In 1975, I was in my third term in the Kansas Legislature, still milking cows, and I was hearing more and more about this peanut farmer from Georgia thinking about running for president. Little did I know at that time how much impact he would have on my life and the many great opportunities that would flow from our first connection.
I first met Jimmy Carter very early in 1975. I was fortunate to be invited to join a few Democrats to discuss his plans for his presidential campaign, which shockingly was going to include Kansas. For three hours, Jimmy shared his vision and answered questions. He was relaxed, open and clear about what he wanted to do. But most exciting for us was that Kansas would be involved. This fact alone would leave a lasting influence on our state for the years and decades to come.
He came back to speak to the Kansas Democratic Party’s annual Washington Days gathering, and his son Chip returned later to campaign — all of this giving us more attention than we ever expected and motivating us to really work for him in the election of 1976. The result was huge Democratic turnout all across the state. And, while it didn’t quite carry Kansas’ electoral votes for Jimmy, it resulted in huge Democratic gains in the Legislature. The Kansas Senate ended up with 19 Democrats and, with a few more votes in the right places, could have ended in a majority. Meanwhile, in the Kansas House, Democrats went from 53 to 65, and I became the Speaker of the House.
Being speaker, thanks to Jimmy, was the only reason I had any platform to run for governor. During the campaign, then-President Carter came to Wichita to help Dan Glickman and myself with a major fundraiser. Any review of that campaign would show the night in Wichita was the highlight of the campaign.
Carter was president during two of my eight years as governor. I was active in the National Governors Association and had the last two years of his term to connect with the White House, the president, and his key staff — almost all from Georgia. Looking back, I can see how more diversity and Washington experience around him might have served him better than the so-called “Georgia Mafia.” Despite this, he had a busy presidency that is just now getting some of the credit it deserved.
Time passed, about 10 years, before my next opportunity came along. If I hadn’t been governor, again thanks to Jimmy, certainly President Bill Clinton would not have known me or had any interest in appointing me to be the eighth archivist of the United States.
The National Archives administers the Presidential Library System, and work on the Carter Library brought me back to having a connection again with Jimmy Carter. Interestingly, getting his attention to deal with the library was a challenge. I initially thought I would see the president on occasion of visiting the library, but I learned quickly that his priority and focus was always on the Carter Center and continuing its phenomenal work around the world. This meant he and Rosalynn would be in Africa or other places across the globe when I visited. That work became central to the way we think about the Carters’ impact today. I did get his attention and some help when his library director position came open, and I needed his input to appoint a successor.
Today, both the Carter Center and the Carter Library stand as lasting reminders of the life and legacy of a great public servant. From his service in the Navy to his ongoing philanthropic efforts, Jimmy Carter was a model citizen in so many ways. History will be very kind to Jimmy. I say that because already historians have moved him into the top third ranking of all Presidents. Him being decades ahead on understanding climate change and what needed to be done is an excellent example.
His post-presidency shows what contributions former presidents can make, and it clearly outshines all others. His and Rosalynn’s work on elections around the world, on key health issues in Africa and elsewhere, on Habitat for Humanity here at home and all the work the Carter Center he established has done — and will continue to do in the future — puts him in a unique position in the lineup of all presidents.
Yes, I was very lucky to have had experiences with President Carter, and my credits to his impact on my career are all true. I will always remember that my chance to serve as speaker, eight years as governor, and 10 years as archivist of the United States would not have happened if Jimmy Carter had flown over Kansas during his campaign for president.
But much more important now is properly recognizing a great American, who gave his full life to public service, to helping those most in need, and always setting an example any mother would be proud of. Jimmy Carter will be very positively remembered by countless people, both near and far. His many contributions will live on for decades to come, and I will never forget the impact he had on my life.
_ _ _
Opinion piece by John Carlin via Kansas Reflector