Are you this kind of person?The one to whom it doesn't really matter what political party an ex-President of the United States belonged to; you are respectful of the person, just BECAUSE.
Well, I am.
It's part and parcel of my personality, this traditionalist attitude, I figured out longgg
Instead of fighting against it, and trying to be sophisticatedly critical like you're supposed to be, I accepted it and have never been unhappy with myself, since.
Alongside this ease, is also a certain sadness, as you can imagine.
For not everyone shares my attitude, although despite what people would have you think, I believe the overwhelming majority of people do -- because the overwhelming amount of people in our world, is decent at heart.
Hatred. Fanaticism. Vitriol.
These are emotions very difficult to sustain without ending up hurting you much more than they hurt your targets of dissaffection.
This then, sets the scene when I tell you about my having met President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter
once -- to date, the only POTUS I've ever met, and that includes having waved at Ronald Reagan at the US Embassy in London, once. Oh happy day.
In fact, for almost 3 days, I laboured alongside them in the pounding Florida summertime sun. Well, me and almost 50 other volunteers.
You've guessed why, I'm sure. Yes, for Habitat for Humanity
And it's not like the Carters and I had heart-to-hearts, either, but I felt I got to know them and yet...so very not.
Let me explain.
The date is sometime in spring 1993. It's the year after Hurricane Andrew
, which devastated so much of our area.
It had been decided that I would attend 11th grade here in the States, since the storm brought my parents and I much closer to each other, even for our affectionate standards.
Both my schools and my parents demanded community service when I was growing up, so apart from being a CYO
counsellor, which I loved by the way, they put me down for Habitat work in Homestead
, which Andrew just levelled.
Everything needed re-doing. It took years, in fact. Just like Katrina will.
We all feel shamelessly innocent just thinking of the 1990's, because in those pre-2001 days, you didn't even present an ID to work alongside an ex-Prez.
You had an official letter you presented at the check-in desk, and that's it. You signed for your tool belt, got a Habitat hat and other goodies, and went to your assigned section.
No security details. No wands. No cavity checks...alas.
Now, what I know from building, could still today, be written on the inside of a Coke cap.
But I was energetic, eager, young, and did whatever they told me to do.
At the end of the day, they had pizza from a restaurant called Capri, and we chowed down, red faces and arms all.
Obviously, when you have such famous people around you, you try to look discretely in their direction, and slink ever so quietly towards them, hoping no one is looking, especially not the Secret Service
agents (at least 2, dressed like all of us, to my slight surprise. What did I expect -- black suits and earpieces in 85F heat? Man, I WAS young.).
Now, to me President Carter was a figure from history, and not much else.
Yes, even then I was a budding historian, but I confess, I am allergic to the 1970's.
Nixon, Vietnam, Ford, Carter, Jefferson Airplane mean NOTHING to me. Nothing.
I refuse to listen to its music, and avoid watching film of the period. To this day, I have never seen Taxi Driver
. Me, the obsessed cinephile.
(Refrain from emailing me with "What, no way!?!
", I know, I know).
I hate every last day of the 1970's, except that day I was born during it, and even then, I question its obvious bad timing.
(My parents could've waited until the second after Reagan was inaugurated, to pup me into this world, don't you think. If it's good enough for the Ayatollah, dammit...)
The only thing I knew about him personally was that he was considered a very ineffectual US President, but a very upstanding kind of guy.
The proof of that, was right before me.
The man didn't let up. He was all business. And so was his missus.
He didn't just do the light work, like I did (painting, etc.). He did the power saw work, and seemed to like it a lot.
Maybe it's something about power saws that bring out the Iron John beast in Presidents, because, of course, famously both Reagan and Bush 43 loved nothing better than to cut wood to pulp.
-- Churchill liked bricklaying, which is practically effete by comparison. And we will glide over Ted Heath's piano playing in eyebrow-raising sniggers. --
But if you want those personalised details which make a reminiscence more like a gossipy kaffeeklatsch, I'll give them to you.
President Carter ("Mr. President", "Sir", never just Mr. Carter, or God forbid, Jimmy -- although others were not as formal as I was, sigh) wore tennis shoes, or what we in Britain call plimsolls.
You know the kind: the ones Mr. Rogers
changed into when he got home from his "neighbourhood". Before he put on the even nerdier cardy.
I only mention this because even then, those kinds of tennis shoes were considered old-fashioned, and I distinctly remember my having those Air Bacons Michael Jordan made so popular, which even had that stupid button you pumped "air" into the sole to give you...I don't know what, oxygen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide? Whatever.
I've seen more recent photographs of the President at Habitat events, and now he's wearing himself some phat Timberlands. Mrs. C too, come to that.
But back then, it was a ratty pair of tennis shoes, looking very circa Camp David 1977.
That, and his paunchy Levi's, Habitat red bandana, and a very goofy ballcap, gave him the look of a rather natty hobo, and I do believe that's the first time I've ever had occasion to write the word "hobo".
But this is the clincher.
The most personalised detail I can give you, is about their manner.
Frosty, would not do it justice.
In fact, they were glacial.
That I didn't expect, to be perfectly honest.
When you see an ex-President getting mucky with just folks in a building project, somehow you picture that person as a huggy, emotional type of man President Clinton seems to exude to be.
Not President Carter.
I remember thinking he had the coldest blue-eyes I've ever seen, and my father has eagle blue eyes which would scare Bram Stoker himself.
It was Mrs. Carter that blew me away, because she was literally inapproachable. Watchful. Not arrogant, mind you. Just very very cold.
What they were doing was not perfuctory, or to get publicity for their good works.
That was plainly visible.
They were doing it because they were compassionate about their fellow man, but also didn't mind putting action alongside thought.
But they didn't look to be enjoying themselves, but not one whit.
I kept thinking, what makes these two tick?
This ex-Naval nuclear engineer turned peanut farmer, and his vigilant hausfrau?
If someone had described Richard and Pat Nixon in such uncomfortable terms, I think most people would think, sure. Distant, watchful. I mean, look at their lives' end. No. Look at their lives.
But it's commonly accepted that both the Carters were fantastic and loving people, warm to a degree almost unknown in the Presidency.
Since that time at Habitat, I have read several accounts of the Carter Presidency, and the one thing which many people relate, is that Mrs. Carter is tougher than she seems, and is very protective of her husband, whilst he is a control-freak.
And yet, because of their good works, very few people seem to want to penetrate deeper into their personalities, usually giving them huge thumbs up as being warm individuals.
How does this disconnect from perception to reality happen?
I don't pretend to imagine that 3 days in semi-proximity to the Carters make me an authority on their persons.
Certainly, restraint, coldness, distance, standoffishness are no crimes, and they could be the reactions of two very private people in a very public moment.
Or maybe, they're just very WASPy.
But I know for sure, other Presidents have not had the same fuzzy halo of warmth given them, for doing equally caring things in their off-time.
And this is when this memory of President Carter was sparked by currently reading a book about 5 ex-Presidents: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush 41
It's called Fraternity
Stories of these once all-powerful men, compiled by journalist Bob Greene
, over a period of a decade interviewing each of them.
I'm just at the very beginning, when Greene is interviewing President Nixon, who Greene hated as a young University student...and he told him so, to his face.
But something in Nixon's manner also provoked, oh, who knows, a certain nostalgia.
Greene even admits an unexpected sentiment about the previously reviled Tricky Dick, like talking to a father you were long on the outs with, but suddenly you find youself relating to at long last -- the fires of hatred long since damped by the grace of age.
His and yours.
But it's not long before they start to talk about Nixon's prickly dealings with the press, so evocative of what President Reagan dealt with, and certainly now, President Bush 43.
President Nixon had a very clear sense of himself, even if he was self-tortured and often, deluded.
Even so, it came as a surprise when I heard him saying something all of us think, especially in relation to the distaste many of us feel, about Mainstream Media.
"I could have had all sorts of chatty dinners, and the rest, and you might get a nice warm piece the next day.
But deep down, the problems I had with the press [...], the problems had to do with what I believed in.
I believed in different things than what they did."
And that's it in a nutshell.
Now, Nixon's failings as a man were very real, but even so, he never stood a chance. No one like him does.
Whether or not the Carters are fantastic, tactile, effusive folk, or standoffish hard as nails folk, doesn't matter.
What matters for those who cover them, is that they believe in the same things that they do.
And if that President should happen not to, their press clippings are that much less forgiving.
In fact, I would go so far to say, that they are much less interested in finding, much less propagandising, your very real humanity.
President Carter still has, and will always have, my respect.