Toward the end of Harper Lee’s classic novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ when the rape trial of Tom Robinson has concluded and Atticus Finch is walking toward the exit, Reverend Sykes instructs Scout, Atticus’ daughter, to rise.
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’,” he says.
Robinson, an innocent Black man, has just been convicted by an all-White jury, and Atticus, his White lawyer, has ostensibly failed. But they stand up, the Black citizens of Maycomb, Alabama, they stand up along with the Reverend and Scout, because moral courage of the sort Atticus exhibited, true moral courage, must be acknowledged.
There’s no need to detail the accomplishments of Jimmy Carter, the presidency, the Peace Prize, the charitable work, the eradication of disease. These can be found in any number of other places. These accomplishments would not be possible without the man, of course, but in Carter’s case the man stands above his own accomplishments, as extraordinary as they are in any current or historical context.
In an age of irony and sweeping commercialization, where almost every act is viewed through the fog of ideology, Carter remains out of step. His irony, as it were, is that he is sincere and often without self-regard; his commercial efforts, as such, are for the alleviation of human suffering, and his ideology is for universal human rights and the resolution of conflict.
Carter’s unyielding and unapologetic decency is provocative. He makes enemies, especially when he criticizes his nation, his party and his own Christian church, as he is known to do. Yet it is difficult to think of an instance where he didn’t take the side of the oppressed or the impoverished, regardless of race, religion or nationality. You may not agree with Carter, but you can’t question his motives or the grandness of his vision.
Perhaps because of this, Carter is often portrayed as hokey and naïve, and his presidency is viewed by many as unsuccessful, but intelligence, empathy, commitment, and moral courage — true moral courage — are rare and precious things, in fiction, in fact, or in any single man. Jimmy Carter is such a man.
So let us do what the Reverend, Scout and the good people of Maycomb, Alabama did for Atticus Finch. President Carter’s life expectancy is less than a year, and as he makes his final exit, let us acknowledge the man.
Stand up. Jimmy Carter’s passin’.
My debut novel is available here: The Last Island