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The Riddle of Jimmy Carter

Page 11 of 13

Yet Bond and other leaders of the civil rights movement also stress how far Carter has come from his roots. Rep. John Lewis, who led the historic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, back in 1965, believes that Carter evolved as a person when he left behind the brutal realities of his upbringing to run for president. "Jimmy Carter grew up in a setting where segregation and overt racism were the order of the day," Lewis says. "No longer beholden to the voters of South Georgia, he became a free person. He was liberated."

The evolution continued, Lewis says, when Carter left the White House and became one of the strongest and most vocal advocates for the world's poor. "I tell you, Carter has become something he was not as president. He's being true to himself. People should listen to him. He just keeps going. He's like the Energizer Bunny. He's here! He's there! People can't stand it. He feels a sense of calling and mission. I admire that." In the end, black leaders view Carter with the forgiveness that was a trademark of the civil rights movement. In their eyes, he managed to overcome the fear and hatred instilled in white Southerners of his generation, integrating his better self with his very political nature, leaving behind the kind of race-baiting he briefly engaged in to stand up for those in need. As Bond puts it: "A good man had a couple of bad days."

Last May, on a sun-splashed Saturday, three days before his special election for an open seat in the Georgia state senate, Jason Carter was working the crowd at Atlanta's East Lake Farmers Market when the cavalry arrived wearing a huge j.c. belt buckle. It had taken Jimmy Carter a while to convince his grandson to let him help with the campaign. The situation was complicated for Jason, in part because Jewish voters in his district have mixed feelings about Carter. As Carter had joked in an address to the campaign's volunteers, "I'm glad that Jason has finally confessed that I'm his grandfather."

At the farmers market, everyone wants to meet Carter. "Ask all your friends to vote for my grandson," he tells each person he sets eyes on. He also kisses babies, signs books, poses for pictures and talks turkey with the organic turkey lady. "I just killed a big one the other afternoon, I'm sorry to tell you," he says. He doesn't look sorry. As they leave the market, Rosalynn carrying some lettuce and mushrooms she's bought, all three are ready to go house-to-house, ringing doorbells. Should they work as a team so they can visit as they walk, Jason wonders, or spread out? Carter and Rosalynn, veterans of thousands of mornings like this one, don't hesitate: "Spread out!"

After a few unanswered doors, Carter says, "I used to be an expert at this — I've lost my touch!" But then doors begin opening. "Hi, I'm Jimmy Carter," he greets everyone who answers his ring. "I'm campaigning for my grandson. He's a good kid!" At one house, Carter tells the owners, "You know, when I ran for the state senate for the first time, my opponent got many of his votes from the cemetery!" At another, he says, "When I ran for governor, my wife and I shook 600,000 hands in Georgia. We went to every factory. Every Falcons game." As he approaches a third house, Jason calls from across the way, "I already did that house. They're not home."

"Well," Carter says, sounding annoyed, "the fan's on and the light's on. They're wasting electricity."

Inside a Chevron station's minimart, a woman does a double take. "Jimmy Carter! My favorite president!" At a chicken-wings shop, a Korean man working the counter nearly vaults over it as he cries, "God bless you, Jimmy Carter!" Outside a laundry, a woman almost drops her sack of clothes. "President Carter! Oh, I love you. You are so for real." She puts down her bag and gives him a hug. "Thank you for all you've done. You are a blessing in this world. Let me just hug you one more time. Bless you. You're a fighter."

Carter refuses to sign autographs — it takes too much time — but he'll pose for a picture if you're quick. He explains to several people how to work their cameras. The seminars on buttons and lenses are so technically precise that they bring to mind the Carter that Dan Aykroyd captured in his 1977 Saturday Night Live spoof "Ask President Carter," in which Carter expertly assisted random telephone callers with such conundrums as how to fix a clogged Marvex 3000 postal letter sorter and how to ride out an acid trip. ("Peter, what did the acid look like? ... You did some Orange Sunshine, Peter.")

Afterward, back at his house, Jason sits on his front porch with his mother and his father Jack's ex-wife, Judy Langford. With an election coming up on Tuesday, he notes, his grandfather would still have been out there shaking hands. Instead, Jason blows soap bubbles for his children and talks about Carter.

"Nobody wants their president to be a normal guy," he says.

"That's why things that Papaw did, like carrying around his own bag, were true to who he is, but it wasn't who they wanted the president to be," Judy agrees.

Jason brings up a letter Carter once sent to state wildlife authorities. "He confessed that he went over his limit, because he took one shot and two turkeys died! Nobody believes this! 'OK, forgive me, I shot two turkeys in one!'"

Then they fondly discuss how Carter overplays the virtues he discovered in his father at his funeral and how he makes his childhood sound more impoverished than it really was. Rosalynn tweaks him in this way, too. When she hears his stories of praying for an orange for Christmas as a boy, she reminds him that he got a pony. In reply, he tends to say, "That ol' donkey?!" At his Atlanta apartment in the Carter Center, Rosalynn and Carter sleep in a Murphy bed. Judy finds Carter's parsimony amusing. "One day it was raining," she recalls. "Jimmy had no raincoat. Rafshoon gave him his. Jimmy intentionally never gave it back. Rafshoon still finds ways to remind him."

Most of the people close to Carter enjoy lightly chaffing him when he isn't there. Part of it may be that they want to bring a man who is always doing so many benevolent things for far-flung strangers a little closer to them. "At a fundamental level he is supertrue to a powerful belief that you take every opportunity to make a difference and do good," Jason says. "He really has done what he could. It's like today: If we split up, we can do more."

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