I’ve long admired Jimmy Carter, both as a president and as a citizen.
And it should come as no surprise that I get quite upset when I hear right-wing radio hosts and conservative commentators constantly vilify him, as many are doing now because of the former president’s meeting with Hamas, the Palestinian group that this country has declared “terrorist.”
I only wish we could have had (and will have) more presidents with his brains and his heart.
From the first moment I met him — more than a year before the 1976 Democratic National Convention — I knew he was a special human being.
Carter had come to the KERA-TV studios in Dallas to be interviewed by my colleagues and me on the station’s nightly “Newsroom” program. He arrived alone, and although he had been scheduled to appear at the top of the show, a new desegregation order for Dallas schools came down from the federal courts late that day, and we pushed the interview to the end of the program.
Carter patiently sat through our analysis of the court decision, but when we finally started our discussion with him, it became instantly clear that we had saved the best for last.
The reporters on the panel glanced at one another in amazement as the Georgia governor articulated sincerely and eloquently his vision for the nation.
After a couple of us walked him to the front door, we stood and talked for a long time about how impressed we were with his straight answers and wondered aloud if this peanut farmer could really become president. A few months later, several of us concluded that he could.
The next time I saw him, after he had secured the nomination, he was walking into a crowded auditorium at Southern Methodist University as the band played what had become his theme song: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
As the band members sang, “Glory, glory hallelujah” that evening, even I got goose bumps.
His critics say he was the worst president ever. Of course, that’s not true. But even if they once believed it, his detractors — if they were truthful — would have to admit that we are witnessing today a far more failed presidency.
If Carter did nothing else, his forging of a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt will stand as a monument to his four years in the White House. Since he left office, his contributions to this country and to humanity as a whole have been an impeccable display of leadership and service at a time when selfish greed has seemed to be the norm.
So it did not surprise me that he would seek a discussion with Hamas in trying to end the violence and perhaps — just perhaps — open a door that might lead to peace.
But his critics say he has no right to engage in such discussions, and some have even suggested (foolishly) that the U.S. State Department revoke his passport to keep him from traveling abroad.
Yet despite the naysayers, the former president continued on his mission and has announced that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, told him that it would accept the creation of a Palestinian state if the Palestinian people ratified it in a referendum, according to The New York Times.
In talks with Syrian leaders, Carter also reported that country was ready to negotiate a full peace treaty with Israel, the Times said.
Oh, I know that plenty of words about peace have been spoken before in the Middle East, and there are enough broken promises to fill the Red Sea. But isn’t it worth a try?
What does it hurt to have an ex-president who is respected around the world — a Nobel Peace Prize laureate at that — engage people who have been sworn enemies of Israel if there’s even the slightest chance of ending the fighting?
I’m very proud of him for ignoring his critics and continuing to do what he thinks is right.
And that brings me to the last time I visited with the ex-president. It was several years ago in that same KERA studio when Carter was promoting a book: “Always a Reckoning and Other Poems.”
I mentioned to him a friend of mine (a man many years my senior) who had served in World War II and had sent the former president some of his own poetry. I told Carter I knew that this friend would love his book as I did, and I was planning to a buy a copy for him.
A week or so later, I heard from my friend, who was ecstatic at having received the book in the mail — an autographed copy from Carter himself.
The former commander in chief had taken the time not only to write a note but to track down my friend’s address to send a gift to this man he had never met.
To me, that says as much about the man as brokering peace in the Middle East.
Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.