The uncommon decency of Jimmy Carter

Published 7:31 am Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The antithesis of Donald Trump and his administration can be studied, at least for those willing to drive 150 miles south from Atlanta, among magnolias, towering pines and seemingly endless fields of cotton, peanuts – and dreams.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter live just a few blocks from the center of Plains, population 700, a town that has become a monument to the former president and his uncommon decency.

Carter, who turns 94 next month, has shunned the trappings and riches that former presidents typically enjoy, preferring to live in the simple ranch house that he and Rosalynn built in 1961. Now free of the melanoma that threatened his life just a few years ago, Jimmy  Carter writes books, teaches Sunday school, and never hesitates to shake a hand or pose for a picture during regular strolls along Church Street.

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Although he doesn’t inject himself often in the current political scene, the former president spoke recently with The Washington Post about Donald Trump. “I think he’s a disaster,” Carter said bluntly. “In human rights and taking care of people and treating people equal.”

The National Park Service does a marvelous job of maintaining and showcasing venues in  Plains that draw some 70,000 visitors each year. The former high school building, where Jimmy and Rosalynn studied, has been made into a museum known as the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. Its exhibits trace Carter’s life as well as the civil rights movement in fascinating detail.

A few miles down Old Plains Highway, Carter’s boyhood home has been beautifully restored and is open to the public for self-guided tours. On what was once a 360-acre peanut farm, visitors can explore the main house and outbuildings while listening to Carter’s recorded descriptions of life in the 1930s.

The old train depot in the center of Plains is preserved, just as it was in 1976 when it served as Carter’s campaign headquarters. Only the family’s current residence on Church Street, protected by the Secret Service, is not open to the public. It is a modest home with a converted garage in which the former president does woodworking and writing.

What one gets here is a sense of calm and dignity. It’s more than Southern charm; it’s a philosophy of life.

In his memoir, “Back Home,” President Carter summed it up: “We should be seen as the unswerving champions of human rights, both among our own citizens and within the global community. America should be the focal point around which other nations can rally against threats to the quality of our common environment.”

I visited Plains a few days after watching John McCain’s funeral on television. Like so many people, I was moved by the appeals to restore civility in our government and to work for common goals that ought to transcend political differences.

I was reminded of how two genuine heroes, McCain and Carter – so starkly opposed in political views – could set a uniform example of how to conduct our lives and our government.
Visitors fortunate enough to make their way to Plains, Georgia, are bound to be inspired by what they encounter. Some of our better angels are here, working for peanuts.


Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. He can be reached at