A country built on stolen land and by stolen labor, through revolution and annexation, the hoodwinking of governments and the overthrowing of sovereign monarchies, and still we have the gall to say that our president may forgive the transgressions of citizens. These presidents, fallible men, flawed men, men who cut backroom deals, who slandered each other, who were unfaithful to their wives and their country, who are they to bestow a pardon upon the criminals of the United States?
We are a nation without the divine right of royalty, which made us dangerous in infancy, chaotic in adolescence, brutal in adulthood. Original sin? We ate the apples of knowledge across this land, finding them in Plymouth, in Lexington and Concord, in the slave markets of Charleston and Richmond and New York City, at the prison camps of Andersonville and Manzanar, at Iolani Palace and Fort Robinson. The president is as fallible as any of us—worse, maybe, if he thirsts for power. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But he—a peanut farmer, Jefferson’s dream—he may be different. In his Georgia county, he was the only white man who did not join the Concerned Citizens’ Council, façade of the segregationists. He is the voice crying in the wilderness to lead us forward. We welcome him, accept him, a chance for restoration after we have fallen so far, from the balconies of the Watergate complex to the banks of the Potomac below.
When he takes the oath of office, he does so on a bible his mother gave him, opened to the prophet Micah: “what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
He asks us if a country founded on liberty and spirituality can become what it once promised it would be. He asks if America can be a country that governs by a moral compass when it makes its decisions. Who believes that this is possible? Any inauguration, and his especially, is always a time for hope against our natures. Can we accomplish this goal?
He tries. He brings Egypt and Israel together at Camp David. He returns Panama its own canal. He sets what will become the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum into motion. He negotiates with his Soviet counterpart on limiting nuclear arms, signs a treaty.
On his first day in office, he signs a blanket pardon for the men who fled America rather than fight in Vietnam. His predecessor had offered a conditional pardon, but Jimmy Carter knows that love and forgiveness must be offered freely.
This is not a small group of prodigal sons. This is perhaps a half million men or more he calls home, for whom he is killing the fatted calf. These brothers of ours were dead and are alive again, lost and are now found.
He tries. What can he do? Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right? He holds the codes to launch the fire that would scour the planet, and he wants to do good. Impossible. How quickly are promises of the campaign and good intentions of the first one hundred days pushed aside? This job murders men, this job murders men’s souls. What does it profit the electorate to gain their souls but face stagflation at home and an aggressive Red Army moving abroad in Afghanistan and Cuba and who knows where else?
We shall not kill. We shall not bear false witness. We shall not covet our neighbor’s goods. And yet the contradiction of this country includes all these things and more. We constantly move backwards as we try to move forward. I love this country perhaps because I am naïve like Carter, because I keep envisioning what it might be, what it actually is in moments of glory and transfiguration, and so I beg your pardon, pardon for believing that a slaveholder could write all men are created equal, pardon for the man who signed both the Emancipation Proclamation and the execution order for thirty-nine Santee Sioux with the same hand, pardon for the man who bombed Hiroshima and integrated the armed forces, even pardon for the man who ordered the break-in at the Watergate complex, sending us into a long spiral from which we have yet to recover. Pardon all of them. I know what it is like to want to leave. I know what it is like to want to come home. Of course Carter served only a single term; he tried to make us consider the whole world, and our hearts are wicked and deceitful above all.
Colin Rafferty is the author of Hallow This Ground, a collection of essays about monuments and memorials, published by Break Away Books/Indiana University Press. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.