My first lesson in political polarization came when I was in second grade. The assignment was to find out who the president was when we were born. These were the days before Google and none of my friends had the answer, so I turned to the only people in my life old enough to know.
It was Jimmy Carter, Dad told me – and by the way, he was a total failure. But Mom chafed at that. Jimmy Carter was a good man, she told me. He believed in peace.
Here was my introduction to the divide between Red and Blue America, which ran straight through our house: Dad, the son of Nixon Republicans, a Navy veteran, a small businessman; and Mom, the social worker from blue collar Waterbury, Connecticut, the daughter of a nurse who unionized the city hospital.
It was also my introduction to Jimmy Carter, whose presidency is part of the foundation of the deep and intractable political divide we know today.
To the right, to Red America, it’s an essential ingredient in the legend of Ronald Reagan. After all, in any good story, it can’t be mere mediocrity that the hero saves everyone from. It has to be a crisis. So for Ronald Reagan to rescue America, he couldn’t just follow a disappointing president – he had to follow the Worst President Ever.
To the left, to Blue America, the Carter presidency is a different kind of tragedy. The kind of tragedy where a swirl of crises and misfortune totally beyond the control of one mere president creates an opening for an extreme ideologue who couldn’t get elected under any normal circumstance to seize power and pull the country sharply – and in many ways permanently – to the right.
Jimmy Carter is now the longest surviving ex-president in American history. It’s been 34 ½ years since he left the White House. They’ve been busy years for him, busy in ways we don’t usually see with former presidents – tireless humanitarian work around the globe, provocative and controversial books, churned out at the dizzying rate of almost one a year, jarringly frank public comments about his successors, about the state of the world.
Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency has in many ways been as polarizing as his presidency. But one of the worst things about polarization is that it reduces every public figure to a boring two-dimensional caricature – a champ or chump, never any in between. But with any leader and with any person it’s the in between that’s invariably the most interesting – the heroic traits and grand ambitions mixing with weaknesses, blind spots and all the imperfections that make us human.
Jimmy Carter is 90 years old now and we learned this week that he’s sick. But he’s still here and as long as he is, maybe now we can put aside all those decades of caricaturing and salute the goodness and decency that’s always been right there in front of us. Whatever you think of his politics, of his presidency, of any provocative pronouncement he’s made, Jimmy Carter is an honest man who loves his country and his family, who speaks his mind, who believes in peace and lives the biblical edict to serve the least among us. There have been better presidents and there have been worse. But we’d a better nation if all of them were as decent people as Jimmy Carter.