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The lesson we can learn from when Ronald Reagan toasted Jimmy Carter

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The titanic political contest in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan is well known. It was a struggle between two very different men with two very different views of America and the world.

One believed in bigger government and one believed in smaller government. One believed we could work and coexist with the Soviets and one said he would “consign it to the ash heap of history.” One believed in the individual and the other led a party whose platform said government was the principal creator of jobs.

During the campaign, Reagan often zinged Carter by saying, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose your job. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job!” Carter gave as good, often attacking Reagan on his issues and his conservatism.

And, there were many personal clashes in the 1980 campaign, culminating in their historic debate in Cleveland one week before the election. At the time, President Carter was ahead in some polls and was surging, but Reagan’s calm demeanor and command of the facts won the day and the debate for the Californian.


As with most situations in his life, when Reagan took personal command, things turned out just fine. The debate was Reagan’s first actual introduction to the country at large. The American people liked what they saw and rewarded him with an historic landslide victory over Carter on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Flash forward six years to the opening of the $25 million dollar Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, Georgia on October, 1986 in Atlanta on October, 1986. Reagan was personally invited to attend the opening ceremonies by Carter, and Reagan immediately said yes. Both President Gerald Ford and President Nixon declined Carter’s invitation. Reagan and Carter though would prove that there are bigger things than ego.

Reagan gave the opening remarks. He began by saying, “I want you to know that I often get invited to library dedications. There aren’t that many people still around who knew Andrew Carnegie personally!” There was generous laughter from the crowd of 9,000.

He delved into the substance of his remarks saying, “None of us today need feel any urge, in the name of good will, to downplay our differences. On the contrary, in a certain sense we can be proud of our differences, because they arise from good will itself—for love of country; for concern for the challenges of our time; from respect for, and yes, even outright enjoyment of, the democratic processes of disagreement and debate.”

Reagan went ever further in his praise. “Today our very differences attest to the greatness of our nation. For I can think of no country on Earth where two political leaders could disagree so widely yet come together in mutual respect. To paraphrase Mr. Jefferson: We are all Democrats, we are all Republicans, because we are all Americans.”

Reagan continued, favorably reviewing Carter’s record on race, on science and human rights around the world. He also spoke favorably about the traditions and future of the South. Reagan concluded by saying, “For myself, I can pay you no higher honor than to simply say this: You gave yourself to your country, gracing the White House with your passionate intellect and commitment. Now you have become a permanent part of that grand old house, so right in tradition, that belongs to us all.”


President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, shake hands as they greet one another before their debate on the stage of the Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)


Finally, Reagan got an impish grin on his face and said, “And there’s only one thing left to say. From the 40th president to the 39th, Happy Birthday! And, Mr. President, if I could give you one word of advice: Life begins at 70.” Again, the laughter was plentiful. Reagan at the time was 70 and Carter much younger.

Carter had first introduced Reagan and then got up again to speak. He quipped, “As I listened to you talk, I understood more clearly than I ever did in my life why you won in 1980, and I lost.” The crowd laughed at Carter’s magnanimous humor.
Several years later, Carter returned the favor and attended the opening of the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Two presidents, two different parties, two different backgrounds but also two men of honor and humility with a singular love of Country.


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