We were embarked on a great journey. The day before, she’d vowed to love me forever as Sylvia Davis. And now we were heading to Florida like many other newlyweds.
The plane backed from the air-side. I smiled at my wife. It wouldn’t be long! Then the jet stopped. Out the windows, we could see two black SUVs approach.
Moments later, two men came through the plane, looking at travelers with hard eyes. One spoke into a collar microphone.
An older gentleman entered the plane. He walked toward us, shaking hands and introducing himself. It was clear he intended to say hello to everyone on the plane. I recognized the grin.
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“Sylvia,” I said, “here comes Jimmy Carter.”
That little encounter, 16 years ago, underscores what many of us know: James Earl Carter Jr., perhaps more than any other chief executive, is the people’s president.
There’s something that stirs our collective psyche about a president who never loses sight of his origins. We think of young Lincoln, splitting rails before his nation needed him in the Civil War; of a youthful Reagan, broadcasting baseball games decades before he called for the end of the Berlin Wall.
We like our leaders to remember from whence they came. And so it is with Carter, whose first steps as president took place on Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 20, 1977. If you were around, surely you recall the nation’s 39th president walking from the Capitol to the executive mansion.
A Washington Post writer understood the impact of that sight:
“It took him 40 minutes ... he was shattering ... the idea that a president must be remote and removed from the people.”
Carter has never strayed from that image. The man responsible for the Camp David Accords, establishing peace between Israel and Egypt, swung a hammer for Habitat for Humanity. The former president who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize attended Sunday school at his hometown church this past weekend.
And this past spring, I was watching my youngest son, Reuben play baseball at Georgia’s Medlock Park when a kid came running up and yelled to come quick. “Jimmy Carter is over there!” Carter, the boy said, was watching his great-grandson play baseball on a nearby field.
Fifteen minutes later, Reuben came back, grinning. He held up his cellphone, which had a new photo. “I shook his hand and everything!”
That made me smile and recall a 2011 interview that I had with Carter on Palestinian sovereignty. As we were winding up, I veered off-script.
“Mr. President,” I said, “I doubt you remember it, but you were on the same flight as my wife and I were on during our honeymoon. She and I shook your hand.”
Carter sounded pleased. “Are you still married?” he asked. Most assuredly, I replied.
“Good,” he said. “Stay that way.”
Plain talk from a plain guy.
Mark Davis writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.