Early this year there was a rash of celebrity deaths, each one followed by an outpouring of emotional personal testimony on social media. It got me thinking. What public figure has touched my life to that level? For whom would I share in the public mourning? I came up with a short list and decided to give tribute while they’re still here.
In the summer of 1984 I found myself in Atlanta, Georgia visiting my actress girlfriend who was there on tour. On the Sunday morning of my visit I drove down to Plains, just on the off chance I might get a glimpse of my hero, President Jimmy Carter, who I knew attended church every Sunday if he wasn’t travelling.
My car rolled quietly through the lush, mossy, sun-dappled Southern landscape, the likes of which this Northern boy had never seen. This was a new depth of green. The giant hanging willows struck me with awe. These sensations, coupled with my hopeful anticipation of meeting the President, had me in a heightened state, a little dizzy even.
In the fall of 1968 my brother was on a destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf, my teen-age sister was a hippie, my parents were clueless, and the country was freaking out. I was only ten years old but I hated Richard Nixon for that damned war and for representing the “silent majority” backlash against my heroes: Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and my sister’s hippie friends. I blamed Nixon for everything. I blamed him for the war, for the assassinations, for people burning Beatles records.
In 1972 I campaigned for George McGovern (that went well) and a year later my mother let me stay home from school to watch the Watergate hearings on TV. My mother got me. I took pleasure in watching Nixon go down, but I took no such pleasure in what remained… a seemingly broken country.
In the spring of 1976 I turned eighteen and was thrilled to cast my inaugural vote – first in the primary and then again in the general – for Jimmy Carter. He was the exact opposite of Nixon: kind, soft-spoken, honest, and intelligent. I felt so fortunate that I was able to cast my precious first vote for someone I deeply respected and admired and not have to settle for the “lesser of two evils” as my mother often intoned. I felt proud.
I leave it to historians to judge his presidency, but I will say this: go back and listen to President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, the one his enemies blindly dubbed the “malaise” speech. For its wise reasoning and its prescient warnings it ranks with Eisenhower’s “Military Industrial Complex” farewell address. I continued to follow Carter’s post-presidency closely, including the founding and early work of the Carter Center. In 1982 I bought and read his memoir “Keeping Faith” on the day it was released.
And now I drive into little Plains, Georgia, a ghost town, with not a soul, or even a car, in sight. That is until I find Plains Baptist and I pull into in the last open spot in the grass parking lot adjacent to the simple whitewashed wood church. The opening hymn had just begun as I tip-toe to a seat in the back row of sparsely populated pews. Scanning the room I find the President, alone in a front pew to my right. The organ fades, we close our hymnals and the minister rises to welcome us. As part of his well-rehearsed routine he tells us that anyone here to see President Carter is welcome to meet him after church and take a picture but please, no autographs.
After the simple service everyone exits out the side doors to my right, next to where the President had been seated, leaving me at the back of the pack. A handful of tourists – eight to ten – shake the President’s hand and take turns asking the other tourists to please take pictures with their Kodaks. I am the last. Others have faded away, either in reality or just in my mind, I’m not sure which. I have no camera. I shake the President’s small hand. I have no words. I simply say “thank you.” He smiles and offers a word but I don’t hear it. Then I muster some courage: “I know the minister said no autographs, but I don’t have a camera,” I said, “but I do have your memoir and I wonder if you could sign it. I’d like to give it to my mother.”
“Of course, I’d be happy to,” the President said, just as I realized I had left the book in my car. I was, of course, embarrassed but in his soft, kind voice he suggested we walk together to my car. So we did. I walked with President Carter through the deep, green Georgia grass. What we chatted about god only knows. I think he asked about my parents, but to be honest I really don’t recall. I wanted to tell him what he meant to me. How proud I was to cast my first ever vote for him. And what he meant for the country at the exact time we needed him. But I didn’t have the words.
I retrieved the book from the front seat and handed it to him. He signed the flyleaf and handed it back. He shook my hand and I again said “thank you.” He turned to walk back to the church and I watched him, noticing for the first time the secret service guys who were looking out for him. The sight of them rattled me back to reality where I scolded myself for getting tongue-tied. But that only lasted a second. I knew I had shared a timeless moment with my hero and even though I couldn’t find the words, I was pretty sure President Carter got the message.
Charles Bursell is a writer, performer, host and commentator heard nationally on SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and The Pacifica Radio Network. He currently hosts the podcasts Stream of Consciousness Talk Radio Theatre and Conversations With Charles Bursell. Both shows, and more, can be found on several platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and Libsyn.com.