I was teaching journalism — specifically, a course entitled News Editing — at George Mason University in January 1981, when I could find no established precedents or protocols, no style guides or textbooks, to cite to my students about the layout dilemma.
On January 20, 1981, two distinctly remarkable, historic, front page news-making moments occurred simultaneously: After 444 days, Americans held hostage by Iran were released; and Ronald Reagan, a former actor and California governor, was inaugurated president of the USA. The hostages were formally released into United States custody just minutes after Reagan was sworn into office as the country’s 40th president on January 20, 1981.
How would or should newspaper editors handle the coverage, my students and I debated: Was one more important, more timely, more consequential than the other? Which story should be featured more prominently? There was no question that both stories demanded front page placement. But where on the page? Traditionally, newspapers place the most important stories at the top of the page; being on the right-hand side implied that a story was more important than others on the page. The Washington Post devoted its front page to these two stories, although one was placed “above the fold,” the other on the bottom half.
Guess which story took priority and preeminence?
Jimmy Carter was bedeviled by two behemoths during his single, four-year presidency.
On November 4, 1979, a group of militarized Iranian college students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Soon, 52 United States diplomats and citizens were held hostage. A diplomatic stand off ensued. Lasting 444 days, this terrorist act triggered the most profound crisis of the Carter presidency, as well as a personal ordeal for the president himself.
President Carter pursued a policy of restraint that put a higher value on the lives of the hostages than on American retaliatory power or protecting is own political future.
Allegations of conspiracy between Reagan’s presidential team with Iran until after the election to thwart Carter from pulling off an “October surprise” abounded. And thus began the changing of the guard–from partisan distinctions to ugly words and vicious divisions.
The other dragon that President Carter couldn’t slay was economics. Between high inflation and fixed mortgage rates hitting over 14%, it was also about the money … as it always is.
Jimmy Carter has always been a good man. Moreover, he’s been a good Christian man–not just in terms of religious etymology but in practical ways, too. He practiced the words preached by the itinerant Jewish rabbi from Nazareth.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained what it looks like to live as his follower and to be part of God’s Kingdom. These passages from Matthew perhaps represent the major ideals of the Christian life.
They also reflect peanut farmer Jimmy Carter’s life and legacy.
• Blessed are the weak, for they shall inherit the earth.
• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the “salt” of the earth.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
• Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
• Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(About that thirst blessing above, let’s not forget that Jimmy was overshadowed by his younger brother, Billy, and the infamous Billy’s Beer. Indeed, the Georgia farmer brought a colorful cast of characters with him to Washington.)
At 98, Jimmy Carter is one of America’s most active former presidents. His efforts at peace-making, international negotiation, home construction for the impoverished (Habitat for Humanity), and the eradication of diseases in Africa earned him the world’s respect. Forty years after leaving office, he continued to remain an actor on the world stage and at home.
As president, his tireless efforts to bring Israel and Egypt together in a peace agreement during the 1978 negotiations at Camp David may be seen today as the most consequential contribution any U.S. president has made towards Israel’s security since its founding. The treaty earned the Israelis everything they so long had sought: a separate peace treaty that ended not only the state of war with their most threatening neighbor, but also the freedom to carry out other strategic and military objectives without concern for igniting a regional war.
Despite serving a single term, Jimmy Carter ranks as one of the most consequential U.S. presidents when it comes to environmentalism. He installed solar panels on the White House, urged Americans to turn down their thermostats while sporting a sweater, and pressured Congress into putting tens of millions of Alaskan acres off limits to developers.
In 1982, with his wife Rosalynn, he founded the Carter Center dedicated to the protection of human rights, promotion of democracy, and prevention of disease. His determination to promote the rights of women led him, in 1920, to sever ties with the Southern Baptist Convention after six decades, over its rejection of women in leadership positions. He explained his decision to quit the church in a 2009 article entitled “Losing my religion for equality,” which later went viral. “Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God,” he wrote in the article.
The Nobel Peace laureate and longtime human rights advocate campaigned to end violence and discrimination against women since leaving the White House in 1981, calling it the “human and civil rights struggle of the time.”
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Carter said that Southern Baptist leaders reading the Bible out of context led to the adoption of increasingly “rigid” views. Defying the largest Protestant denomination in the United States whose leaders also voted to condemn homosexuality, abortion, pornography, and adultery, he stated, “In my opinion, this is a distortion of the meaning of Scripture … I personally feel the Bible says all people are equal in the eyes of God.” Carter continued as a deacon at the Baptist church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, where he was a faithful Sunday school teacher drawing congregants and visitors alike to rub shoulders with this humble, heart-warming man.
Carter, 98, decided to spend his last days with his family, supported by palliative care rather than medical intervention.
We should nod our heads, hold hands together, and allow our hearts to embrace these words from the scriptures according to Jimmy Carter: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”