Precedence Day?

As an elementary school kid, I looked forward to February more than many other kids did.  I wasn’t a huge fan of school during those earlier years, what with not being challenged by the watered-down curriculum my deportment and my draconian principal relegated me to. as well as regularly getting beaten up and ridiculed for my intelligence and obesity.   But at the time we celebrated both Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthdays, respectively February 12th and 22nd, and got days off for both.  When they would both fall during the week, it meant two fewer days i’d have to bundle up, schlep on overcrowded city buses (in those days, with schools at record enrollment levels thanks to the Baby Boomer era, regular school buses in my area were exclusively for K-2 kids) and have to endure another day of boredom and fear.

So I was more than a little disappointed when, in 1971, the two days were consolidated into one, fixed-position (third Monday in February) national holiday renamed President’s Day, at least in some states.  Per Wikipedia, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act created a three-day weekend that fell more in line with the likes of Labor Day and, more importantly, a chance for department stores to have yet another sales opportunity–after all, Valentine’s Day is for lovers, not necessarily shoppers.  With the rebranding, it was meant to celebrate all previous presidents.   Several states honor not only Washington and Lincoln, but depending upon geography Thomas Jefferson, Calvin Coolidge, both John and John Quincy Adams and even JFK.

I’ve always held a special place in my heart, somewhat inexplicably to many, for Jimmy Carter.  Varter was the Democratic nominee in the first Presidential election I was eligible to vote in, so as he announced to the world this week that, at age 98, he is entering hospice care and is apparently heading toward his final days, having lived more years than any previous U.S. president, this year’s celebration of past presidents is an especially poignant one for me.

I grew up in a staunchly, and at times blindly, Democratic-leaning household.  My maternal grandparents were unabashed Kennedy lovers, having kept virtually every copy of Life or Look (google them) that featured John or Jackie on the cover.  In the weeks following his assassination, weekly newsmagazines all but devoted every issue for months to his legacy and the family’s grieving, which mirrored most of the post-Camelot America I came of age in.  It was essentially a fait d’accompli that I was going to vote for Carter.

But I had to cast that vote in upstate New York, in my small college town of Oswego, and at the time I was producing the college’s first-ever nightly newscast, one that actually aired (on tape delay, in black and white!) on the small 12-channel Teleprompter cable system that served the “city”.  We were advised to objectively cover the election, as well as the local races, from the perspective of thet townies as well as the student body,  So, with an ancient and heavy portable video camera in tow, we’d head to local supermarkets and gourmet restaurants such as Ponderosa and ask the opinions of the city residents.  Let’s just safely say they were not supporters of Carter, and it was upsetting for me to learn why.

Carter had first come to national prominence when he served as Georgia’s governor in the early 1970s.  Ironically, while a later candidate had a precedence as a game show host, one of Carter’s first big moments was when he appeared as a guest on WHAT’S MY LINE?  (After a spirited line of questioning that included guesses where he recruited nuns, his line was eventually guessed by TODAY SHOW contributor Gene Shalit).  He replaced Lester Maddux, a beloved but openly racist leader whose politics fell in line with more nationally prominent names like George Wallace,    And Carter’s presidency was dominated by international conflicts, including the Middle East crisis, an escalating concern with the Soviet Union that led to the United States boycott of the 1980 Moscow-based Olympics, and, of course, the Iran hostage crisis.  He spent quite a bit of time abroad and involving with foreign affairs, including the groundbreaking Camp David accord, but often at the expense of  spending more time on domestic issues.  More parochially and locally, he was seen as ineffective in dealing with an ongoing energy crisis that pushed for  the expansion of coal production and solar energy adoption.  Oswego’s “economy” at the time was largely driven by a nuclear power plant, which even in the wake of Chernobyl was popular among “townies”,  After all, it provided JOBS.

I learned all of this and more as I garnered their opinions, which stood in stark contrast to the isolated campus bubble of students and more liberal thinkers.  While I saw Republican candidate Ronald Reagan as a bastion of rhetoric who was playing the role of Presidential candidate with a bit more enthusiasm than he showed as a movie foil for a chimpanzee, the townies saw Reagan’s vision of America–the vision of an America first, “are you better off today than you were a year ago at this time”? and “There you go again!” as rocket fuel to reinforce what they believed.  And let’s just say they weren’t all that fond of college students, especially us downstate libs, even asking them questions.

I voted for Carter nonetheless, but I was acutely aware that he was entering a race he was doomed to lose, and kicked off a series of subsequent precdencies that polarized America further.  And the perception of the Reagan era’s prosperity, and slavish reverence toward conservative values and a bygone America that I had never lived in, reinforced the kind of disdain that I saw burgeoning in Oswego first-hand during the Carter-Reagan election battle.

The last time I visited Oswego was just before the 2008 election.  I stayed in a downtown hotel where I interacted with several townies.  I politely asked which way they were leaning.  I was disgusted to hear several comments such as “I ain’t votin’ for no n—–“.   When I attempted to change the subject by noting I cast my first Presidential vote in this city, those same racists I met reminded me that Carter had replaced Maddux, who they remembered as a “good man”.

Would you be any less surprised than I was that in the last two Presidential elections, Oswego County voters preferred Donald Trump to his Democratic rival by margins of 20 and 16 percentage points, respectively?

No less than I was that they were voting for Reagan, and my first vote was doomed to supporting a losing candidate.

That said, in hindsight Jimmy Carter, maligned as he was a President, looks pretty darn good in the rearview mirror.  Having had more post-presidency years to work with than any of his predescessors, he has championed causes that, as Marc White of USA TODAY recounted this morning, are nearer and dearer to my heart:

Since 1984, he and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, have been building and also advocating and raising funds for affordable housing with Habitat for Humanity. By 2020, they had worked alongside more than 100,000 volunteers to build, renovate and repair close to 5,000 homes.  For me, as a practicing physician, I was most inspired by the courage he showed in his fight against cancer. Diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to his liver and brain in 2015, he received a new kind of treatment (immunotherapy) along with radiation therapy and was declared cancer free by that December, a nearly miraculous response. In fact it was Carter’s dramatic cure that convinced patients around the United States to hope that a deadly cancer such as melanoma could now be treated and to sign up for immunotherapy.  The drug he received, Keytruda (pembrolizumab) is a monoclonal antibody that works by binding to the PD-1 receptor on the cancer cell and “lighting it up” so that the immune system sees it and targets it for destruction. 

Since 1986, efforts by the Carter Center against Guinea worm disease, which causes skin, joint and systemic infection, has led to near eradication, from 3.5 million cases worldwide to only 13 last year.  

Making sure people stay housed, can better battle cancer and suffer less from skin and joint ailments, are a lot more resonant to me these days than dreaming of an America that was considered good when Lester Maddox was elected one of its governors.  And given where we are as a nation today under our current President, even for as decent a man as Joe Biden may be on some levels, it’s difficult for me to embrace him as anything close to where Carter will net out, despite the fact that his presidency is feared to be as short and as domestically insignificant as was Carter’s.  I did vote for Biden in the last election, but I can’t say with certainty that I’d so again.

If I took anything away from Oswego townies, it’s that you sometimes gotta put your own self-interest first and foremost, no matter how uncomfortable that opinion might make others feel,  As a humantarian, and as a private citizen, Carter has excelled, and will be more than worthy of the tributes and fond recollections many will have in the coming days when his exceptionally long and prominent life likely comes to an end.   He was still my first choice.  But I’ll remember his precedence more than I will other Presidents’.   Especially one who recently was, and I fear still has a real shot of becoming it again.    I’m pretty damn sure he has Oswego County solidly in his pocket for starters,


Until next time…


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