Maintaining positive traditions has always been a critical piece of our American society. They help to form the foundations of our families and society. Traditions reinforce values such as freedom, faith, integrity, a good education, personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, and the importance of being selfless.
Continuing traditions becomes a form of respect and remembrance for the struggles and sacrifices of those before us. Traditions offer the chance to say “thank you” for past contributions and to celebrate diversity while uniting us as a country. In 2012, President Obama used the White House portrait unveiling tradition to show the nation some degree of cross-party appreciation. When referring to George W. Bush, he said, “We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences.”
Last month, Barack and Michelle Obama finally returned to the White House for the unveiling of their official White House portraits. After 10 years, it brought back the long-standing tradition of a first-term president welcoming a predecessor — regardless of party — to the White House to unveil their official portraits. Before Obama and Bush, Bush hosted the Clintons in 2004, and the Clintons hosted George H.W. and Barbara Bush in 1995. It was a tradition that did not take place during the Trump years.
It is easy to allow rituals to become trivialized or even forgotten, but the Obama unveiling held added historical significance. While the true reason for stalling Obama’s portrait process in 2017 may never be made public, the message is clear. It was disrespectful not only to the Obamas but to the office Trump held. At a time of political and racial divisions, it denied the nation a rare moment of harmony and camaraderie. It also set the wrong tone because recognizing the first Black family to occupy the White House represents a prideful moment for citizens of color.
President Biden is a man of tradition. By inviting the Obamas back to the White House for their unveiling ceremony, Biden showed that it is never too late to appreciate a former president. The most recent president to not attend an official portrait unveiling was Jimmy Carter, who requested not to have a ceremony. Jimmy Carter is a different and selfless man. We should appreciate former President Carter more each day, especially when we hear the daily news about former President Trump.
Jimmy Carter is the oldest living former president; he celebrated his 98th birthday on the first day of October. Many would say his greatest achievements were accomplished after leaving the presidency. The former Democratic president is revered for championing human rights and democracy through The Carter Center, which he founded along with his wife, Rosalynn. The Carter Center has worked to advance democracy by monitoring foreign elections and reducing diseases in developing countries. In 2002, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for pushing for global peace. Even at 95, Carter taught Sunday school and continued his work with Habitat for Humanity as an active, hands-on construction volunteer. Throughout the years, the former president and his wife have worked alongside 104,000 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate, and repair 4,390 homes. People would come to Plains, Georgia, from around the world to hear his Sunday school lessons.
He is a living example of a great leader and humanitarian by demonstrating no matter what career we choose or how old we are, we can always make a meaningful contribution to our community and country. He described his motivations by saying, “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something … My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
He chose not to have the type of recognition that goes with being a former president. And while current politicians try so hard to be the next Trump, where are the future Jimmy Carters?
Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and author of the book “God Bless Our Divided America.”