When Jimmy Carter was president, I was a lowly clerk at The Washington Star. I saw him mostly through the eyes of Pat Oliphant, our brilliant, biting cartoonist. As Carter came to be seen as uncool and fumbling, Oliphant drew the president smaller and smaller in relation to his tormentors — including that killer rabbit.
It taught me an early lesson in the brutality of dwindling power.
Four decades later, I went one weekend to interview Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in Plains, Georgia, along with my friend Jerry Rafshoon, who was Carter’s media wizard.
I watched Carter teach Sunday school at the Baptist church his friends started in the 1970s, after his original church refused to integrate. Some in Plains, disdaining his views on integration, tried to boycott his peanut business, but most came back. “I had the best peanuts,” he told Rafshoon.
I sat with the former president as he celebrated his 93rd birthday with a concert; he asked the pianist to play “Imagine.” Wearing jeans and a belt with a big “JC” buckle, he showed me the four-poster walnut bed he slept in with Rosalynn, which he had carved himself.
The man was a marvel. The starchiness and righteousness were still there. He had not mellowed, thank God. He remained, to use the descriptor favored by one of his sons, intense. He still felt the sting of being dissed and held at a distance by his successors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
As a postpresident, Carter’s decency and honesty shone. Unlike Clinton and Obama, he didn’t go Hollywood. Through the Carter Center, he worked tirelessly to eradicate diseases like Guinea worm and supervise elections in more than 100 countries.
He cared so passionately about peace that he even offered to go on a mission for a Republican president with very different values, Donald Trump, to talk to Kim Jong Un in North Korea.
Carter cared about building — furniture and relationships. The nasty new face of Georgia politics cares about dividing.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene followed up her furry catcalls to President Joe Biden during the State of the Union by proposing secession.
“We need a national divorce,” she tweeted on Presidents Day. “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this. From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s traitorous America Last policies, we are done.”
Georgia is purplish now, with two Democratic senators, as well as a governor and secretary of state willing to stand up to the Trump election lies that Greene helps spread. So it’s not clear if some states would have to be — what’s that word again? — segregated into blue and red bastions.
Georgians could be proud of Carter, who worked prodigiously to bring peace to the Middle East. Now they have a congresswoman, a creepy confidante of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who talked gibberish about Jewish space lasers and called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad the “Jihad Squad.” Greene said Black people “are held slaves to the Democratic Party” and labeled Black Lives Matter “the most powerful domestic terrorist organization within inside the United States.”
Carter, a brainiac, is a former nuclear engineer with a soaring IQ. Greene, a maniac, ranted to Tucker Carlson on Thursday about “this war against Russia in Ukraine.”
When Carter became governor in 1971, many hoped we had begun to move past the kind of hatred and racial struggles that defined the South in the 1950s and ‘60s. He placed Martin Luther King Jr.’s portrait in the State Capitol and said in his inaugural speech: “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.”
Time magazine hailed the New South on its cover, saying Carter had triumphed over the South’s “demagogic past” and Confederate ghosts. Now, thanks to the likes of Trump and Greene, we’re back in the toxic soup.
“Marjorie Taylor Greene is following in the footsteps of racist old bigots like Lester Maddox and George Wallace,” Rafshoon said.
Greene is the apotheosis of those who love hating so much, they no longer have any interest in collaborating for the good of the country and the world. Carter is the apotheosis of the mantra “We’re better than this.”
“Jimmy Carter represents all that is good and decent in public life,” said Jonathan Alter, the author of “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.” “And Marjorie Taylor Greene represents all that is sinister and despicable in public life.”
Alter has been fielding calls from around the world from people writing stories about Carter since the 98-year-old started hospice a week ago. (Those who know Carter joke that he’s so competitive, he has no doubt asked his doctor the record for hospice care, so he can break it and add to his list of accomplishments.) He wanted to be at home with his wife of 76 years, Rosie, as he calls her. The two were introduced when Carter was a toddler by his mother, Miss Lillian, a nurse, a couple of days after she delivered Rosalynn, which sort of makes them sweethearts for 95 years.
“He’s en route to becoming an American Gandhi,” Alter said. “He went from obscurity and zero percent in the polls to lead an epic American life by offering a positive, inspirational message.” A message that is a rebuke, Alter said, “to what is twisted and wrong about MAGA America.”
So who do we want to be? Marjorie Taylor Greene or Jimmy Carter? Destroyers or builders?
Maureen Dowd is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.