Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Seeking Leaders of Grit and Integrity
During our recent trip to Atlanta, my wife and I took the better part of a morning to tour the Carter Center and Library, the presidential library dedicated to preserving the memory of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. What both amazed and troubled us was the current relevance of the words and actions of Carter’s presidency. While his presidency (1977-1981) was overshadowed and ultimately undermined by the Iranian hostage crisis, many of the issues that Barack Obama is seeking to address today, were very much on Jimmy Carter’s agenda in the late 1970’s. Carter was a strong advocate for universal health care reform and energy efficiency (Carter is often remembered and ridiculed for encouraging people to turn down their thermostats and wearing sweaters, and encouraging the auto industry to develop more energy efficient cars). He was a strong advocate for peace in the Middle East, having mediated a lasting peace between Israel and Egpyt. Moreover, Carter presided over an economic recession and called for wealthy people and businesses to contribute their fair share. Carter was also a strong advocate for civil rights and was a man of unimpeachable integrity.
As my wife and I read Carter’s words on these and other issues, we were struck with how little our culture has moved from it’s bellicose, gas guzzling, pro-wealthy strategies. We could not help but see the parallels between the challenges Obama faces today and Carter faced over 30 years ago. When Ronald Reagan was elected president, he removed several of the environmentally-friendly policies of Carter, he released the controls on big business, and ushered in an era of increasing and growing disparity between the rich and poor. So here we are again with Obama addressing the same issues Carter warned us about 30 years ago.
As I walked through the Carter Center I was filled with feelings of appreciation and regret. When Carter ran for re-election in 1980, I did not vote for him; I voted for the third party candidate, John Anderson. Like many people, I was disappointed with Carter’s apparent lack of leadership. What I didn’t realize was that Reagan would so completely undo the good Carter accomplished, and undermine so much of the good he accomplished.
The other day I received a call from the Democratic Party seeking a donation for the upcoming Congressional mid-term elections. I turned them down and said I would focus on my local candidates. At the time I was not sure I was actually going to do that, but after reflecting on my visit to the Carter Center, I realize that we need to find candidates with integrity and with a progressive agenda in regards to health care, economic reform and creative solutions for seeking Middle Eastern peace. So often when I look at what goes on in Congress, all I see is a bunch of hypocrites pointing fingers, while taking contributions from corporations, pharmaceutical companies and other special interest groups. I don’t see many folks who care about the poor or the needs of the marginalized in our society (including undocumented immigrants). I don’t see leaders who are willing to step up and actually make universal health care a reality. I don’t see leaders who are willing to seek creative avenues for peace. However, they are out there; there are occasional politicians of grit and integrity like Jimmy Carter, and like Barack Obama.
I must admit that in recent years I have become cynical about our democracy. It appears that our representative democracy only represents those with the fattest checkbooks. However, I realize anew that I can’t make the same mistake I made about Jimmy Carter. He has done a great deal of good since leaving office, but another 4 years in office might have led to a far different result today. Perhaps we would not still be trying to pass health care reform; perhaps we would be much further ahead in the battle against global warming; perhaps the poor would have more dignity. Touring the Carter Center reminded me that the battle for justice and peace is an uphill battle, and those politicians willing to wage that battle deserve and need our support.