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Sorry for maligning you, Jimmy Carter

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter signs his new book “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety” in New York last week.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter signs his new book “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety” in New York last week. GETTY

Quiz time: Which American president was attacked by a “killer rabbit”?

It was Jimmy Carter, although the incident says more about the news media than it does about Carter. He was fishing from a boat in a pond when a rabbit swam frantically for the president’s boat. Carter fended off the rabbit with an oar.

A few months later, Carter’s press secretary happened to mention the incident to a reporter. Soon there was a flood of articles and cartoons about a hapless president cowed and outmatched by a wet bunny.

One of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it. Thus we used a distraught rabbit to confirm the narrative of Carter as a lightweight cowed by anything that came along.

The press and chattering class have often been merciless to Carter. Early on, cartoons mocked him as a country rube using an outhouse or associating with pigs and writers pilloried him as a sanctimonious hick.

Now that Carter is 90 and has been an ex-president longer than anyone in history, it’s time to correct the record. He is anything but an empty suit.

At a time when “principled politicians” sometimes seem a null set, it’s remarkable how often Carter showed spine.

He has a new memoir, “A Full Life,” recounting that his father was a segregationist. Yet Jimmy Carter says he was the only white man in his town who refused to join the White Citizens’ Council, and he fought to integrate his church.

When he was inaugurated governor of Georgia, he declared, “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.” He then erected a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the State Capitol.

It’s true that Carter sometimes floundered as president. He also had great difficulty, as an outsider, managing Washington, and suffered from a measure of anti-Southern prejudice. When the Reagans took over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, their interior decorator reportedly couldn’t wait to “get the smell of catfish out of the White House.”

But Carter was also a pioneer. He was the first to elevate human rights in foreign policy. He appointed large numbers of women, Latinos and blacks. He installed solar panels on the White House. He established diplomatic relations with China.

After leaving the presidency, Carter could have spent his time playing golf. Instead, he roamed the globe advocating for human rights and battling diseases from malaria to blinding trachoma.

Because of Carter’s work, the world is very close to eradicating Guinea worm disease, an excruciating ailment, and has made enormous headway against elephantiasis and river blindness as well. Only five cases of Guinea worm disease have been reported worldwide in 2015: It’s a race, Carter acknowledges, between him and the Guinea worm to see which outlasts the other.

I’m betting on Carter.

A one-termer who was a pariah in his own party, Carter may well have improved the lives of more people in more places over a longer period of time than any other recent president. So we in the snooty media world owe him an apology: We were wrong about you, Mr. President. You’re not a lightweight at all, and we can’t wait to see what you'll do in your next 90 years!

Kristof writes for the New York Times.

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