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The Riddle of Jimmy Carter

Page 13 of 13

I mention that his old supporter Bobby Rowan once described to me the split between the true Jimmy Carter and the Jimmy Carter who did what he thought it took to win. "I always wished I was from Enigma, Georgia!" Carter says, referring to Rowan's hometown. Then he says, "Had it been a reversal of my previous positions, my inaugural speech would have been a dramatic revelation. I don't think anybody was surprised or saw it as a departure from my campaign."

I tell him that Rowan says many people were, in fact, surprised. "Bobby Rowan is an eloquent person," he says. "I wouldn't dispute what he says."

We talk about the South, about listening to dinner-table conversations as a child at the homes of relatives that featured a stream of grievances about the Northern oppression of the South — "My mother was the only one who would defend Abraham Lincoln." He tells of his 1964 speech in the Georgia legislature, in which he called for an end to the "so-called 30 questions" that blacks were required to answer to qualify to vote — "obscure questions nobody could answer," such as the legal intricacies of habeas corpus and the names of Georgia's Supreme Court justices. "Richard Russell told me I was making a serious mistake," Carter recalls. "Obviously, I disagreed." He mentions how difficult it was for Southerners to admit that slavery was the most important issue of the Civil War. Instead "it was just Yankee domination of the South through the federal government at the expense of states' rights. Now, with the Tea Party movement, that same feeling has come back."

The talk turns to his parents. "My daddy was deeply resistant to the government intruding in personal affairs," Carter says. He and Rosalynn inherited his mother's status as "very liberal on the race issue. An expression was used I won't repeat." In Plains, he says, "a lot of our friends disagreed strongly" with his racial views, and some terminated their relationships. He relates his community's experience of segregation to the current situation in the Middle East, where he believes there is "a similar pressure on Jews who don't want to speak against the treatment of Palestinians. Now, increasing numbers are speaking out for a two-state solution."

Then Carter shifts course, implying that American racism was actually worse in the North. He calls the busing riots in Boston during the 1970s "more severe than any riots that took place in Georgia," and mentions that Philadelphia and Chicago were also plagued by racial hatred. In the South, he says, blacks and whites are more "intimately involved" with one another. Carter isn't the first person from the region where slavery, lynching and Jim Crow held sway to want to shift attention to the sins of the Yankees, but it surprises me that he would. As much as he has done to combat suffering in the world, the suffering that took place next door to him remains complicated within him in a way that his books and our conversations make me suspect he hasn't fully sorted out.

It is time for lunch. In the kitchen nook, we sit down on a blue-vinyl-covered bench and hold hands while Carter says a prayer. Then a silent, African-American woman named Mary Fitzpatrick serves pork barbecue sandwiches on sliced whole-wheat bread. Fitzpatrick met Carter when she was assigned to the Georgia governor's mansion as part of a rehabilitation program for criminals. When Carter won her a reprieve from her murder conviction, she became Amy's governess in the White House, and has worked for the family ever since. She is known for never saying a public word about Carter.

Over lunch, we talk about Carter's favorite book, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the seminal account of white Depression-era sharecroppers in Alabama, which Carter says he loves because it "told accurately what I knew as a child." Carter expresses his dismay at America's harsh immigration policies, the racist treatment of Hispanics and the long-term incarceration of prisoners without trial. He is gearing up for an afternoon of writing and hunting. There are trips in his future! I mention to Carter that just about everyone I have spoken with about him uses the word "driven." He frowns.

"I don't feel driven," he says. "I feel completely relaxed. I have an almost meticulous commitment to orderly events in my life. I can change total attention from one subject to another without interruption. I get a full night's sleep every night and plenty of exercise." If he isn't driven, I ask, would he at least grant that he's competitive? Yes, he happily concedes. And where did that come from? Even more happily, he says, "I don't know!"

He thinks about it. Then he says, "Once I set a goal for myself — be elected, make a living as a businessman, make the best seed peanuts in Georgia, command a submarine — I am able to devote maximum thought process in planning a schedule of action and to act. When I ran for the Georgia senate, it was easy to give up. All the odds were against me succeeding. I would have died first. People would tell me, 'You have no chance to be elected governor or president.' But if I got only two votes, I'm in to stay. I don't mind competition. I actually relish competition. Same thing at the Carter Center. We try things that might succeed. If they don't succeed, that's OK. Some things that look unachievable, we achieve."

One of the consequences of being the kind of person Carter describes — of possessing such a single-minded fixation on taking action — is that a certain level of reflection becomes impossible. Although he plainly chafes at interviews that take away from all the other things he could be doing, once he commits his time he is engaged and generous, and never seems to be holding back. Yet no matter how much he talks about himself, no matter how many memoirs he writes or how many interviews he gives, he still remains the most elusive of our former presidents.

Among the more iconic images of the Obama presidency is a photograph taken in the Oval Office in January 2009. All four ex-presidents stand shoulder-to-shoulder next to Obama — except for Carter, who is off on the end, a foot away from Bill Clinton. He is, in every sense, a man apart. Some interpreted this as deference, Carter's unconscious admission that he did not belong in such company. But in a recent interview, Carter seemed to suggest that the remove was a way of underscoring what he sees as his ongoing, outsize position in world affairs. "I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents," he said. "We're right in the midst of the constant daily debate."

That proud, boastful explanation is, in effect, the same one Carter has always given for why he, nationally unknown, thought he could be elected president. As governor of Georgia, Carter met just about every prominent Democratic contender and came away feeling he could do better than any of them. He then proceeded to coolly change American politics by insisting that the way to get elected was to run not on policy but on personality, and to seem the American norm rather than exceptional. His anti-Washington, anti-elite, man-of-the-people, outsider approach worked so well that every successful presidential candidate since Carter has sought to replicate it. (The campaign model of Sarah Palin, another tenacious, bestselling former governor with a big smile from a small state, owes more to Carter than any major candidate since Carter.) That this intelligent, principled, dogged man who remains so steely and enigmatic at his center got himself elected president is one amazing American story. That he reinvented a way for a former president to live on in defeat is another. He accomplished both by relentlessly looking forward — as he still does today. In the end, his personal paradoxes and unresolved contradictions are simply left behind by the arrow of his ambition — the ongoing desire to do something more, to go anywhere to stay in the game, to make a lasting difference.

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