Opinion » Bill Cope

Mr. Cope's Cave: The Pariah President Who Was Right All Along

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The presidential campaign I paid the least attention to, even less than many of those that occurred before I was old enough to vote, was for the 1976 election. Part of it was that after watching Richard Nixon get elected twice, triumphant over far superior human beings than he could ever hope to be, then watching his well-deserved disgrace as a result of the Watergate scandal, I was damn disgusted with the whole political pisspot. I perked up some when Frank Church won a few primaries and looked like he might be the first local boy in the nation's history to be recognized as being not from Iowa. But by early summer, his candidacy had sputtered out. Besides, I was living in Ohio at the time and never shared in what must have been an exciting few months for Idaho Democrats.

An even more elementary reason for my disengagement from politics was that I was on the road at the time, having been hired by a traveling show band as their musical director/trombone tooter. The group by and large called Dayton, Ohio home, but our feeding range was wide. We thought nothing of closing the show on a Saturday night in, for instance, Altoona, Penn., and opening again 42 hours later in Jacksonville, Fla. The only time off, usually no more than a week, was more often than not arranged to give us time for even longer commutes—e.g., from Toronto, Canada to Reno, Nev., or Indianapolis, Ind., to Portland, Oregon. There was little time left to watch or read the news. During the few days I got to spend at home, my full attentions were given to the young lady with whom I shared that home, and who was to become the very same wife you might have heard me mention from time to time—now, 40 years after the 1976 campaign.

The group was in Ottawa the night Jimmy Carter was given the nomination at the Democratic convention. Possibly, it was being in a foreign country—indeed, the capitol of that country, and a more European-feeling capitol you will never find on the North American continent—that made the news seem even stranger when it came. Jimmy Carter? Who the hell is Jimmy Carter?

Having seen none of his speeches or campaign style, all I knew about him was that he was the governor of a southern state, and all I knew about governors of southern states, I had learned from George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus, Strom Thurmond, and Ross Barnett—vile men, unrepentant segregationists who had done nothing for the civil rights movement other than stand in its way.

So, I thought, from my perch in the north, is this what the Democrat Party of Kennedy and Johnson, Roosevelt and Truman, has come to? Does this render meaningless the achievements, the progress, the murders, of Medgar Evers ... Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner ... Martin Luther King? 

They didn't last long, those doubts. By the end of his term, I had come to regard Jimmy Carter as one of the finest and most noble men who had ever occupied the office. His honesty was stunning, from correctly identifying the "malaise" that had afflicted the nation in the wake of Viet Nam and Watergate, down to admitting before the whole nation, that he had "lusted in his heart." His humility should have been nationalized, so that every succeeding president might have followed his example. His dedication to peace, as illustrated by the detente he brokered between Israel and Egypt, was inspirational.

Yet after four years, he was ridiculed and humiliated by opponents who weren't fit to pick his peanuts, and replaced by a foolish fraud who confused his own roles in war movies with actual military experience.

After Carter was defeated in '80, I wanted so badly to write him and express the great esteem that had grown for him in my heart. I was so ashamed that he had been treated with such shoddy disrespect, and by such shoddy people—including some in his own party—I felt compelled to apologize for America's behavior. He may or may not have ever read it, had I written it. But I didn't, and I have regretted not doing so to this day. He deserved to know there were American's who admired him as deeply, or more deeply, as other Americans scorned him.

For the past 35 years, Carter has continued living with untarnished honesty, unbroken humility, and inspiring dedication. It has been said that he may be the greatest ex-president in our nation's history. Given his tireless and continuing commitment to the less-advantaged citizens of the world, it is clear that the power of politics was never an end for him. It was merely the means—that being a governor, a president, or a handyman with a tool belt and a charitable heart were all the same¬—simply different manifestations of this man's devotion to making civic involvement a matter of personal duty and faith.

And now we hear he has cancer. And that the cancer is advanced. Jimmy Carter is 90, so it's hard to see a good outcome. Perhaps, if I find a way to do it, I will send what I have written here on to him and his exquisite Rosalynn. Again, he may or may not ever read it. And even if he does, I'm sure it will be a drop in the great tide of sympathetic words he is sure to hear.

But if there was ever a time to undo the regret I've felt for 35 years, it's now. Just as it may be the last opportunity for those scornful Americans to acknowledge they did a great man a great injustice.