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Jimmy Carter, center right, walks next to Gerald Ford in the 1970s.
VAIL, Colo. — J.C. is the anti-Trump. No, not that J.C. I’m talking about Jimmy Carter – the 39thpresident of the United States, who turned 99 on Sunday.
The peanut farmer, U.S. Navy veteran, nuclear meltdown averter, former Georgia governor, one-term president, global affordable housing builder, disease eradicator and democracy promoter entered hospice care in February but admits, according to his son Chip Carter, he’s “been successful at everything in life, but he can’t figure out how to die.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump – the hopefully one-term 45th president – inherited his wealth before filing for a half dozen bankruptcies while still somehow convincing a large percentage of the population he’s a brilliant businessman despite a growing record of fraud. The five-time Vietnam draft avoider now has a post-presidency record of 91 indictments and the attempted destruction of American democracy.
Carter, by contrast, has used his post-presidency – the longest ever — to build thousands of Habitat for Humanity homes and travel the globe as an election monitor and freelance diplomat who won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for helping find peaceful solutions to violent conflicts. Trump keeps calling for the death of his political enemies while fanning the flames of domestic extremism nationally and lifting up authoritarian regimes globally.
President Joe Biden recently called Carter to let him know he was canceling Trump’s opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, according to the Washington Post, preserving what Carter felt was one of his crowning achievements – his signing in 1980 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Trump, a Florida resident, laughs off the sea-level rise and still considers climate change a hoax.
Last month the Carter Center joined 12 other entities that support presidential libraries – including the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation — in issuing a joint statement on the fragility of our democracy and the need to support human rights and democratic movements domestically and around the world. It was an extraordinary, and largely overlooked, action undertaken by typically risk-averse organizations.
I first met Jimmy Carter in Vail in 2014 at a nonprofit Carter Center fundraiser to “wage peace, fight disease, and build hope in the world’s poorest and most forgotten communities.” My wife and I met him again the following year when he was here for a sneak preview of his play “Camp David”, starring Richard “John Boy” Thomas as Carter during his intense break-through negotiations with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1978.
Carter developed a connection to Vail dating back to former President Gerald Ford’s life here in his one-term post-presidency living in Beaver Creek. Despite Carter ousting Ford in the 1976 election, largely due to Ford’s unconditional pardon of former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, Carter and Ford forged a friendship.
In my new book, “Rod Slifer & the Spirit of Vail”, Vail’s first local realtor and an administrator and ski instructor when the ski area first opened in 1962, describes his friendship with Ford during an incredible eight-month period in 1973 and ’74 when the former Michigan congressman was named first vice president to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew and then president to replace Nixon – a span of time that put Vail on the map as the western, winter White House. Slifer, a Republican, also talks about the relationship between Ford and Carter in later years.
“When you think about it, if you’re an ex-president, who are you going to hang out with, who are you going to talk to? The other ex-presidents. They became good friends and communicated constantly. They were pretty frank about who they liked and who they didn’t like, and that was kind of surprising, but two former presidents can do that, and who else can they talk to?” Slifer says in the book, going on to argue there will likely be an exception to that rule for Trump. “I’m not even sure I’d want to hang out with him.”
Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, told me for the Slifer book that she was appalled by the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when Trump supporters violently tried to stop the certification of Biden’s free, fair and fully vetted Electoral Count victory in the 2020 election.
“I just hope that the nation can heal from what happened at the Capitol, which was horrible and scary,” Bales said. “My brother Steve and I used to play hide and seek in Statuary Hall as young kids, and so to see that and have your memories be just … there’s just no words for it. That’s not the way we were raised. We were raised on bipartisanism … One of my favorite pictures I have in my house here is my dad with [Democratic Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill. I’m not sure you have the statesmen today that you did back in my dad’s era.”
Given the garbage going on in Congress these days, with “Freedom” Caucus freaks like Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene running the clown show in the House, that qualifies as an astounding understatement.
I’ve written at length, perhaps to a tiresome degree, about my 1994 interview with Ford after Nixon’s death and the bygone days of bipartisanship before Newt Gingrich successfully erected the Republican rage and grievance machine that’s now been weaponized by social media. We will clearly never return to those days, and some respected historians say Ford was wrong to pardon Nixon because his consequence-free lawlessness led to Trump’s.
But for me it’s inspiring to see people like retired conservative judge J. Michael Luttig, acting from his home in, you guessed it, Vail, to preserve our democracy, defend our constitution and back former Vice President Mike Pence’s rejection of Trump’s illegal entreaties.
But what’s even more inspiring to me is the legacy of a man like Jimmy Carter, who is the living embodiment of public service over personal power-mongering. J.C. is indeed the anti-Trump, a builder rather than a destroyer. Or, as my wife, Kristin Kenney Williams – president of the board of Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley – wrote back in March: “Like President Carter, we can all be builders, of homes and of humanity.”
Editor’s note: This opinion column first appeared on the Colorado Times Recorder website.