The Worst President???

President Jimmy Carter has lit the national news afire with his recent comments about George W. Bush’s foreign policy, labeling the current president’s record on international relations as “the worst in history.”

I lack the perspective to make such a sweeping assessment of President Bush’s administration in this regard, but I have to confess my disappointment with the current Commander-in-Chief. Whatever the case, President Carter is entitled to his opinion of Bush’s foreign policy, even though many who agree with him would question the propriety of his making his opinion public.

“Priggish,” they are calling Carter. “A doddering old fool and a quack.”

The cacophany of bloggers who see Carter’s criticism of Bush as further cause to despise his Baptist identity will surely commence. To many, criticizing George W. Bush is blasphemy. Asking serious questions about the injustice occuring under the current administration is high treason.

There are others — I for one — who are just as tired of Democratic potshotting and grandstanding over Bush’s foreign and domestic policy blunders as we are seeing Southern Baptists entangled excessively with the Republican Party. America is in a mess in Iraq. The Department of Justice is led by a man who thinks torturing detainees in Guantanamo is both acceptable and commendable.

I’m willing to say it myself: Alberto Gonzalez rivals Janet Reno as the worst Attorney General of my lifetime. I believe that George W. Bush, however, is a Christian brother trying to balance his personal religious commitments with his immense political responsibilities. Jimmy Carter is doing the same.

I’m also willing to admit that it took the tough arms race of President Reagan to end the Cold War.  Peace treaties failed where military strength prevailed.

For Bush, Iraq is evil, and the only moral thing for America to do is to prevent the spread of evil by the use of force. For Carter, preemptive strikes are evil, and the only thing moral for America to do is to clip the wings of the war-hawks in Washington.

Sure, I wish Carter hadn’t said what he did about Bush….just like I wish Bush hadn’t done what he did in Iraq. Nevertheless, I believe Baptists can align themselves on either side of the political spectrum — for Bush or against him, pro-Iraq or against — and still work together in shared commitment to those things which transcend momentary political skirmishes.

And for all the ugliness of political rhetoric in modern America, it comes nowhere close to the ways that Baptists have spoken of each other in our quarter-century fight. We can all agree that these things should not be. It’s just a little hard to move that mental assent into moral action.

The tree in Grandma’s yard…

Grandma’s Tree

I’m one of those fortunate souls who’s known the blessing of two living grandmothers. One will enter her 92nd birthday next month, and the other is approaching 76. While visiting Atlanta this past week, I stayed with my Georgia grandmother in the house where she has lived since the 1960s.

There are pictures in her house of me sitting in my dad’s lap wearing matching western-style shirts with pearl snaps and opening birthday presents. Her yard is always full of flowers and potted-plants and gardens that give the aging pier and beam the sense that expatriated British nobility once lived there. The trees in grandma’s yard have always fascinated me.

There used to be an apple tree in the back yard next to her gardening shed, which has now been overtaken by an assortment of Chevrolet pickups my uncle is restoring for his grandson, Dillon. Somewhere under the pile of fenders and frames a boat is trapped. Only the corroded outboard motor peaks through the wreckage. We never ate the apples off the tree that I can remember, which were approximately the size of a golfball and twice as hard. They did serve, however, as excellent projectiles when pelting my cousins Brett and Brian in various wars of both just and unjust causes.

Between the house and the monster of kudzu that had overtaken the back perimeter was a Catalpa tree, infested with fat striped worms the size of a man’s finger. Endless summers of childhood delight were spent slowly pulling them from their buffet of leaves so that each set of legs broke loose from their grip just before the worm would have been torn asunder by the sadistic progeny of a Southern lady.

There were trails behind the neighbor’s house cutting back into the woods that went forever, forged by three-wheelers commandeered by children who first learned to drive a car on that same half acre. I can still smell the smoke from the annual yard burning, a perplexing celebration of fire and family. There is a brick barbecue pit well charred, and the remains of a tomato garden now overgrown.

But in the front yard, one particular tree remains. As a child, I found that its low-hanging branch pattern provided the perfect first step for an expedition between land and sky, not to mention a safe haven from irksome siblings too small to follow. I’m not sure how high I ever climbed, but my memory plays tricks on me. I can now reach at a shoulder’s height what must have been my toddling summit.

Grandma’s house looks the same. The bed is still on the back porch, and the plaid burlap sofa is still in the living room. The same feather mattress is still fluffed full and prepared for the arrival of one grandchild or another. There is a small paper-wrapped cup in her kitchen, within which are coins she contributes every day to her church’s missionary fund. And the mysterious front living room filled with decorative plates still calls to me like the devoted things of Ai called unto Achan, the son of Carmi.

There is a calender in the den with the penciled-in birthdays of every child, grandchild and great-grandchild. Under the name of those whose birthdays have already passed is a dollar amount, presumably recording the cash given, always crisp bills enclosed in a simple card containing a three word handwritten message of love. Whoever taught my grandmother penmanship should be shot.

Only one of my grandmother’s grandchildren is married. Four of them have given her fifteen granchildren. She still works every day for the county, a second job since retiring in the early 1990s. A decade ago she bought her first Cadillac, and a few years ago she bought herself a truck.

I wish I had learned frugality and discipline from my maternal grandmother. She irons her own clothes, cleans her own house, mows her own grass, and I can’t remember a time that I’ve seen her bed unmade. Her affection and encouragement is a constant in our lives, however far removed we are from her North Georgia home. She doesn’t fly anymore, having been rudely treated by a Federal inspector who mistook her for an Islamic terrorist. So those of us living a great distance away do not get to see her as often as we’d like.

Just as I was packing my suitcase to come home to Texas, she appeared at the door with both hands behind her back. Pulling them around one at a time and graced with a grandmotherly grin, she awarded me a twenty dollar bill from the left and a fifty from the right. The first was an early birthday gift. The second was “just because” money.

And somewhere on a calendar hanging on a dark paneled wall the number 20.00 has been penciled in.