Professor Larry Taulbee’s political science class at Emory University started promptly at 10 on a Wednesday morning. The topic: SALT II. That morning’s guest lecturer discoursed with firsthand knowledge on U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations, then fielded questions with an aplomb born of innumerable press conferences. When the bell sounded to end the 50-minute period, there wasn’t a student who bolted for the door. A teacher whose hand once had access to the nuclear button now has a special hold as well on a classroom.
Since September, Jimmy Carter has been proving to himself and to students at Emory, a university with an enrollment of 8,000 in suburban Atlanta, that there is life after the Oval Office. Each month he makes the three-hour drive north from Plains to put in two days as University Distinguished Professor. He is given new forums and topics each month, and his mandate cuts across the disciplines of history, political science, law and business; he even lectured last October at the theological school on “Morality and Human Rights in Public Life.” His audiences have ranged from a class of 30 undergraduates to a town meeting-like convocation in October that packed in 1,600 people. His stipend for such labors is a closely guarded secret, and he doesn’t grade papers, but he says he loves the job. “I have always wanted to teach,” explains the first ex-President to join a faculty since William Howard Taft at Yale Law. “I want to keep up-to-date. I want to keep abreast of new ideas. I want to be in a forum where expressions of opinions on issues which are vital to the public are discussed.”
Professor Carter, a graduate of the Naval Academy (class of ’46), says that education has been a major concern for him since his life of public service began in 1955 as chairman of the Sumter County School Board. He reminded one law school class that during his term as President he formed a separate, Cabinet-level Department of Education. Now, he noted somewhat wryly, “Reagan said he would abolish that department, [but] I don’t think he will.”
The new prof’s folksy manners make him unintimidating, and his three-man Secret Service escort remains as un-obtrusive as possible. Students are surprised by his approachability. “At first we expected him to be very stiff,” says junior Ed Daum, a history major who heard Carter lecture on American foreign policy in Political Science 316. “We were so overwhelmed by his charisma we could hardly listen to what he had to say. But by the second lecture we didn’t treat him with kid gloves anymore. It was more relaxed and the questions were more penetrating. You would never get this from a textbook. It was lively and very, very real.” Though he readily admits to less than admiration for the Carter presidential record—”well-intentioned, not carried through”—Daum says now he has “a lot more respect for him, and I do a lot less criticizing.”
The return to a campus environment has been an obvious tonic for Carter. Aged beyond his 58 years by the rigors of the Presidency and diminished in spirit by his crushing 1980 electoral defeat, Carter had gone home to Plains with Rosalynn and Amy to self-imposed seclusion. Almost never consulted by his presidential successor, seldom heard from in public, he was for a year and a half totally absorbed in the writing of his memoirs, Keeping Faith, which were published last November and have been on best-seller lists ever since.
Professor Carter professes no future political ambitions beyond the role of elder statesman. He is working on plans for a Carter presidential library, to be built in the Great Park area adjoining downtown Atlanta. All of the $40 million cost will be raised privately. Next to that will be the Carter Center for Policy Studies, an Emory-affiliated think tank. For Emory, already considered a strong university, affiliation with such a star attraction can only enhance an up-and-coming national reputation. Little wonder that Emory’s president, James T Laney, enthuses about his recent faculty recruit, “We are as pleased as we can be.”