counter-attack tactics.
"I'd tell them to go talk to conservative businessmen," Carter replied. "Talk about the horrendous deficits, deficits that have quadrupled under Bush. Those deficits have crippled us in dealing with catastrophes such as [Hurricane] Katrina."
Democrats "should talk about justice," he added. "The extraordinary tax reductions for the richest Americans, that's not justice.
"And peace," Carter said. "We worship the prince of peace, not the prince of pre-emptive war. The vast majority of evangelicals don't want global war."