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Jimmy, We Hardly Knew Ya

The Governor of Georgia was waiting on the front steps of his mansion as our vehicles approached. You wouldn’t have guessed that he was the Governor of Georgia, as he was dressed in white pants, an open-collar blue shirt, and loafers without socks.

His face was ear to ear with his famous “shit eating “ grin, as my childhood buddies in Brooklyn would put it.

“Hi, I’m Jimmy Carter. This is my wife, Rosalynn.”

“Glad to meet you,” we mumbled, as our line stretched down the long stairway.

Jimmy passed us to Rosalynn, a tall graceful woman who was also glad to meet us. She shifted us from one hand to the other, keeping the line moving towards the tall doors, open wide on this cold January night.

Inside, down a long hallway, we could see a large room, with a pianist tinkling light jazz. Tubs of ice held beer, wine and soda bottles. Plates of nibbles abounded. Waiters in red coats circulated with more food. Only if you had experience in such a setting — I certainly didn’t — would you be able to balance the offerings.

“What the f…. are we doing here?” whispered one of my companions. It was thanks to her that I was here; she managed a small Atlanta night spot where Carter’s sons sometimes partied. My partner/housemate and I, on a cross-country road trip, had stopped in Atlanta where we knew exactly one person, and heard a promo for the club on a station that played jazz and rock. So we thought we’d give it a try.

As a small band prepared to begin, there was an announcement from the stage asking if anyone knew how to fix a sound system? I was barely able to try, having gotten used to frequent electronic breakdowns at the community radio station, KPFA in Berkeley, where I had been a newscaster, talk show host, fund-raiser, meeting chair, and eventually station manager. Just about everyone there was deeply into whatever they were deeply into. Music (classical, folk, “world” blues, rock, jazz) politics, poetry and the vast areas of creative interface among all these.

A few nights and a few sound system defects later, the Atlanta club owner rewarded us volunteer workers with tickets for that night’s “Big Arena” concert. The headliner, unbelievably, was Bob Dylan. He wasn’t big in Atlanta yet, but was huge back home in California.

We had VIP seats. Further down our front row was the Governor of Georgia whose cautious trajectory as an anti-segregation white politician in the rigidly racist South was definitely on our radar screens.

Dylan killed it. The audience went nuts. But by the time he arrived at Carter’s mansion for the afterparty we had left. Later we learned that Dylan stayed for hours, as Carter played records from his large collection for his young musician friends, including some guys from Macon, called “The Allman Brothers.” 

* * * 

People born when Carter was last President (1981) would be 42 years old today. Their parents and grandparents might remember President Carter, the Allman Brothers, and Bob Dylan. For younger generations what’s known of them comes from history books. Or web sites, nowadays, more likely.

After his Governorship and Presidency, Carter courted solitude, avoiding meetings, committees, and social obligations. But he was hardly idle. He took up carpentry and became adept. He painted. He wrote poetry. He hiked at home and abroad. He spent time gabbing and gossiping at country stores near his inherited farmland. And he wrote pages and pages on subjects ranging from the Middle East to the use and abuse of religion; 30 books in all. 

Jonathan Alter’s exhaustive (and exhausting) 750-page book, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” (2020) makes one stagger at the breadth and depth of the man and his energies. 

One thing he did not do much of is take advantage of his experiences and become a quotemeister for ever thirsty media. He did not take calls from celebrity reporters, even to discuss those he liked (Obama) or those he hated (Trump). He didn’t collect the legalized investments and bribes (euphemistically called “campaign contributions”) that deform and disgrace electoral politics. He didn’t run around the country, collecting praise and portraits. And he didn’t use his post-Presidential years as so many other Presidents (including Obama) have done: to amass enormous wealth.

What he did instead was work as hard as he could to help the least fortunate on the planet.

“Habitat for Humanity” was originally a small “intentional community” in rural Georgia, meant to provide a refuge for weary Christians. Jimmy and Rosalyn made it their headquarters for their life’s work.

“Habitat,” eventually incorporated into The Carter Center, has built over 100,000 homes. Dwellings that are not the pathetic little structures being grudgingly provided by corporations and governments. Habitat’s residencies are built to last. They’re owner-occupied by people who had been renters (or homeless) all their lives. Probably a million people have lived, or are living, in them.

The impetus was the religious faith that both Carters had grown up with and are deeply committed to.

As the Miami Times recently said (2/22/2023), in a pre-obituary tribute: “Carter doesn’t just talk the talk; he has always walked the walk. In James 2:14-17 it is written: ‘What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? … Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So a faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’.” 

Sixteen years after my memorable night with Jimmy Carter in the Governor’s mansion, I encountered him again, in very different circumstances which might have tried his faith as a younger man. But he and Rosalynn had not only grown Habitat for Humanity in the United States, they also visited 140 countries to initiate projects. Countries with millions of poor people. Countries with autocratic, sometimes murderous, governments. 

The country where our paths crossed again was Nicaragua. Carter had never been there. I had, eight years earlier, as the producer of a PBS documentary about the rise and victory of the Sandinistas, and the beginnings of a progressive government. Carter, as President, had helped facilitate that government. When Reagan defeated Carter, foreign policy radically changed. Not only did the United States and its powerful overt and covert military establishments not help the young revolutionaries, they funded an armed rebellion against them, and set about undermining them commercially and financially. The overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship was seen as nothing more than a hiccup in the long illness that had kept Nicaragua and other Central American countries impoverished, subservient, and helpless. 

Daniel Ortega was the leader of the new ruling group, the Sandinistas. It was a movement before it was a political party. (Sandino had been a rebel leader opposed to U.S. dominance 60 years before.). Now its essence as a popular-based party was about to be tested in an election.

As an ex-President, Carter had pipelines and friendships deep in Washington’s endless bureaucracies. All the polls indicated he was going to lose to Ronald Reagan. But he had developed an appetite for political involvement ever since first campaigning for the Georgia State Senate at the age of 36. (He lost.) 

So, in addition to Habitat for Humanity’s domestic focus, the Carters would create an entity which worked for world peace which the Carters’ deep religious faith told them should be everyone’s goal. Even if history seemed to say that for abundant reasons only a few countries, for limited periods of time, had ever gotten there. And in a nuclear-armed world where dictatorships and fake “democracies” abounded, they were unlikely to get very far down that road.

The second and last time I saw the Carters close up was when he and his small staff were creating the conditions for what had never happened in that particular country before. A free and fair election, with high citizen participation, and a universally accepted outcome.

I had gotten there a month before the Carters arrived just before election day.

The conditions were dire not just for an election, but for human life itself. Food was scarce, fuel and water were rationed, politicians were thought to be pitiful or at best ineffectual. Daniel Ortega was much less popular as President than he had been as a rebel leader. Leaders are often held responsible for things that aren’t entirely their fault, if at all. 

Aside from active war zones – of which Nicaragua, thanks to the Reagan administration by then had developed plenty — there could have been few more challenging circumstances for the few people, including me, who were trying to bring Nicaragua’s situation to distant audiences.

Electricity outages and shortages of things like batteries and tapes meant our already insufficient audio equipment could not be recharged. Money was hard to get; most banks had closed, and those who owned and ran them had sent tens of thousands of dollars to Miami and Madrid. Telephone service was spotty. Transportation was rare and undependable And the air was often unbreathable, with a cloud of smoke pollution hanging over Managua many days. (In the absence of oil, cut off or limited by U.S. embargoes, people burned wood.)

To survive, everyone had to depend on the one asset Nicaragua had in abundance: friendly, savvy people. All neighborhoods had many of these. From individuals to large, multi-generation families, most everyone offered help to everyone else. Especially strangers who obviously meant no harm.

We Yanquis depended on fellow Americans who had volunteered to come to Nicaragua to provide the assistance which the U.S. and international bodies pressured by the U.S. had ceased to provide. Medical workers, including doctors and nurses. School teachers. Musicians. Poets. People who knew how to repair cars, bicycles, and wheelchairs. 

Every day I woke up hungry, tired, anxious from another sleepless night of hearing dogs barking, rats scratching, what sounded like guns but were possibly fireworks, and radios buzzing when electricity intermittently came on. Six of us Americans had rented, for almost nothing, a formerly middle-class house in a formerly somewhat prosperous neighborhood. 

Even before dawn, there was always a noisy racket of children shouting, parents calling children, roosters screaming, crows squawking, and vehicle motors trying to come to life with watered-down gasoline in their tanks.

Kids and adults appeared at our doors and windows. Offering green bananas, fresh bread, bottled water and shelled nuts. But mostly they offered their services. So, after eating almost nothing I would pack my little shoulder bag (backpacks were ill-advised and never worn on backs to foil robbers), and venture out. I was usually met by a teenage boy, sometimes with a sister or brother, and taken to one of several nearby houses where someone with a functioning vehicle was in residence. 

Often the vehicle was in ghastly condition; rotting floors, cracked windshields, broken wipers. (It rained a lot there, unpredictably, sometimes for minutes, sometimes thunderstorms, sometimes for whole days.)

My destination was usually somewhere in what had been the center of town before the 1972 earthquake which had killed an estimated 5,000 people, damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings, destroyed roads, and traumatized everyone. Thousands left the country following the transfer of whatever money they were able to gather. Dictator Somoza and his cronies had stolen most of the money contributed worldwide for rebuilding of which there was very little. The tropical jungle had grown over the city center. And since homes had become vacant lots of displaced people in improvised structures inhabited the jungle.

How much of this did Jimmy Carter see in his few days as chief monitor of the elections? We’ll never know. But he and his cohorts had access to statistics on unemployment, disease, and death. His staff, which included many Nicaraguan support workers, certainly knew how bad things were. For the Carter Center, many of whose workers had been to Nepal, Bosnia, Haiti, and Bangladesh, it was different in Nicaragua but not new.

Would voters keep a revolutionary government in power that had presided over the deterioration of their country? Would they trust further the charismatic, outspoken young man who rode into large Sandinista rallies on horseback? Or would they vote for a decidedly uncharismatic older woman whose coalition partners included former business and land owners who had tacitly backed the dictator who had preceded Daniel Ortega?

Jimmy Carter didn’t so much care who won the election. For him it was the process, not the politicians, who mattered. 

If the process was corrupt, he concluded in his 1992 book, “Turning Point” which he was finalizing during his trip to Nicaragua, then the result was corrupt. Carter’s book was about how, 30 years before, America’s essential flaw, racism, had begun to be attacked. Through spurious legal means and election rigging and officially sanctioned violence, bigotry and white superiority ruled the South (and big parts of the rest of the country as well). These, Carter wrote, had to go. In Nicaragua, hunger, crime, unemployment and ignorance had to go. It was a much smaller country, with only about five million people. But from what Carter had experienced, and what he knew about the world, its problems had to be confronted just as they had been in his homeland.

I asked him at a press conference, his first Managua appearance, if he was satisfied with what he had seen of the run-up to that week’s election. He looked at those seated to either side of him. And answered in his drawling, poorly pronounced but grammatically correct Spanish. He stated, “These are honorable people.” He knew them. Many of them – including President Ortega and Foreign Affairs Minister Miguel d’Escoto, a Catholic priest — had met with him in Washington when he was President. The elections would be closely monitored by folks like him from around the world. He said, “If you trust me, you should trust them.”

To everyone’s surprise (including mine), Ortega lost the election. The day after, to everyone’s surprise (including mine) there were no riots in the streets. The large international monitoring crew began to leave. The international media decamped as well, after bringing the news of the startling election results to the world. Carter stayed up with Ortega as the vote count mounted. He may have told him how badly he wanted to win when he first ran for office, and lost twice before narrowly winning.

For the last time I got to the airport for a vital part of my job. I had two FedEx envelopes, one with the typescript of my post-election story, one with cassette recordings of post-election interviews (including a brief one with Carter). I found an American looking guy and asked him if he would drop them in the first FedEx box he saw after landing (Fed Ex and UPS were among the last businesses the Reagan crew had coerced into closing). He did, I found out from a Berkeley guy I knew who brought me the East Bay Express when he arrived in a few days. 

My exhaustion was total. I left most of what I had with me to our friends and neighbors — the few clothes I wasn’t wearing, a few pads of paper, and pens. My precious Olivetti typewriter and spare ribbons. Ill with fever, 30 pounds lighter than I had been on arrival, I caught the first available plane to the U.S. As I staggered down the airplane stairs and reached the tarmac in Houston, I wanted to kiss the ground. But I didn’t. I was afraid I wouldn’t have the strength to stand up.

(Larry Bensky reported from Nicaragua for Pacifica Radio and the East Bay Express. He was the producer of “Nicaragua: These Same Hands” in the PBS Independent Lens Series. This essay was written as President Carter, age 98, entered home hospice care in late February, 2023.)

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