A Brief (Personal) Note About Jimmy Carter

Posted by Michael Getler on

My guess is that many reporters, in the course of long journalistic careers and thousands of stories, probably have one or two that they’d like to have back; stories that they wish they’d never written. And some also probably have stories that they never did write but wish they did. One story that I didn’t write but wished I had involves our 39th president, Jimmy Carter, who is now ill with a spreading form of cancer. So I’ll write it now, more as an important personal remembrance for me rather than as a reported news story.

First, let me explain that this has nothing at all to do with PBS. So no need to read farther if you are looking for observations about public broadcasting. Rather it’s just me taking rare advantage of this space to write about some insights into a person in the news.

President CarterPresident Jimmy CarterCarter Center

From 1975 to 1980, I was the central European correspondent for The Washington Post, part of a long career with that newspaper that began in 1970. Carter was elected in 1976 and served until 1981, so I observed almost all of his time in office from afar. When he traveled to what was then West Germany, where I was based, or to Poland or France in the 1977-’79 period, I would help with the coverage and at least get to see and hear him first-hand.

But mostly what I knew of him was what I read. He came to office in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, seemingly out of nowhere, bringing with him a good, down-to-earth feeling and sense of integrity. He actually accomplished many important things during his presidency. But he had what turned out to be a very rough ride: a stagnant economy, an oil crisis, a lengthy hostage-taking in Iran and a brief but daring rescue mission that failed, a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and even a partial meltdown at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. By the time he left office, his approval ratings were around 30 percent and he was swamped at the polls by Ronald Reagan.

But the view of Carter that I heard overseas—not from politicians but from a small but what I thought were a courageous group of dissidents throughout the then Soviet-dominated eastern bloc countries—was far different.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies was still hot in those years. Oppression by Communist authorities throughout the East was still intense. There was not yet a group known as Solidarity functioning openly in Poland. There was not yet a Polish Pope. The Berlin Wall was still very much intact. But there were individual dissidents and groups operating, some more openly than others, in several of the Warsaw Pact countries; Catholic intellectual clubs in Poland, for example, some defiant writers and singers in East Germany, and an amazing collection of writers, human rights activists and others in what was then Czechoslovakia working in secret on an extraordinary testimonial to human freedom that became known as Charter 77.

From my base in West Germany, I traveled as often as possible to the East whenever a visa was available, especially to East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but also to refugee camps in Austria where some of those who managed to flee the East were housed. Whenever I went, I tried to meet with these dissidents who, to this day, struck me almost uniformly as among the most courageous people I have ever met, people who, in many cases, risked everything, often including the well-being of their families, to spread their message, stir opposition to oppression and make the case for human rights.

The point of this posting, however, is to make note of the fact, which I had not done before, that a number of the dissidents that I managed to talk with gradually over the course of two or three years specifically mentioned President Jimmy Carter—and The Washington Post—as factors that continued to give them some hope in their personal crusades.

Whatever Carter’s ratings at home, he was viewed as something of a hero among my samplings of this group; an important and restorative American figure to many, a champion of and fighter for human rights, willing to boycott the Moscow Olympics and poke his finger in Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s eye after the invasion of Afghanistan. The Post, for its Watergate coverage, restored their faith in a free press and what could happen in a democracy. Their view of the United States had deteriorated badly, a number of them had said, because of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Carter and the Post had restored something that was important to them and their sustaining beliefs.

I don’t remember what was actually going through my head at the time but as these comments began to add up, I think perhaps I didn’t write about it because it usually involved the newspaper I worked for, whose reputation abroad had soared in those years after Watergate and almost always was brought up by those I was interviewing. Or perhaps I didn’t want to draw even more attention to individual dissidents who were already under surveillance and threat.

But I always felt that the words I heard about Carter rang true and that it was an aspect of his presidency that was much more important to a tiny constituency abroad than it was here. And whenever I think of my own personal accounting about all the external factors that contributed to the Berlin Wall coming down and the collapse of Communism in Europe, Carter is always on that list.

Posted on Aug. 14, 2015 at 10:06 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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