By Michael Willard
I was born to the right of I- 75, miles from where Jimmy Carter was raised on the left side way back before there was a gray ribbon through the heart of Georgia arrowing to Atlanta and beyond,
His orchard was peanuts from Plains, mine was onions from Vidalia, both of which I enjoy and for which the regions are rather famous, though his birthplace indisputably more so than mine.
Normally, we wouldn’t have that much in common. He’s a devout Baptist, and I a fallen Baptist.
He’s a lifelong resident of Georgia, while I moved away before the age of two. I only returned once, lost in search of a reunion which was actually several towns distant from the sweet onion mecca.
Also, he’s transitioned to the late Noble Rot stage in life while I still like to consider myself in the yellowing but fast browning leaf stage. In other words, he’s two decades and change older.
But, the fact is our careers — his meteoric, mine mediocre — collided in 1976. He was elected President, and I was plucked from obscurity to be press secretary for the US Senate Democratic Leader.
Today, however, if it were in my power, I would nominate him not for another Nobel Peace Prize, but for the Royal Order of Sainthood, realizing I would have to create such a distinguished plateau.
The timing is right. I would brand it as “Virtue over Vulgarity,” though it is not the intention of this essay to attack the current President. Such has the currency of confetti in a snow storm.
I haven’t always felt this way about Carter, — but look at me now — a man in love with the principles and life of another man.
When Carter came into office, my boss, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-WV, proclaimed from the outset he was the President’s friend, but not the President’s man. This is so unlike the current Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, who might not be the President’s friend, but is most definitely the President’s sycophant.
Byrd set out to fiercely defend that territory, which led fairly quickly to the downfall of an Office of Management and Budget Director, Bert Lance. Lance couldn’t escape some of his earlier banking practices.
The Senate leader made a late-night visit to the White House to meet with Carter. The next day Lance was history.
Carter and Byrd were as different as peanuts and onions, though Byrd, with his coalfield upbringing — often resplendent in red vest and dressed to the nines — could easily out-poor the former governor.
The President preferred bluejeans for casual wear. Byrd, on the other hand, said he grew out of bib-overalls as a child. The senator wore a three-piece suit to tour flood-ravaged regions in West Virginia.
My own interaction with Carter was limited. On several occasions, I walked with the senator and the President as Byrd escorted Carter to the elevator after State of the Union speeches.
When Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, he visited Byrd, who was by then in the minority, in the senator’s John F. Kennedy conference room.
As Byrd left to vote on the Senate floor, I found myself alone with the former President, engaging in a discussion over the Soviet downing of a Korean passenger jet which was the news of the TV day.
Throughout my career, most of my talk-about acquaintances were brush by personages. I have always been rather comfortable in the backwaters of the famous and semi-famous. It was their snap-shot period of time, not mine.
Once, after Carter had given his famous “malaise” speech that was roundly criticized, Byrd asked my thoughts. I put them on paper, and, in my presence, he telephoned the President, reading them verbatim.
It was heady stuff, but more a personal war story to be told — maybe embellished — than one of any historic significance.
As the years and presidents rolled by, I became an ardent defender of Carter, citing what, in my view, were his signature accomplishments — all in foreign affairs:
— The Panama Canal Treaties, which I was privileged to be in Panama for crucial meetings that helped determine the outcome.
— The normalization of relations with China, where I had a ring-side seat in Beijing for discussions with the Chinese leadership.
— And, the Middle East peace accords, where I was fortunate to be present in meetings with President Anwar Sadat in Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Begin in Israel during crucial moments.
My role, however, in none of these was terribly important. I carried a clipboard and kept notes, dispensing advice to Byrd whose own counsel was far superior to mine or, for that matter, anyone else’s.
Jimmy Carter was always a presence in these meetings — though not physically present. It was his policy. His wishes. His dreams.
As an ex-president, Carter’s star has shone even brighter. At 95, he still wields a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, though he has recently suffered two falls. He is a good, virtuous man.
In nominating Carter for Sainthood — and I realize such is appropriating a platform of which I am neither worthy or have a scintilla of credentials — my main criteria is virtue over vulgarity.
In other words, who do I want my grandchildren to grow up and be like: The man with the hammer and the sweat-soaked red handkerchief or the shallow fellow in the golf cart.