The current serious illnesses of both former US President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and the way they have carried out their respective public roles since retirement should urge us to consider deeply their impact on their two nations – and the world. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.
The news has been cruel with its messages that at the age of 90, former US president Jimmy Carter is battling brain cancer. Meanwhile, a slightly younger Anglican archbishop emeritus, Desmond Tutu, is contending with continuing major infections that have necessitated several extended hospital stays. Both men have been strong moral voices throughout their many years in the public eye, both when they held formal office and well beyond.
In his extraordinary news conference last week describing his health circumstances – an operation for liver cancer followed by the discovery that the malignancy had spread to his brain – Carter managed to deliver a message of warmth and hope for the future, explaining that his religious faith would carry him forward – whatever the future holds for him. He now faces some heavy-duty treatment with drugs and radiation, he explained, but he still hopes to go on a scheduled trip to Nepal later this year on behalf of Habitat for Humanity.
Given the potentially dire circumstances of this condition, when Carter was asked what he hoped he would still be able to witness in the time he has left, he gave a small laugh, smiled, and said he hoped Israel would be able to find peace with its neighbours and that he would be able to live longer than the world’s last guinea worm. While the first of these seems a fairly obvious desire, given his success with the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt nearly 40 years ago but the rather limited successes thereafter; the second evolves from his dedicated post-presidential campaign to rid the African continent of the scourge of a dreadful parasite, a worm that had infested many tens of millions of people when Carter first began his campaign against it.
By contrast, “the Arch”, as people around the world affectionately call Tutu, has been somewhat less visible in recent years. Given his age and health (including a bout with cancer as well), he has increasingly pulled back from public life. Nevertheless, until his most recent spate of illness, he had maintained a schedule of writing and occasional appearances, including some widely noted statements of anger and despair over the corruption and other forms of official (and public) misbehaviour that have come to sully the life of the post-apartheid, non-racial regime he had worked so tirelessly to bring about.
Both men come from small-town backgrounds – Carter from the small farming community of Plains, Georgia, and Tutu from the mining town of Klerksdorp. Carter entered the US Naval Academy in Annapolis to become a nuclear engineer with the submarine force, while Tutu became an ordained priest in the Anglican Church. Eventually, Carter became the governor of Georgia as part of a wave of Southern Democratic governors that had come to prominence as part of a new, post-segregationist South, along with others like Reubin Askew in Arkansas and Terry Sanford in North Carolina. As Tutu rose through the ranks of his church, he eventually became the head of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and then, finally, the leader of his denomination for all of South Africa. His selection for that post had not been without its detractors. There were people who felt such a choice had been too avowedly political – and it took the church into a stance of direct opposition to the government in ways well beyond matters of faith and religious practice.
As for Carter, in 1976, he and his supporters had sensed a unique moment for his major political advancement. Two years prior to that presidential contest, Richard Nixon had resigned from office in disgrace, when it became clear from secretly taped conversations that the spreading Watergate scandal had deep roots into the president’s own office. Even before that, in response to vice-president Spiro Agnew’s own criminal problems and his resignation, Nixon had been forced to appoint a vice-president, in this case, House minority leader Gerald R Ford.
When Nixon left Washington in disgrace, the new vice-president assumed the presidency but quickly gained a devastating reputation as a politically awkward, physically clumsy, and, most devastatingly, perhaps, not very bright man. Once the election had boiled down to a race between Ford and Carter, the latter a figure who had, seemingly, come from virtually nowhere to outflank other better-known Democrats for that nomination, Carter found his footing in telling voters that, unlike a certain recent Republican president, he would never lie to the American people. And then, in a head-to-head presidential election debate, televised throughout the nation, Ford had managed to fumble his way through a question-and-answer exchange, apparently insisting, against all evidence to the contrary, that Poland was not under Soviet domination. In that exchange, Ford’s fate was sealed and Jimmy Carter became the 39th president in January 1977.
But timing can be pretty much everything in politics. Carter became president in the wake of the humiliating withdrawal from the US’s Vietnam military adventure gone badly awry, a rapid rise in petrol prices and heating oil shortages, stagflation and a broad, general sense of economic stall. His stock did not rise when he addressed the nation on television wearing a cardigan, supposedly to underscore the fact that the White House’s central heating thermostat had been turned down. Rather than take to hear this bit of public empathy with those suffering through a cold winter, with much less than their usual heating oil, the public responded with anger.
The culmination of Carter’s evident humiliation by a buffeting of foreign events came, in the wake of the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah, when Iranian students took over the US Embassy in Tehran, keeping dozens of US diplomats and support staff hostage for months on end. If that was not bad enough, a secret rescue mission collapsed ignominiously when several naval helicopters broke down in the desert and then as one of these craft collided with the military transport plane that had been positioned to convey the rescued staff from Iranian territory. The hostages were only released once Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, after he had soundly trounced Carter in his bid for a second term.
Characteristically, Carter retreated back to his hometown of Plains, Georgia, and took up the threads of his life, a life that had been interrupted by his time in public office. He began teaching Sunday school at his local Baptist church again; he busied himself with the establishment of the Carter Library in Atlanta; he set up a foundation to deal with things like the plague of guinea worm and similar public health issues; he joined peace-making missions and election observer teams; he wrote on topics ranging from the sources of his faith to the future chances for Middle East peace efforts; and he did some real nail driving with Habitat for Humanity – the charitable organisation that builds homes for impoverished people around the world.
As the years went by, more and more, it was said that Jimmy Carter had become the most successful ex-president, ever, by virtue of his decades of low-visibility public service. And, increasingly, it came obvious that much – perhaps most – of Carter’s efforts had been inspired by his deep religious faith from his Baptist upbringing. It became clear as well that here had been a politician who had been struggling all along with the deep question of how to bring the religious fundamentals of his moralism into the very political world he sometimes seemed divorced from, even as he was at the centre of that political universe.
Perhaps the high water mark of such a perspective was his insistence on bringing in the idea of human rights as an important issue from the outer rim of government thinking, by successfully pushing for a bureau within the state department whose primary focus would be on human rights, regardless of whether the country in question was friend, ally or foe. As a part of this, Congress passed legislation Carter signed into law that mandated yearly human rights reports on many nations, a requirement that now leads to such reports on virtually every nation on the planet. And this annual report has become a standard for judging other nations’ behaviour, even as it has also helped encourage a growing range of nongovernmental organisations to pursue human rights issues with increasing vigour globally.
Of course there were inconsistencies – Carter had been president in the midst of some of the darker days of the Cold War, and there were always bureaucratic pressures to trim sails on any critique of allied nations. But this push also led to an increased focus in the US government’s foreign dealings with South Africa during the Carter presidency, as criticism over South African government repression grew ever more intense – often led by US ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, a former congressman and civil rights leader from Georgia. And this approach helped feed the growing appetite for congressional votes on sanctions some years later, with such measures eventually passed over then president Reagan’s veto.
Years later, long after his presidency, Carter had become one of those international political leadership “Elders,” along with people like Kofi Annan. Veteran US journalist Donna Bryson (a reporter with years of experience covering Africa) had written of the time when Zimbabwe had refused to issue visas to Annan, Carter and Graca Machel to visit that nation. As she explained: “The three Elders had planned a humanitarian mission to the country, where scores were dying of cholera. Reporters rushed to a news conference to hear how they would react. They responded, as one would expect elders to do, with wisdom, humility and an insistence that the world focus on the weak and the suffering, not on a government’s attempt to slight people who could never be touched by such pettiness. Carter was sorrowful: ‘It seems obvious to me that the leaders of the (Zimbabwean) government are immune to reaching out for help for their own people.’ He also said it was the first time he had been denied permission to carry out a mission in any country. Mandela formed The Elders to foster peace, and Carter was a founding member in 2007. Carter’s official Elders biography calls him ‘a forthright and principled advocate for human rights and democracy’. It doesn’t mention the compassion that informed his principles. When I think of Carter and of Tutu, I am challenged to put people first, as they have done time and again, whatever the political costs. When I think of Carter and of Tutu, I think of true leadership.”
Over in South Africa, by the early 1970s, Tutu had become dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg, as well as a frequent participant in services at St Mary’s Church, Jeppe, a church that had largely continued to draw its worshippers from among people who had been moved out of its neighbourhood by virtue of the Group Areas Act. The writer’s spouse vividly remembers Tutu’s participation in that community church’s activities, even as some within the Anglican church’s leadership were less than convinced that an activist priest like him should become a focal point for their denomination, especially in the increasingly repressive racial and political climate in South Africa.
And an old friend has recalled that Tutu’s sense of the necessity for social justice and human rights at a very human level was forged early on. As the priest himself has often told it, he recalled how activist Anglican priest Trevor Huddleston, years earlier, had encountered Tutu as a young child walking hand and hand with his mother. Huddleston had lifted his hat and said, “Good morning, Mrs Tutu.” This was lesson in the importance of human dignity, one person at a time, the Arch seems never to have forgotten. And there is another story of when a friend’s wife had been taken into police custody in the 1980s for her anti-apartheid activities. The writer’s friend had been asked to drop by at one of his acquaintance’s home for a talk and a drink one evening. On entering, he was quickly and powerfully embraced by Tutu, who told him he understood the writer’s friend’s pain. With that, the writer’s friend says he broke down completely, cradled in the arms of a priest whom he had never met before that night.
Over time, “the Arch” became a fixture at the vast public funerals of liberation struggle figures, often offering a eulogy that managed to channel a crowd’s energies away from inchoate rage into more purposeful – albeit firmly political – action. Many years later, one would still see the flashes of this man’s consummate skill in dealing with a vast crowd when he spoke so movingly at Walter Sisulu’s outdoor funeral. And at a much smaller event, he would sometimes sneak in a couple of jokes perfectly calibrated to be just this side of salacious, thereby winning over the crowd so he could make his more serious points, all while he had the gathering in the palm of his rhetorical hand.
Tutu was never reluctant to put his political cards on the table, taking a policy issue and framing it as a moral one. In years gone by, in the midst of the anti-apartheid struggle, he was relentless in his calls for sanctions against South Africa. He admitted there would be costs to this, but they were necessary for the greater good of the liberation of a nation. Most recently, he stood firmly on the side of those calling for more effective action by the government – and the general public – to stop the xenophobic violence afflicting South Africa, destroying lives and savaging the country’s reputation. And when the current government declined to provide assurances that his friend and fellow global icon the Dalai Lama would be able to receive a visa to participate in a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize winners in Cape Town (in an act of rather craven supplication towards China by the government), the Arch became as close to apoplectic as he had ever been in public, denouncing this stain on the nation’s international standing.
But a common thread for so much of his public life has been the power of forgiveness as a crucial element of the redemptive process. As he wrote last year in a book co-authored with his priest daughter, The Book of Forgiving: “Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. You can say: ‘I am willing to forgive you for stealing my pen, and after you give me my pen back, I shall forgive you.’ This is the most familiar pattern of forgiveness. In this understanding, forgiveness is something we offer to another, a gift we bestow upon someone, but it is a gift that has strings attached.
“The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us. Those are chains to which the perpetrator holds the key. We may set the conditions for granting our forgiveness, but the person who harmed us decides whether or not the conditions are too onerous to fulfil. We continue to be that person’s victim. ‘I will not speak to you until you say you are sorry!’ my young granddaughter Onalenna will rage. Her older sister, thinking the demand unfair and unjustified, refuses to apologise. The two remain locked together in a battle of wills bound by mutual resentment. There are two routes out of the impasse: the older Nyaniso can apologise, or Onalenna can decide to forgo the apology and forgive unconditionally.
“Unconditional forgiveness is a different model of forgiveness than the gift with strings. This is forgiveness as a grace, a free gift freely given. In this model, forgiveness frees the person who inflicted the harm from the weight of the victim’s whim – what the victim may demand in order to grant forgiveness – and the victims threat of vengeance. But it also frees the one who forgives.” A moment’s contemplation leads to the realisation that this conception of forgiveness by Tutu was central to one of the Arch’s preeminent services to the nation – his chairing of the often troubled, deeply painful, sometimes erratic, but ultimately successful Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – even if not all of the victims gained the full weight of confessions from their or their families’ tormentors. He often cried with the victims, but he held firm to the idea that a confession of guilt earned forgiveness, without other complications and conditions. The TRC, and Tutu’s leadership of it, helped heal a nation after its decades of trauma, even as it helped preclude the possibilities of civil war. And, in the event, it has also become a model for other TRCs from other conflict zones around the globe.
Long-time observer of South African politics, the University of Pittsburgh’s Louis Picard has noted: “I find religion the most common characteristic of both and the activist way that they use it. Carter is not that far from liberation theology in his approach to fundamentalism, and Tutu and SA are part of the liberation theology story.” Indeed, both men found ways to bring their respective senses of morality into the grubbier world of politics – and the world has been the better for it.
And here is hope, as Robert Frost might well have written of them; that both men “still have miles to go before they sleep”. When we finally gather in the future to tell stories of both Carter and Tutu, they surely will not, as Richard II had been forced to do, offer sorrowful tales of failure and destruction. Instead, we will rejoice in their good works – and of the legacies from those good works that have reached well beyond the circumstances of their own nations and of the times they lived in. DM
Photo: (LEFT) Former US President Jimmy Carter gives the media an update on his recent cancer diagnosis at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 20 August 2015. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER; (RIGHT) The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu waves after receiving the 2013 Templeton Prize, May 21, 2013. REUTERS/Paul Hackett.
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