I had the chance to meet President Carter in the final days of his campaign for re-election in 1980.
It’s hard to imagine anyone accomplishing a fraction of what Jimmy Carter has after the lowest point of his life.
The former President, who lost his bid for re-election in a crushing landslide that saw Ronald Reagan win 44 of the 50 states in 1980, could have retired to his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia, to lick his wounds and live out his days as an elder statesman.
Instead, Carter picked himself up, put aside partisan politics and committed the rest of his years to doing good for people across the world. Along with his wife, Rosalynn, the First Couple spent every day living the mission statement on The Carter Center: “Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.”
That’s as ambitious as it gets in six simple words, especially when you consider Carter was 56 when he left office and set out on his Second Act. For the next four-plus decades, he never stopped helping, famously saying, “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can.”
At 98, Carter is nearing the end of a life defined by grace and service. His efforts even won him a Nobel Peace Prize. I was saddened to hear this weekend that his great life is entering its final stage. The President’s family announced Saturday that he was opting for the comfort of hospice care in his remaining days.
I first met Carter in the fall of 1980.
He was in the final days of campaigning, and we met at Newark Airport. And to give you an idea how the world has changed, I’ll share the story behind the photo at the top of this post.
The polls that year had Carter trailing Reagan badly. Carter was dealing with a one-two punch that would have destroyed any incumbent: A weak economy choking on double-digit inflation and the prolonged Iran hostage crisis.
Carter’s campaign was hopeless and everyone – and I mean everyone – knew it. Still, he fought. And just a few days before his election wipeout he announced plans to come to New Jersey for a dinner.
The President was coming to Essex County. A big deal, right?
Well, I get a call from Essex County Democratic Party Chairman Harry Lerner. That was almost 43 years ago, but I still remember it. The party bosses had forgotten to send a greeting party over to the airport and needed someone to get there ASAP.
So, there I was, a 33 year-old Assemblyman, barely six years into my political career, on the tarmac at Newark Airport welcoming the 39th President of the United States to Essex County. I even took a buddy who worked nights with me. We made for the quite the greeting party and got the President to the dinner on time. But can you imagine? The President was coming to town and there almost was no greeting party?
For the record, the President was there trying to scare up votes. And while we’ve done a lot to turn elections in Essex County, there was no helping Carter on this one. He lost New Jersey by 400,000 votes and the entire election by more than 8 million.
He left office in January of 1981 — a beaten and embarrassed man. Eventually, he turned his work toward diplomacy and, then in 1982, he and Rosalynn founded The Carter Center in partnership with Emory University.
In the 41 years since, they’ve worked to eradicate diseases, advance human rights and improve health care across Africa and Latin America. Their work has touched people in more than 80 countries.
It has been a beautiful and impactful life. And a perfect Second Act.
Godspeed, Mr. President.