PLAINS, Ga. -- Former President Jimmy Carter gave a standing-room-only crowd the ultimate civics lesson Monday at the Plains High School Museum.
What better way to celebrate Presidents Day than hearing from a former American president?
With the auditorium packed full of students from across the state of Georgia and tourists from Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, the nation's 39th president recalled the highs and lows of his four-year administration.
"The President of the United States is easily one of the most admired men in the country," Jason Berggren of Georgia Southwestern State University said in introducing Carter to the crowd. "In a recent Gallup poll, when people were asked who they admired most in the country, the No. 1 answer was Barack Obama. Two was George W. Bush. Third was Bill Clinton, and fourth was Jimmy Carter.
"Former Vice President Walter Mondale said Jimmy Carter's election in 1976 helped bring the country together because, for the first time since the Civil War, America had elected a president from the Deep South who was fully committed to civil rights."
Carter then stepped to the podium to thunderous applause from the appreciative crowd.
"I know this might sound strange, but this is the first time since 1981 that we've been back home that the park services has allowed me to speak from this stage," Carter said. "Presidents Day has always been special to me because I proposed to Rosalynn on Presidents Day 65 years ago."
During his inaugural address in 1971, Carter laid the foundation for his presidency.
"I said then that the days of racial division of America were over, that no black child would ever again be denied the opportunity to succeed and thrive in America," Carter said. "I've always said Harry Truman was my role model, and when he ended racial discrimination in the military you have to remember that was eight years before anyone had ever heard of Rosa Parks.
"That decision took a great deal of courage, and I am convinced that if it were not for Harry Truman and Martin Luther King Jr., I would have never been president."
In foreign affairs, Carter pursued the Camp David Accords and the Panama Canal Treaties that eventually led to the return of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama.
"Foreign policy was always my favorite part of the job because I did not need permission to invite (Egyptian President) Anwar Sadat and (Israeli Prime Minister) Menachem Begin to Camp David," he said. "It was a difficult time. Israel had already been in four recent wars with its neighbors, and all four were led by Egypt."
The Camp David Accords, which resulted from 13 days of secret negotiations, eventually led to a treaty and a "cold peace" between the former adversaries.
"Anwar Sadat is my favorite foreign leader of all-time," said Carter.
While the signing of the Camp David Accords was one of the highlights of his presidency, Carter acknowledged that the Iranian Hostage crisis, during which militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, was the low point.
"Those 444 days were the biggest burden ever placed on me," Carter said. "From Nov. 3, 1979 until the moment I left office, it was with me. Some said I should have bombed Iran, but that would have resulted in the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, and they would have executed our people. I wouldn't risk that.
"At 10 a.m. the day I was to leave office, I was told that our people were sitting in a plane on a runway waiting to take off, but (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini would not authorize it to leave as long as I was in office. The plane took off five minutes after (Ronald) Reagan was sworn in."
Does Carter miss being president?
"Being President of the greatest country in the world was a wonderful honor and a public and private privilege," Carter said. "I'd like to say thank you to the American people for giving me this wonderful honor."