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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Jimmy Carter showed everyone what the best of the South could look like

Former President Jimmy Carter has entered hospice care at age 98 after a series of health problems. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his "On My Mind" commentary, remembers Carter as not just the 39th president, but as a true Southerner.

My mama was 43 years old in 1976 and had never voted in her life. But that November she walked down the road to the community center and cast a ballot for a fellow Georgian named Jimmy Carter.

Go look at that electoral map sometime. The Republican, Gerald Ford, won a bunch of states that we think of now as reliably Democratic — California, Illinois, New Jersey. But Carter turned the whole South blue. Every Southern state but Virginia voted for him. He won by 57 electoral votes and about 1.7 million votes overall. That made him the first president from the South since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

I suspect there were a lot of Southerners like my mama who figured out where their local polling place was so they could vote for one of their own.

Jimmy Carter does not have long left. Some people come out of hospice, but for most it is the place to prepare for the end. Even though he is not gone yet, a lot of what follows will be in past tense, because we are talking about the remarkable life he led.

Let’s start here: Jimmy Carter did not hide his accent or his roots. He was a peanut farmer with a mother who loved pro wrestling and a brother who drank too much beer. If that ain’t a Southern story I don’t know what is.

The Allman Brothers played fundraisers for his campaign. He invited Willie Nelson to the White House, where Willie went up to the roof and smoked a joint he called “a fat Austin torpedo” with the president’s son Chip.

And after Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he didn’t join some consulting firm or make millions on the speakers’ circuit. He formed the Carter Center in Atlanta, a nonprofit built to preserve and advance human rights around the world. He drove nails on hundreds of houses for Habitat for Humanity, including 14 houses in Charlotte’s Optimist Park in 1987.

And for nearly his entire post-presidential life, he taught Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church back in his hometown of Plains, Georgia.

The world has changed so much. When it comes to politics, most of the South now votes Republican. When it comes to money, most ex-presidents are happy to cash in. And when it comes to decency … well, we know it’s not a requirement for being president anymore.

Over the years, I would hear stories from time to time about people who happened to end up on an airplane with the former president. The story went that he would go down the aisle and shake hands with every single person on the plane before going back to his seat. Then, years later, I saw YouTube videos of Carter doing exactly that, well into his 90s.

There’s a cynical way to look at that, I guess. You could see it as a politician still begging for attention. You could see it as an old man not knowing, or caring, that he was holding up the flight.

But I think of it as an expression of the fullness of Jimmy Carter. He knew he had made it as high as anyone gets in America. But he also knew he was a peanut farmer and a Sunday school teacher and the son of Miss Lillian. You greet people when you walk by. That’s what a Southern man does.

Tommy Tomlinson’s "On My Mind" column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.


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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.