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Voices: My July 4th Weekend with Jimmy Carter

In 1976, my parents took me to Washington D.C. to see the United States Bicentennial celebrations. I was thoroughly impressed. Later that fall, still beaming with pride, I wrote newly elected President Jimmy Carter a letter telling him how proud I was to be an American citizen.

This was the only letter I have ever written to an American president and my first political act.

For many people, Carter was the night that came before Reagan’s morning in America. He was besieged by inflation, the 1979 energy crisis, the Iran hostage debacle. Even though Carter had a number of successes - foremost the Israel-Egypt peace accord, his presidency has been associated with American malaise, not exceptionalism. Or as some would say today, he was not winning for America.

Jimmy Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter poses on the red carpet for the documentary film, "Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains" during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Monday, Sept. 10, 2007. AP

Whatever failures one may ascribe to Carter’s presidency, many agree that they have been offset by his accomplishments as an ex-president. After leaving the White House, Carter and his wife Rosalynn founded the Carter Center. The Center is close to eradicating Guinea worm disease in the world; they have observed 103 elections in 39 countries; mediated conflicts in over 12 countries and advocated for human rights in even more.

Carter also volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, has written 29 books and received countless awards, including the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

To many, he is the gold standard for an American ex-president.

It was my admiration for the man and memories of a childhood president that led me to Plains, Georgia last July 4th weekend. At age 92, Jimmy still teaches Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church and I wanted to see him.

My timing could not have been better. The Carter family was celebrating its first family reunion in 20 years that weekend.

My first stop was at the Plains High School visitor’s center. A National Park Service ranger asked me if I was there for the Carter reunion. I was tempted to lie, but I had just seen my first peanut field and wasn’t too sure where I was on the Georgia map.

Gretchen Sierra-Zorita with Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter. Courtesy of Gretchen Sierra-Zorita

Plains was crawling with Carters. I chatted with Billy Carter’s son Earl, saw Rosalynn walk by, had my picture taken with Amy (the Malia and Sasha Obama of my generation). I watched the Plains fireworks display with the Carters and eavesdropped on them at the hotel bar (they talk about the same things we do). Even though I missed seeing Jimmy in the crowd, I was happier than a pig in mud.

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That evening I went to sleep in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Suite, one of the only two rooms available in the next town over. The following day I was in my car before sunup. I had not come this far to sit in a church overflow room.

On my way to the Maranatha Baptist Church, I was stopped by a cop for speeding on empty streets. I explained where I was going and he let me go. There were already cars in the parking lot at 6 in the morning.

Finally we filed into church. I was in the second row, center pew. Everyone waited like excited school children in their Sunday best. The former president arrived with Rosalynn at exactly 10 a.m.

He did not disappoint.

He started his lesson by asking everyone where they were from. I got to holler, 'Puerto Rico!' There were people from all over the country and abroad.

Carter had just beat brain cancer and was rethinking what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. I thought he had all that figured out.

He had just returned to Plains from a week of work and fundraising at the Carter Center back in Atlanta. He had auctioned for $750,000 a painting that hung over his bed for many years. Rosalynn was not too happy about it.

He talked enthusiastically about his latest project, interracial cooperation in the Baptist church, and introduced the congregation to two pastors, one black and one white, who are participating in the initiative. After that, he taught Sunday class.

When Sunday service was over, we lined up to have our individual pictures taken with Jimmy and Rosalynn. I did not do a head count, but the church holds 475 people. The Carters were gracious and smiling throughout. We exchanged greetings. After a few clicks of the camera I was done, grinning ear to ear.

Now with another 4th of July, I find myself thinking about my weekend with Carter; what makes him so special and my visit so memorable. There are several reasons.

First, he is accessible. Even though he has a Secret Service detail, he moves freely in his world and makes himself available. You may not know him, but you feel you could reach out to him if you had to.

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Second, he is plain-spoken and lives a simple, albeit interesting and industrious life. He is every man taken to its fullest potential.

Finally, he is a man who follows the courage of his convictions and not of political expediency. During his presidency, Carter took unpopular decisions like boycotting the 1980 Olympics and pardoning Vietnam-era draft dodgers. More recently, he has been heavily criticized for taking issue with human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories.

As a Puerto Rican kid growing up in an American territory, I did not appreciate the absurdity of writing a letter to a president that my parents could not vote for. I have misgivings about the Fourth of July, a holiday that celebrates the end of colonial rule from England, while my island is in effect an American colony.

Notwithstanding, I do have a deep appreciation for the presidents that lead this country, particularly during troubled times. Jimmy Carter is in a different category altogether. As a president he may have been average, but as an ex-president he is exceptional.

He is a national role model of what it means to be a good person and a good citizen. Current and future presidents should take note.

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