The punchline about Jimmy Carter has long been that he made a better former president than president. On Thursday, he further proved its potency.
Now, Mr. Carter, at 90, is faced with a staggering cancer diagnosis, and in what could very well be his darkest personal hour, he is schooling us on how to face the end of life with grace, dignity and spirituality.
“It’s in God’s hands now,’’ he said of his dire prognosis, adding that in recent days he’s considered the stark realization that he might have only weeks to live.
Earlier this month, President Carter had learned that the liver cancer he thought he had beaten has metastasized and that he has melanoma spots in four parts of his brain. Cancer has been a constant for the Carters. His father and three siblings died of pancreatic cancer.
But President Carter is doing something remarkable. He’s not going into seclusion or into denial about his condition. He’s talking about it.
He held a news conference on Thursday at his beloved Carter Center in Atlanta, and spoke to the media about his illness more candidly that any president or former president has ever done — except, perhaps, for Lyndon B. Johnson, who, in 1965, gave an unexpected public display of his surgical scar from gallbladder surgery.
Traditionally, presidential maladies are for hiding. FDR and JFK fooled the American public, and others have done it even after leaving the White House. Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s was not officially known for years after he left office.
“I'm perfectly at ease with whatever comes," President Carter told a room full of reporters, as he detailed the size of the cancer spots found in his brain and how a section of his liver has been removed. “I’ve had an exciting, adventuresome and gratifying existence.”
Maybe it’s because the 39th president is the first to become critically ill in the age of social media when little is private. President Carter is being up front as he always was with the American people, even decades ago revealing in a Playboy magazine interview that sometimes, when it came to women other than his wife, that he lusted in his heart.
You don’t have to be a doctor to know it’s an uphill battle for President Carter, who began radiation treatment following his news conference. But there were no tears, just talk of “a new kind of adventure” as he fights cancer with the help of a new drug.
Reporters fearing it might be the last time President Carter is in such a setting, asked what he considered the best decision of his life: Marrying Rosalynn, he said.
Biggest regret: Not sending “one more helicopter,” which could have possibly turned the failed attempt to rescue the 52 American hostages in Iran into a success — thereby rescuing his presidency. The miscalculation during the crisis brought down his bid for a second term. Another — his inability to curb the 1980 Mariel boatlift — changed the face of Miami-Dade forever, allowing 125,000 Cuban refugees, some of them criminals, to land in Key West and start new lives largely in South Florida. To them, President Carter is an unquestionable hero. He gave them their personal freedom.
For President Carter now, life goes on as planned, he said. He hopes to be in church this weekend, teaching Sunday school to children, just like any other weekend. Clearly, President Carter is looking forward, and Americans should look forward — in hope — with him.