A fractured nation, hobbled by massive corruption in the White House. Bitter attacks on intelligence agencies, the media, and other major institutions. And a crowd of Democrats lining up to become the next president, each promising to fix the damage.
We’ve been here before. In the mid-1970s, America was reeling from Watergate and the downfall of Richard Nixon. And the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter, who is precisely the kind of gentle, upright leader that we need in the wake of Donald J. Trump.
A little-known governor from a southern state, Carter came out of nowhere — Plains, Georgia, to be exact — to capture the presidency. Unlike most of his Democratic rivals, he was untainted by the stench of Washington, D.C. And he spoke in a clear moral language, pledging to unite the country around a few simple virtues: honesty, dignity, and trust.
Today, as in the 1970s, the Democrats’ presidential candidates come mainly from Congress. One recent addition to the field is California Sen. Kamala Harris. A former prosecutor, Harris is tough and smart. But Americans are simply fed up with the federal government, just like they were after Watergate. They’re unlikely to rally around anyone who is associated with it.
Elizabeth Warren? Bernie Sanders? Joe Biden? You can make a good case for any of them and many other House and Senate Democrats weighing the race, but it will inevitably rest on what they have done inside the Beltway. And that’s just not a place that Americans like right now, which helps explain why they elected an outsider like Trump.
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So the Democrats should choose an outsider of their own, probably from the gubernatorial ranks — say, Steve Bullock of Montana or Jay Inslee from Washington (the state, not the city!). Both men already have higher national profiles than Jimmy Carter did in 1975, when he announced for the presidency. “Jimmy Who is Running for What?” an Atlanta-Journal Constitution headline famously teased.
Yet Carter went on to defeat a deep field of Democratic candidates, including senators Henry Jackson and Birch Bayh as well as Hubert Humphrey, a former vice-president. Then he squeaked by Gerald Ford, who had ascended to the White House when Nixon resigned, and ushered in a spate of governor-presidents. Three of the next four chief executives — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — would be ex-governors, too.
Carter talked of humility and honesty
But there’s more. Unlike so many other presidential hopefuls, then and now, Jimmy Carter exuded a humble and honest spirit. In the aftermath of Nixon’s deceit, he assured the country that he would never lie to it. He also said that America deserved “a government as good as its people,” which acknowledged voters’ distaste for politics without alienating them from it.
And he never put himself above them, which was the most important thing of all. Carter was roundly ridiculed for saying that he lusted for women, as he admitted in his famous 1976 Playboy interview. But critics missed his main point, which wasn’t about sex. “What Christ taught about most was pride,” Carter explained, “that one person should never think he was any better than anybody else.”
So in 1971, shortly after becoming Georgia’s governor, Carter told a Lions’ Club meeting that “the socially prominent and the wealthy” — like himself — were called by God to share their riches with “neighbors who are not quite so fortunate as we.” And in a 1976 campaign speech dedicating a new wing of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles, Carter apologized for the racial segregation that permeated Georgia when he and King were growing up there.
A candidate to call us to our best selves
The contrast to our current chief executive could not be sharper. Donald Trump is a congenital liar and a petulant man-child, constantly blaming others for the moral rot he has brought to the White House. What we need is another Jimmy Carter, who can call us to our best selves without maligning anybody else. Carter didn’t turn out to be a particularly effective president. But he was the right candidate for the moment, a decent human being who could repair the hole in our national heart.
“Our country has lived through a time of torment,” Carter told the 1976 Democratic convention, accepting its nomination. “It is now a time for healing. We want to have faith again. We want to be proud again. We just want the truth again.”
Not “great again,” as President Trump says, but proud. And true. Let’s find a leader with enough humility to take us there.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”