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AMERICAN NOTES - A commentary on American social, cultural and political affairs - Past and Present 

 I took the above photo in 1977 after Carter arrived in England for his European trip. After shaking hands with Carter I only had an instant to grab my camera and quickly snap the photo  - which is probably why it is a little blurry. The photo below was taken at the famous Plains Railroad Depot where Carter embarked on his campaign for president.

Former president, Jimmy Carter, still lives in his rural Georgia hometown and my wife and I had the privilege of meeting the mayor of Plains during our trip around the Deep South in 2011. The Mayor accompanied Carter to Norway after the former president received the Nobel Peace prize. We also spoke to one of Amy Carter's nannies who looked after her in the White House during the Carter years.


Carter is in the news once more with the publication of his 29th book, A Full Life: Reflections At Ninety. He is the longest serving ex-president in American history. President Hoover formerly fulfilled that role after leaving office in 1933 until his death in 1964.


Carter has often been criticised as an ineffectual president who failed to achieve significant domestic and foreign policy successes during his time in office. He has also been criticised as America's 'worst' president who had "an undistinguished presidency"; a president who failed to "set consistent policy goals-or more grandly, a philosophy for government". The economy sank with very high interest rates, the price of oil skyrocketed. Additionally, he failed in his efforts to secure the release of American hostages in Iran and ordered a failed rescue attempt. Ronald Reagan characterized Carter's foreign policy as "one of weakness, inconsistency, vacillation and bluff".


However, history may very well absolve Carter. He didn't go to war and not a single serviceman died in combat during his presidency. Historians may also come to characterize the president as the real 'architect' of the end of the Cold War. In 1979 he inveigled the Soviet Union into its war in Afghanistan thus creating the Taliban. It proved an unwinnable ten year war and the intense unpopularity and outright failures of the conflict were a serious factor in bringing to power Mikhail Gorbachev long sceptical of the sustainability of the communist system. Carter also brought lasting peace between Israel and Egypt, reconciled China's relations with the United States and secured a treaty which out the Panama Canal back under the control of Panama by 2000. He kept the country's budget balanced and instituted a 'human rights' dimension to American foreign policy. And when Carter became president he vowed there would be no 'imperial presidency' like those of Johnson and Nixon.


Carter's new book highlights the importance of personal relationships a president must have with other foreign leaders. As an example he writes about his interactions with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat. On the 13th day of the Camp David talks in 1978 Begin said he would make no more concessions to Sadat. "We thought we had failed", Carter said, "and were ready to go back to Washington....Begin...asked me if I would sign copies of the picture of me and Begin and Sadat for his grandchildren". Carter found out the names of his grandchildren and personalised each photo with their names and a dedication. "He was angry", Carter said, "And so I handed him the photographs...tears began to run down his cheeks...he said 'Why don't we give it one more try'."




                    MEETING ATTICUS FINCH



















Above: Frank Sinatra and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the US Capitol, June 1971. Sinatra was accompanied by Hollywood star Gregory Peck 

In recent years the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman has caused some controversy. The role of Atticus Finch, who was characterized in Lee's first book To Kill A Mockingbird as a courageous small town lawyer defending a black man accused of rape, has undergone a transformation in Lee's new book. Finch is portrayed as an unreconstructed racist who, in his retirement from law, rails against the 'mongrelisation' of the races. He will never again be seen as the white knight we once thought of him.


However, the actor who portrayed 'Scout' in the movie, Mary Badham, defends the new characterization of Finch as portrayed in Go Set A Watchman. Badham says her own father was "very much" like the Atticus portrayed in both books.

"My father had to walk a very fine line," she said. "The rules we lived under socially in Birmingham at that time, you could not - it didn't matter what you believed in - you could not live that path that you wanted to. You had to conform. Anybody that didn't conform, it would hurt their personal life, it would hurt their business life. … You were locked in. If you were white, you were expected to toe the line." Badham said, in hindsight, she could see the predicament her father was in.


Atticus Finch was portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. It was released in 1962, during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the South, and Peck won an academy award for his portrayal of the Depression-era lawyer and widowed father. In 2003 Atticus Finch was named the top film hero of the past 100 years by the American Film Institute.


In June 1971 I was in Washington DC visiting the Capitol when Frank Sinatra was honoured by the Senate the first time he 'retired'. I was in the Senate visitors' gallery when Sinatra and Peck sat across from me listening to former Vice-President and now senator, Hubert Humphrey, and other senators extolling the virtues of this 'American icon'.


For my part, I was more thrilled to see Gregory Peck who played the lead role in one of my favourite movies of all time, 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. After the speeches ended Peck and Sinatra headed for the lifts outside the Senate gallery and I followed, collecting my camera on the way. As I entered one of the elevators I was followed by Peck who had broken away from Sinatra because of the throngs that surrounded the famous singer. I only had time to blurt out that he was one of my favourite actors and how his role as Atticus Finch had captured the character of the Southern lawyer magnificently. Naturally, I wanted his autograph and fumbled around for notepaper. I could only find my passport which he kindly signed.


After shaking hands with Sinatra I joined Hubert Humphrey and a group of his young constituents on the steps of the Capitol and spent some 15 minutes talking about his four years as Lyndon Johnson's vice-president.


















Gregory Peck died in 2003. His eulogy was read by Brock Peters who played the accused defendant in To Kill A Mockingbird. 




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