This morning’s sunrise was the view out from my office window; the news on my mind was the sunset of the life of Jimmy Carter, our 39th president of the United States.
I had the honor and privilege of working with President Jimmy Carter as a research intern at The Carter Center while pursuing both my undergraduate and graduate studies in political science and international relations at Georgia State University.
The work we did and the things I observed remain with me as some of the most impactful experiences of my lifetime.
I wasn’t old enough to vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976; I was only 12. Nixon, the Ford pardon of Nixon, the hostage crisis and inflation — along with the famous “malaise speech” — all led to many Americans’ negative view of the Carter administration and, ultimately, to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Yet the views of most Americans of President Carter’s post-presidential life and activities grew to be almost unanimously positive.
President Carter didn’t waste any time, so when he and his wife, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, moved on to private life outside the White House, they went right to work. The Carter Center and the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta were the home base for that work.
While I worked on the international politics and diplomacy side, there were many other world-health groups working from The Carter Center to eradicate Guinea worm disease and river blindness in Africa and Latin America.
Early in the George H.W. Bush administration, there was a threat of a bond default as part of the Latin American debt crisis that had started in the early 1980s. President Carter had formed a Western Hemispheric leadership group known as the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government, and they weighed in to try to solve the problem before Mexico defaulted. Mexico was the largest issuer of bonds to American investors, and a default would have created a serious problem in the U.S. economy.
In March 1989, President Carter held a meeting of this council at The Carter Center. The meeting was co-hosted by former President Gerald Ford; the two former presidents had become close friends.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III was in attendance, as was former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. Many finance and foreign ministers from Latin American countries, including Mexico, were also there.
With the Mexican default looming, I got to see how some of the research findings played out during negotiations, as a few of us interns were assigned the task of taking contemporaneous notes of the meeting.
Once the press was excused, the real frank talk began. Secretary of State Baker had ideas that weren’t sitting well with the Latin Americans, and he was being stubborn about his tack.
Jimmy Carter, backed up by Gerald Ford, dressed down James Baker as only former presidents could. It made a difference, as a consensus formed on solving the crisis. I also got to see Carter’s temper flare a little, something that rarely happened.
Along with solving debt crises, Carter and his Council of Freely Elected Officials delved into election observation around the world and especially in Latin America. Consolidating democracy through free and fair elections as a means to end conflicts was a major concern of Carter’s.
Later in 1989, we were involved with the Nicaraguan election, where the entrenched Sandinista guerrilla fighter President Daniel Ortega was facing a challenge from Violeta Chamorro. Ortega was willing to allow observation of the election.
It was not clear that the revolutionary fighter would actually give up power if he lost, and polls within the country were saying he would definitely win. The problem was, people were afraid to answer honestly in polling down there.
Jimmy Carter, along with The Carter Center observation teams both in Atlanta and in Nicaragua, did give Nicaraguans hope that the election would not be stolen and, that while they might not answer polls honestly, they could feel confident that they could cast their ballots for whomever they wanted.
On Election Day, when it became clear that Ortega was going to lose, there was serious concern that he would nullify the election and retain power.
My professor, Dr. Jennifer McCoy, who was directing the Nicaragua office for The Carter Center’s observation efforts, reported back to Atlanta that Jimmy Carter went into the room where Daniel Ortega was stewing about his unexpected loss, and talked him down from taking harmful actions.
Carter told Ortega that there’s life after losing an election. He told him to stay involved and spend more time with his family, and he would maintain the respect of his countrymen and leaders around the world.
It was a beautiful moment, direct and personal. This was Carter at his best.
During his presidency, Carter saved the Camp David accords and peace between Egypt and Israel in the same way when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was about to leave the presidential retreat in protest. Jimmy Carter asked him personally to think of his children and grandchildren and the life and legacy they would inherit if peace was not to be had.
He even took Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to Gettysburg to drive home the idea of the consequences of their continued conflict. That worked, too, and the longest-lasting peace between an Arab country and Israel has held ever since.
My final time at The Carter Center was in 1992, as a graduate student at Georgia State. During this time, Bill Clinton was running for president of the United States as the Democratic nominee against the incumbent, George H.W. Bush.
President Carter was working toward the goal of having Mexican elections be internationally observed. In Mexico, the PRI party had been entrenched in power for more than 70 years, with corruption and election irregularities being the norm.
Mexico has always been an important country to the United States. Trying to bring about peaceful change within that nation as a means of maintaining peace and securing our relationship was a goal of Carter’s.
As a means of reciprocity, Carter and the Council of Freely Elected Officials invited all the Mexican political parties to Atlanta to observe the November 1992 United States election.
The two main opposition parties sent representatives, and the ruling PRI did not, but only because of a scheduling conflict with their State of the Nation speech. Carter made sure this visit and its findings were made completely open to the PRI, despite their absence.
I was asked to be part of the team that carried members of Mexican opposition parties to various polling locations on Election Day, so they could see for themselves how a truly open and transparent electoral process worked in real time.
I drove myself, another Carter Center research fellow professor Dr. Jennie Lincoln of Georgia Tech, and two members of the opposition parties from Mexico. They were amazed that they could walk right up to the ballot boxes and observe the entire process at the polling locations so freely.
Poll workers were excited to describe the operation. Both of the Mexican opposition members were amazed, as in Mexico, nobody could touch the ballot box or ever observe a polling place so openly.
The next day, there was a final symposium with President Carter, Dr. Robert Pastor, who was Carter’s former national security adviser for Latin America, and several members of the Council of Freely Elected Officials, to debrief the electoral observations by Mexican opposition party members.
While there was not an immediate opening for international election observers in Mexico, some reforms began to creep into their process. In the 2000 Mexican general election, observers were present, and the ruling PRI party lost the presidency for the first time in more than 70 years, with the election of Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party ticket.
While sometimes my work as a research intern at The Carter Center seemed mundane and unimportant, working with Jimmy Carter, and having the chance to talk with him formally and informally gave me access to people at the highest levels of governments, both here and around the world.
If you wanted to warm up Carter in a conversation, you would just start talking about peanuts, cotton or fishing. We talked on one occasion about fly-fishing in the North Georgia mountains.
I got to see this very serious man with an unwavering mission to help solve difficult world problems, and watch how he got it done. I will forever be influenced by being a part of the work he was doing, and by knowing that with enough will and fortitude, a solution to any problem, even ones that affect large numbers of people, can be found and implemented.
For Jimmy Carter, nothing was impossible. Farewell, my friend, and godspeed.
— Goldberg is the owner and general contractor of Ken Goldberg Construction Co. in DeLand, where he has lived for 27 years. He was a research intern at The Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta 1988-89, while pursuing his undergraduate studies at Georgia State University, and again in 1992, while a graduate student at Georgia State.