Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale — 187 Years of Good Lives

Walter Mondale who died yesterday at 93 achieved a remarkable goal for a career in politics. He made it through untarnished from his time in the Senate, as an influential Vice-President to Jimmy Carter, as a singularly unsuccessful presidential candidate against Ronald Reagan in 1984, who still made history by choosing Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, as Ambassador to Japan and Elder Statesman. I watched Carter and Mondale at an event at the Carter Center two years ago. Their bodies had aged, but their minds and wits were on display. Mondale, in his final note to staff over the weekend said he looked forward to seeing his late wife Joan and his daughter Eleanor at his next stop. Carter, who has had brain cancer and several bruising falls is now 96. He and Rosalynn had their 74th wedding anniversary last year. As Trebek might have asked: “What is indomitable?”

Credit: Library of Congress

Former President Jimmy Carter is 94. It is less than two months since he underwent surgery for a broken hip. It is four years since he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He walks slowly, but his mind and memory are stunningly sharp.

His former Vice President, Walter Mondale, is 91, a widower. He walks with a sturdy cane. He has the cool Minnesota manner of his home state masking what are clearly deep emotions — not easily shared.

These two old men bring much needed honor to the generally demeaning designation of anything old (i.e.decrepit) — as most of us over 65 can attest.

They were together on June 28 on a panel on human rights hosted by the Carter Center, an institution of remarkable impact on global health, election monitoring and its signature commitment to human rights in this country and around the world. They were joined on the panel by Karin Ryan, senior human rights adviser at the center, and it was moderated with deftness by historian and journalist, Jon Meacham. You can watch it on C-SPAN.org where it now permanently resides.

It is a master class on leadership and integrity.

They discussed their commitment to the broadest definition of human rights — civil rights, equality rights, and the right to strive for a better life through immigration, among others. Carter’s single term in the White House had elevated human rights to the center-ring of American foreign and domestic policies.

It was yet another striking reminder of how much divisive bitterness there is in American life today, starting in the presidency.

The men made news, widely reported when Carter said President Trump was illegitimate, because of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Mondale called Trump “detestable.”

“You just stepped on my headline,” Carter quipped to Mondale.

Credit: C-SPAN

As it happens, I had first-hand contact with both men, more with President Carter than with Vice President Mondale, but I can attest to the qualities of both from my experiences.

In November 1974, Senator Mondale was considered a contender for the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1976 against Gerald Ford. As part of his preparation, he traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with its leaders and make important comments on issues such as arms control. As the Moscow correspondent of The Washington Post I was able to spend considerable time with Mondale and his entourage on the trip. The visit, as I was told by Mondale and an aide, was to culminate in a meeting with Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev.

To achieve that, Mondale was told to stay away from Soviet dissidents, including the most important one, physicist Andrei Sakharov. “The decision for us,” said David Aaron, Mondale’s national security adviser, “was whether to see Sakharov or wait for Brezhnev.” Mondale did not see Sakharov.

As the days passed no meeting with Brezhnev was arranged. On the last possible day, Mondale was told that Brezhnev was “indisposed” and preparing for an upcoming summit with Ford in Vladivostok. “Friday night,” I wrote for the Post, “once the final schedule was completed, Mondale went to the home of a leading Jewish activist.”

When Mondale and Aaron read the story, they were understandably chagrined at how I had portrayed their hypocrisy. Reading the piece now I can see why they were embarrassed, although my tone was not intended to be mocking. When it was set out before them, they realized that playing by Kremlin rules was not acceptable.

Shortly afterward, Mondale looked at himself in the mirror, I was told, and said “Fritz, you are not ready.” Only a few days later, he withdrew from the presidential race, ostensibly, he said, because he did not have the requisite commitment to the campaign. In subsequent interviews over the years, Mondale and his aides acknowledged that in 1974, he realized he was not experienced or confident enough to withstand the pressures of an election.

Still, in 1976, he was elected vice president, and Mondale’s record on human rights and other progressive issues was exemplary. So, I concluded from this episode, was his respect for his own values, an admirable and not necessarily common trait among politicians.

I was the national editor of The Washington Post during Carter’s term, but I really came to know him when we worked together on five books. We met at his home in Plains, Georgia — “Not much for a former president,” a Japanese visitor declared before providing a substantial gift to the Carter Center. At the kitchen and dining room table, we explored Carter’s (and his wife Rosalynn’s) beliefs on issues large and small to be included in the books.

One night in 1986, we sat in their bedroom and watched Ronald Reagan’s speech on the scale of deception and corruption involved with his administration’s dealings with Iran and their support for the Contras in Nicaragua. Carter’s failure to end the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the Iranian Revolution was instrumental, after all, in Carter’s defeat for re-election. Now he was watching his successor being hoisted by the same Iran-related political petard. Carter’s judgment that night was calm but unequivocal: Reagan had badly undermined the standing of his office, whether he knew what was going on or not, which he should have.

Carter was criticized for many things in his presidency. But corruption was inconceivable for Jimmy Carter. By strange circumstance, one of the first donors to the Carter Center was a Pakistani banker named Agha Hasan Abedi, who turned out to be the head of a criminal conspiracy at the Bank of Commerce and Credit International. When Carter was asked about this, he replied as I recall, “Never got anything from me…” It is a measure of Carter’s character that no one doubted his word.

When Carter said at the human rights panel that Trump was president because of Russian interference, Meacham asked him if that meant Trump was “illegitimate.” Carter responded yes, “based on what I just said, which I can’t retract.”

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale were not perfect — no one ever is. But listening to them on that panel and considering their very long records of service to the country, made me aware again of how far we have fallen in so many ways in the era of Donald Trump.

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Peter Osnos

Peter Osnos

Founder in 1997 of PublicAffairs. Author of “An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen”. Editor of “George Soros: A Life in Full” March 2022

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