Jimmy Carter, Our Modern Elder President.

March 1, 2023

Jimmy Carter, Our Modern Elder President.

May 29, 2023

Imagine being the most powerful person on earth and then publicly embarrassed with one of the largest electoral defeats of a sitting U.S. President. Jimmy Carter left office at 56, ripe for a serious midlife crisis. What comes next when you rose and fell so precipitously?

I’m not going to argue whether he was an effective or ineffective President (you might read two NYT pieces on “Jimmy Carter’s Presidency Was Not What You Think” and “The Wisdom and Prophecy of Jimmy Carter’s ‘Malaise’ Speech”). I am going to tell you a little about my history with this man.

I grew up in a family with a long heritage of Republicanism stretching back to my great-grandparents and likely further. So, it was a little strange to my parents when I decided to volunteer for Carter’s Presidential campaign in the summer of 1976 after my sophomore year of high school.

Without a driver’s license at 15, I took the bus regularly to the tiny campaign office in the middle class Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, California. I stuffed envelopes, walked door to door with campaign literature, and showed up at rallies of supporters. I was convinced that, after the “Tricky Dick” era of Nixon’s Imperial Presidency, what the U.S. needed was a moral man of the people.

Fortunately, one of my best friends, Erik, had an “in” with the Carters as his father was roommates with Jimmy when they were both in the U.S. Naval Academy. So, I was able to meet candidate Carter on one of his campaign swings through southern California. I was immediately struck by his grace, warmth, humility, and big-toothed smile.

And, this peanut farmer from rural Georgia, against all odds, won the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the Presidency. But, he was a one-term President getting trounced by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Jimmy was solidly in midlife when he suffered this resounding defeat. He could have gone out to pasture retiring as many Presidents do, but instead, he inexplicably believed his best years were ahead of him.

As is true of many Modern Elders, Jimmy Carter had more adult years ahead of him than behind him. At 56 when he left office, he had 42 years ahead of him and just 38 years of adulthood behind him. He wasn’t even halfway through his adult life. He was a living embodiment of development psychologist Erik Erikson’s belief that midlife is all about the challenge between generativity and stagnation. Erikson’s five-word mantra for this life stage defined Jimmy Carter’s dedication to service: "I am what survives me."

Very few former Presidents curated a life out of the White House that was more impactful than their time sitting in the most powerful chair in the world. Yet, Jimmy Carter is a role model for the modern elder, someone who is as curious as he is wise and committed to making a difference no matter their age. If we’re wise, we might channel our "inner Jimmy" on occasion.

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