The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor

It’s the birthday of Jimmy Carter, (books by this author) born in Plains, Georgia (1924), the first American president to be born in a hospital. He grew up in a house where everyone brought a book to the dinner table, and then the family sat there together at dinner eating and reading in silence. He started selling boiled peanuts from a red wagon by the side of the road when he was six, around the same age that he started winning all sorts of prizes for being the top reader in his rural grade school.

He played basketball in high school, joined the Future Farmers of America club, and went off to the United States Naval Academy, where he taught Sunday school to the officer’s kids and graduated 59th in his class of 820. While in the Navy, he did graduate work in nuclear physics. Then, after his dad died, he left the Navy and took over the family peanut farming business. For a while, he was a wealthy peanut farmer.

He became governor of Georgia. But he wasn’t very well known around the nation, and when he first threw his hat in the ring for the Democratic primaries of the 1976 presidential election, only 2 percent of Americans recognized his name. When he told his mom he was going to run for president, she replied, “President of what?”

He decided he would write a book to help the nation know who he was and where he was coming from and what he stood for — a candidate autobiography. He wrote it on the campaign trail, scribbling paragraphs on yellow notepads during airplane rides and in hotels. He took it to a bunch of small publishers in Georgia, but they all rejected the manuscript. Finally, he convinced a small press in Nashville that specialized in Southern Baptist books to publish his book. After he won the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, that book — Why Not the Best? (1975) — sold about a million copies. It has since been reissued.

Carter defeated Gerald Ford and took office during an energy crisis. He wore sweaters and told Americans to turn down the heat. In one of his last acts in office, he signed a House Bill bailing out a failing American car company, the Chrysler Corporation.

Credit: Rick Diamond/The Carter Center

When he got back to Georgia, he found that his farm, which he placed in a blind trust upon election, was suddenly a million dollars in debt. He sold the farm and then, to make ends meet and save their home, he and Rosalynn each signed separate book contracts to write memoirs.

He sat down and wrote for eight to 10 hours a day, drawing on diaries he kept while in the Oval office, typewritten notes that amounted to 6,000 pages. When he could not stand sitting down at the typewriter anymore, he went to his woodworking shop and made furniture — things like tables and chairs and cabinets. He ended up with more than 30 pieces of furniture in the time in took him to write that first post-presidential book, which was published in 1982 as Keeping Faith.

He’s now the author of about two dozen books, including An Hour Before Daylight: Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood (2001), Our Endangered Values (2005), Palestine Peace Not Apartheid (2006), A Remarkable Mother (2008), and Beyond the White House (2008).

He likes to fly-fish and ride his bicycle. He continues to teach Sunday school. He reads just about every new book written about the U.S. presidency. He adores poet Dylan Thomas and has read two dozen biographies about the man. He writes his own poetry now. In 2002, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

He said: “A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It is a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity.”

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