Learning from Jimmy Carter and John McCain

Watching Joe Biden prepare to take over the Presidency and Donald Trump try to overturn the election, it’s instructive to read two new books about politicians who represent the best of America: Jimmy Carter and John McCain.

They are two great men of great talents and, yes, great flaws. One a former President and one a two-time unsuccessful candidate for President. Both Navy men, graduates of Annapolis. Both veterans of the highs and lows of politics.

Their lives and legacies offer lessons about where we are today in America, how we got here and how we go forward.

“His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” by Jonathan Alter, Simon & Schuster.

Alter’s book, like most accounts, praises the good works Jimmy Carter has done and the modest life he has led in the 40 years since he left the Presidency. Alter is far more positive than most writers, though, in assessing Carter’s four years in the White House – and why they’re overlooked:

“Carter’s farsighted domestic and foreign policy achievements would be largely forgotten when he shrank in the job and lost the 1980 election.”

What achievements? Alter’s list: “the nation’s first comprehensive energy policy,” “historic accomplishments on the environment,” consumer protection, ethics laws, civil service reform, two new Cabinet departments (Energy and Education), appointing Blacks and women to key positions, ending inflation, cutting the deficit and the growth of the federal workforce, requiring banks to invest in low-income communities, legalizing craft breweries (!), deregulating airlines and trucking, increasing the defense budget, championing human rights and challenging the Soviet Union on dissidents, aiding Afghan rebels, ratifying the Panama Canal Treaty, establishing full diplomatic relations with China and persuading Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to sign the Camp David Accords (“The Israelis and Egyptians have not fired a shot in anger in more than forty years.”)

And Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the federal appeals court. She later said he “literally changed the complexion of the federal judiciary.”

Yet Carter is remembered more for his failures and shortcomings. Alter, a journalist himself, says “the aggressive post-Watergate press tended to assume the worst about him.”

Democrats controlled Congress those four years, but Carter often was at odds with them. Ted Kennedy challenged him on health care and for the nomination in 1980, crippling Carter’s reelection. In those days, too, Washington Democrats had a pronounced bias against Southern Democrats; I saw it while working for Governor Jim Hunt.

Carter hurt himself. For all the political skill he and his Georgia Mafia showed in coming from nowhere (literally, 0% in the polls) to win the 1976 election, Carter was far better at deciding what was the right thing to do than at persuading the public and other politicians it was right.

(A sidelight: The first U.S. Senator to endorse Carter in the 1976 primaries was a 33-year-old first-termer named Joe Biden. Forty-four years later, Carter’s Georgia helped put Biden in the White House.)

Alter offers a not-so-positive picture of Carter’s early record on race: “While a quiet progressive since his experience in the integrated Navy in the late 1940s, he failed to oppose racial discrimination in public until sworn in as governor of Georgia in 1971.”

Carter was from one of the most racist parts of rural Georgia. He clearly was uncomfortable with the violent and virulent segregation of that place and time, but he didn’t speak out forcefully against it.

Former Governor and Senator Terry Sanford, who fought racism and segregation in North Carolina in the 1960s, never forgave Carter for his 1970 campaign against Carl Sanders. Carter’s campaign attacked Sanders, an owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, with a picture of a Black player dousing Sanders with champagne in a post-game locker room celebration.

But Carter changed, and he changed America. He was dragged down by an economic crisis and the Iran hostage crisis. He, like Donald Trump, suffered the ignominy of being a one-term President.

Yet Carter – in his four years as President and in the four decades since – set a standard for decency, integrity and service to his country, a standard that all Presidents, and all Americans, can admire and emulate.

“The Luckiest Man: Life With John McCain,” by Mark Salter, Simon & Schuster.

Carter’s biography was written by a journalist, a trained skeptic and critic. McCain’s was written by a more sympathetic observer; Mark Salter was for 30 years McCain’s aide, advisor and confidante, as well as coauthor of seven books. But Salter has written a book that is both insightful and balanced.

We know the highlights of McCain’s life  – POW, congressman, senator, maverick, unsuccessful presidential candidate, cancer victim and, in a role McCain both rued and relished at the end of his life, foil to Donald Trump.

Salter fills in the story – the hard-partying Navy flier, son and grandson of admirals, who finished near the bottom of his class at Annapolis, leading only in demerits.

Shot down on his sixth combat mission over Vietnam, McCain endured more than five years of imprisonment, marked by mistreatment, solitary confinement and torture. He was one of the most resistant and resilient of the POWs.

You can’t read about what he endured without wondering about the character of a man running for Commander-in-Chief who said: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Maybe there was a higher justice at work when Arizona flipped dramatically this year and, with Georgia, helped elect Biden, one of McCain’s close friends in the Senate. His widow Cindy endorsed Biden.

Where Jimmy Carter was a son of Georgia, McCain had no ties to Arizona. Salter, who has the novelist’s eye for telling detail, writes that on one day – March 27, 1981 – McCain buried his father, retired from the Navy after 22 years and moved to Arizona, where he went to work for his father-in-law’s lucrative beer distributorship and began running for Congress.

During a campaign debate, an opponent called him a carpetbagger. McCain delivered one of the most political devastating counterpunches ever. “Listen, pal,” McCain began. He talked about growing up as a Navy brat, then serving around the world and then: “As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

McCain won that election. In years to come, friends and foes alike would come to dread his acid tongue.

Throughout his career – he served two terms in the House and was elected to the Senate six times – McCain had an openness and candor that won him good press. But that did him no good in two ill-starred campaigns for President. In 2000, he got run over by the Bush machine. In 2008, he had the bad luck to run against charismatic, historic Barack Obama.

McCain brought no credit to himself with his confused and confounding response to the financial collapse of 2008. Even worse, he gave us Sarah Palin.

He redeemed himself in a gracious concession speech to Obama on Election Night. It’s worth watching on YouTube.

It was as a Senator that McCain made his mark on America. He was a relentless champion of campaign finance reform. He cast the decisive vote to save the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats fond of McCain forget he was a rock-ribbed Ronald Reagan conservative and a searing critic of what he believed to be President Obama’s shaky and uncertain record on defense and foreign policy.

Above all, McCain believed in “regular order,” the traditional operating rules of the Senate that emphasized compromise over confrontation. He bemoaned that the Senate was becoming like the House, a gladiators’ arena of winner-take-all partisan power plays and score-settling.

After Trump’s election in 2016, McCain inevitably became viewed as the anti-Trump. Salter held Trump in contempt, but he writes that “McCain seemed largely indifferent” to Trump’s Twitter attacks. He chastised Salter: “I don’t know why you let him get you so worked up. That’s not how you beat him.”

Salter says McCain “preferred instead to take on Trumpism…opposing Trump’s most noxious views, mainly his nativism and affinity for autocrats, and making the case for the international order founded on the values of free people and free markets.”

McCain once said that he and Trump were “very different people,” with different backgrounds and upbringing: “He was in the business of making money.” McCain added, “I was raised in a military family. I was raised in the concept and belief that duty, honor and country is the lodestar for the behavior that we have to exhibit every single day.”

Our Best

Jimmy Carter and John McCain, both Navy men and politicians, were otherwise very different: from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, different political parties and different philosophies.

But both were men of duty, honor and country. Both represented the best of America. Both gave their best to America.

Their stories remind us how truly great America can be.



My blog earlier this week, “Cooper and Biden are in the Same Boat,” incorrectly stated that Roy Cooper was elected Governor in 2008. Of course, it was 2016.

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