Robert Ehlert: Jimmy Carter true picture of public service

As a matter of habit, I keep one of the cable news networks on at work for background noise and to keep up on any breaking news.

Last Thursday it was on CNN, and the newscast went live to a news conference by former President Jimmy Carter, who got behind the microphone to give an update on his medical condition.

He calmly explained his very personal and grave medical condition: A deadly melanoma had metastasized to his liver and he now had four cancerous lesions on his brain.

James Earl Carter’s philosophical and spiritual poise merged with his wry sense of humor as he explained his predicament with a mix of objective detachment, medical precision and that Carter grin: boyish, feisty yet respectful because his beloved wife, Rosalynn, as always, was within earshot.

This sad news was juxtaposed amid a flurry of reports on the 2016 presidential candidates from both parties. I could not help but compare the post-presidential Carter, a man who has walked the walk of caring for the needy and abandoned, with the talk-talk-talk stump antics that so far have defined the collection of Republicans and Democrats who fancy themselves as the answer to the problems of our time.

I hope the historians who criticized the Carter presidency were taking notes on the tirelesshumanitarian work of the ex-president these past 35 years. The fruits of Carter’s labor through the Carter Center, Habitat for Humanity and his worldwide outreach to anyone in need deserve as much.

I tend to evaluate presidential candidates based on their answer to a single question: How did they handle themselves in the midst of a personal or professional crisis?

To find meaning and purpose the way Carter has after a bitter defeat as an incumbent in 1980 — that’s a testament of a true public servant. Carter could have taken a post-presidential pass and faded away. But instead, he extended his leadership beyond his term, beyond what was expected, beyond all borders and far beyond himself.

Carter has shown what kind of American he is. He has provided an example for citizens, and especially those who would aspire to lead, that service doesn’t end with a term in office.

Moving forward, I would pose a second question to political candidates: How will you serve when you leave the White House?

If they have the courage to say they will try to live up to the post-presidential example of Carter — that they will get their hands dirty and pound nails and build international relationships where none exist — they will be successful beyond that circus inside the Beltway.

And they will have the same peace in their eyes that Carter displayed as he smiled at death with one eye and made earthly plans for even more humanitarian missions and Bible lessons with the other.

Somewhere down in Georgia they should chisel out the side of a mountain with the images of U.S. presidents who never stopped serving until the day they died. Call it Mount GiveMore and start with the rock-solid humanitarian profile of Jimmy Carter.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho.