Carter, Cancer, and Civil Discourse

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Jimmy-Carter

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August 20, 2015; Washington Post

Jimmy Carter’s stunning, moving press conference announcing the beginning of his battle with melanoma on the brain and his scheduled start of radiation therapy on the same day warrants a comment.

The nearly 91-year-old ex-president discussed his diagnosis and impending treatment with grace, humor, and facts in a way that had to have moved anyone who might have watched the presser live on cable.

That is, it had to have moved people except for those who wrote to NPQ after our article describing President Carter (along with Willie Nelson) as a nonprofit hero. We received vile communications from people who wouldn’t post their comments publicly on our website but took the time to email directly to share their vitriol toward Carter for his commentary on the ongoing conflicts between Israel and its neighbors. They declared him an apologist for and ally of terrorists, among other things, presumably because he despairs of the current policies of the Netanyahu government in Israel, which has blunderbussed ahead with expanding settlements illegally in the Occupied West Bank and laying waste to much of Gaza.

Maybe they don’t remember that Carter, as president, was the host and guide to the 1978 Camp David peace talks that led to peace between Israel and Egypt. It wasn’t simply that he happened to be president as the negotiators met. As everyone from Moshe Dayan on down noted, Carter was actively engaged in the negotiations, doggedly pushing everyone to stay at the table and find the points of agreement that would lead to peace.

Like much of his presidency, the Camp David negotiations were a precursor for Carter’s work at the Carter Center, which has become as important in the pursuit of peace as any entity in the world. As president, Carter injected humanitarian concerns into the policies of the U.S. He denounced South African apartheid as president even though his successor, Ronald Reagan, was of quite a different opinion, and his center has made humanitarian issues a central theme. The Carter Center’s programs on peace and on international health issues are not an aberration, but a reflection of Jimmy Carter’s values and priorities as president. There’s no question here about why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, unlike the award given to President Obama shortly after he took office.

In his press conference, President Carter announced he was planning to step back some from the operations of the Carter Center while he undergoes a few weeks of cancer therapy but he still hopes to remain connected and involved. Moreover, he anticipates recovering well enough to join Habitat for Humanity in a trip in November to Nepal to build homes in that country, which is still dealing with recovery from the earthquake that killed over 8,000 people.

Carter was calm and thoughtful discussing his cancer, more concerned about how it would affect his wife of 69 years, Rosalynn, than anything else. He was also incredibly intelligent, discussing his diagnosis and treatment as well as issues of concern to the Carter Center with eloquence and knowledge that few people many decades younger than the former president ever display.

So, for the writers who greeted our recognition of Carter as a nonprofit hero with vitriol, there’s a tendency to want to respond in kind. However, having watched Carter’s press conference, we should be thinking not about trading invective, but learning from the model of Jimmy Carter about how to be a better participant in and contributor to society, community, and family. Good luck with the cancer treatment, Jimmy. The legions of your admirers are rooting for you.—Rick Cohen

  • Mitch Nauffts

    Bravo, Rick. Well said, as always.