Two years ago, many a proponent of ‘business better’ feltimmeasurably more sanguine about the immediate policy and politicalfuture than such proponents of sustainability feel just now. Thishumble correspondent(THC) might send readers to several junctures that would permit ‘I-told-ya-so’ moments, but what’s the point of that?
Recent articles here have also sought a deeper understanding of electoral politics than thepresumptions of ‘triumph’ or ‘travail’ can possibly provide. So far asTHC sees, practically speaking, between few and no ‘established’ sources even deign to question the underlying belief that ‘democracy equalselections,’ a contention that has repeatedly received a stern reprimand in these pages.
In pondering these points, and in the process of marveling last week at the incredible life and work of Hermann Scheer, THC couldn’t helpbut reflect on a fairly fascinating American, who also happens to be the only U.S. President ever to have come into the world in Georgia. Jimmy Carter could have been America’s solar power President, after all, andhe won key elections forty years ago and thirty four years ago thisweek.
THC, preparing to travel South and studying, among other things, the Southlands H-bomb breadbasket in 1976, found Jimmy Carter’s firstPresidential bid particularly affecting. This was the first election in which THC would vote, though he had gone door-to-door for dear SenatorMcGovern four years before.
And ‘Jimmy’ fit with the idea of the ‘paradoxical progressiveSoutherner;’ even then, THC inclinations were much more socialisticallyinclined than the Democratic Party might ever countenance, but youthfulidealism still burst forth in THC’s heart, which President Carter andhis killer smile broke into little pieces soon enough. His promises of a National Park near Atlanta and some generally progressivepronouncements on environmental matters notwithstanding, ‘Jimmy’ quickly aligned himself with the expected tendencies of his peanut-countryroots in regard to unfolding developments in Latin America.
The proof of that arrived one day in one of the initial awesomeseminars that THC attended in his first semester in graduate school; the professor, replete with pipe and wry grin, put on the table aroundwhich his acolytes had gathered a glossy photograph. He said somethinglike, "So he believes in ‘human rights,’ does he?"
And there, megawatt grin resplendent, stood our diminutivePresident, one of the few who entered office shorter than the averagebear, his right arm awkwardly draped over the shoulder of a shamblinggiant of a fellow whom I did not immediately recognize, thought hiscountenance did tickle a few brain cells, since I had been fairlyclosely following developments in Nicaragua. The print bore a captionthat made all clear and brought that fleeting feeling of putridity tothe stomach of one who had dared to hope for something different, for a1976 version of ‘change you can believe in.’
"President Jimmy Carter greets ‘our good friend in Nicaragua,Anastasio Somoza,’" read the text beneath the slick black-and-whiteimages. As storied mass-murderers go, Señor Somoza, one of many homicidal Latino graduates of the Schoolof the Americas–a profile of which lies just ahead in THC’s queue–maynot rank in most people’s top ten. However, he’s a ‘shoo-in’ for any’Top-100-Butchers-of-All-Time’ list.
And, given Carter’s stated willingness to engage with Cuba, THC had hoped against hope that a more progressive and forthcomingattitude toward the liberating forces of the Sandinistas might find agrip in the imperial hallways in D.C. Admittedly, that is tantamount to expecting the tiger to lie down with the goat, outside of Edenic garden contexts, but such is the power of youthful belief.
As a result of this comeuppance, THC swore a promise to a God inwhom he did not believe, but whose symbolic urgency he was still willing to utilize. He stated, without equivocation or qualification, neveragain to vote for a Democratic Party candidate for any chief executiveoffice anywhere.
That vow, which THC upheld until 2008, now lies in tatters again,inasmuch as the record will show that Roy Barnes received his vote in arecent losing gubernatorial effort here in Georgia. Both two days ago,and two years ago in siding with Barack-the-Magnificent, THC knew thathe was lying down with dogs. He fully anticipated fleas, as the written record over and over again demonstrates.
But there’s the rub. A glossy smile, a few pithy slogans, and asense of a popular bandwagon for honesty and progress in government areenough to make possibility seem like a rational concept, even in therealm of political experience that should teach otherwise.
This is especially applicable to the realm of energy in regard toJimmy Carter, whose life and proclivities made him the perfect candidate for an ‘energy President’ who might light the pathway toward anon-radioactive future. Studying what actually transpired, in order towatch for patterns and learn a few lessons of political necessity,cannot help but serve a preparatory purpose in regard to citizenship.
The life of James Earl Carter(JEC) is iconic American stuff. Achild of both privation, in the rural Depression South, and privilege,in that his family owned substantial property and lived in relativelyprosperous surroundings, thanks to the tender and tough tutelage of his mother ‘Miss Lilian,’ he grew up with values that revolved aroundself-imposed rigor, personal integrity, and creative efficiency.Readers can gain tremendous insight into JEC, the man, by studying thelife and work of his mother.
Carter just recently published a biography of his mom, A Remarkable Mother, in which he ascribes much of his feistiness and enthusiasm about taking chances at every stage of his life to her example. He focuses on hisongoing willingness to broach the subject of Palestine and the generaltopic of Mid-East peace as instances of this.
In a recent interview, he responded to an inquiry about beingcontroversial. "(My mother) always liked controversy herself, and Ithink she would have approved completely. I think that would have added a little bit of spice or titillation to the fact that we were reachingout to people who were scorned and deprived and excluded from processes. I think in addition to that, the excitement of doing something thatwas somewhat controversial would have been an extra appeal to her."
In several of his books, which combine autobiography and memoir, he recalls his early times and the facts surrounding his youth: of growing up without personalbigotry, despite his father’s conservatism; of experiencing a lack ofamenities but seeing "real want" among his family’s tenants; of being ason of the South, with all that entails that contradicted his own values and maternal influence. JEC exemplifies the pull of place, the succorof individual capacity that comes from community, and the best resultsof an advantaged existence that are possible to imagine.
One chronicler summarizes this mixture of family and place and the impact on a young JEC. "From earliestmemory, Jimmy’s life was a struggle to please a miserly, emotionallydistant father who could be harsh and even cruel in his demands on hisfirst-born son. But for the good fortune of having a mother whoseinstincts for justice were not stifled, Jimmy Carter might have becomejust a clone of his father: a decent man capable of occasional acts ofkindness but who, in the main, accepted the casual cruelties of his time and place."
He came of age as the fifth generation on the same soil, extractedfrom the Native peoples and enriched by the blood and sweat of slaves.Nevertheless, he and many of his kin stayed fundamentally fair-minded,though all manner of psychological, social, and political factors form a rubric of a complex and multifaceted story that yielded a young farmerwho, as WWII came to a close, won an appointment from collegiate work at Georgia Tech to the Naval Academy, where he studied until he graduated in 1946.
Prior to becoming a commissioned naval officer, an opportunity thatreflected the relative perquisites of a propertied life, he proposedmarriage twice to Rosalynn Smith. Her eventual acceptance "launched aremarkable partnership" that endures to this day.
In the navy, he gravitated toward submarine service, attending aschool in small-reactor operation in preparation for service on one ofthe first nuclear submarines, "personally selected" by Admiral HymanRickover, ‘father of the nuclear navy.’ Before he could embark on thistangent, however, the strings that tied him to Southwest Georgia reeled him home, as his father was dying of the pancreatic cancer that also killed hisyounger son and two daughters. The duty to farm the family plot calledJEC back to a political patrimony that his mother carried on as Jimmymatured into a model ‘progressive’ White Southerner.
In the early 1960’s, political service for any but solid-Southsegregationists was practically impossible, and JEC appeared to lose his first bid for office, to act as a State Senator from Sumter County, as a result of being ‘soft’ on such issues and thus not the choice of thelocal political boss. He had a solid record of service on the local school board, however,and had, through "adroit management" and a favorable market increasedhis father’s acreage and fortune substantially.
Thus, he had the resources and time to request a recount in the apparent electoral loss, using the deconstruction, which a months-old court holding allowed, ofthe age-old "county-unit" system that guaranteed one-party, top-downcontrol of elections. Thanks to this landmark Supreme Court decision,Baker v. Carr, that established the principle of one-man, one vote, the retallying of the votes established Carter as a freshman Senator.
In Atlanta, he quickly gained a reputation as a powerful voice forreform and efficiency, running in the 1966 Democratic primary forGovernor against arch-segregationist Lester Maddox and two others. When he lost this bid, he swore that he would tryagain and win in 1970, continuing his career as an advocate for the NewSouth and Good Government in the legislature in the meantime.
In short, while his mother was running Lyndon Johnson’s SumterCounty Campaign, and he and his brother and assorted others weremaintaining a thriving peanut farm and an attendant processing business, Carter himself developed his political persona and, for the day andtime was a staunch backer of ‘business…better,’ a believer in therequisite of reform for a sustainable business culture to emerge in theSouth.
Readers should recognize that this brief telling cannot help but besuperficial. Moreover, despite THC’s doubts about much of JEC’spolitical perspective, and a complete rejection of the formerPresident’s political economy, this narrative appears ‘in the lightmost favorable to the plaintiff,’ as it were, in this case Carter.
Undoubtedly, a more nuanced, in-depth telling would churn up bothsilt to muddy the interpretive waters, and muck to sully the appearanceof gentility and magnanimity that otherwise characterized ‘Jimmy’ inthis and many other tellings. The upshot of all of this is that Carterstood for serious transformation when he ran for the Governor’s seatagain in 1970, and he was attracting notice far afield as a man whomight mount a higher stage and play an even more central historic role.
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