An Ambitious Issue

(from the February 2017 issue)

President Jimmy Carter nets a fish while fly fishing in Alaska in the late 1970s. (Carter Presidential Library and Museum, White House Staff Photographers Collection)

Being nice when you don’t have to be.

[by Russ Lumpkin]

The History of most anything is interesting. If you doubt that’s true, you should visit the Hammer Museum in Haines. But on a world scale, Alaska’s history is at least as colorful as anywhere else on the planet.

Alaska history books and lore are full of people who were driven by ambition and wanderlust, and who came to the Great Land looking for adventure and riches in areas that already included ancient, Native cultures populated by people who mostly wanted to be left alone. Those two factors thrown together—factions of disparate interest—have driven history since time immemorial.

Still, Alaska’s history took on worldwide importance when the U.S. purchased it from Russia in 1867. No longer was it an outpost of get-rich-quick schemers ranging from tsarist Russia to countless prospectors nameless to history. Instead, it became part of the ambitions and missions of the greatest country on earth. Part of those missions included winning World War II, during which Alaska played a significant role and Alaskan soil was the only U.S. holding, state or otherwise, to endure a land battle.

This year, 2017, happens to be the 150th anniversary of the Alaska purchase and the 75th of the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians. It’s also the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Alaska Highway. So with a certain ambition of our own, the staff of Alaska decided to cover them all—and with the efforts of several authors, including Steve Haycox—we hope you think we’ve done a good job.

Another anniversary, however, hung out there: the 100th of Denali National Park. We didn’t want to gloss over it but had covered the creation of the park in the September 2016 issue and felt no need to go over plowed ground. Then one day it hit me. Why not interview the man who signed the legislation that changed the name of Mount McKinley National Park to Denali National Park?

I doubt he knew it, but President Jimmy Carter and I have a history. I’m native Georgian, and when my fourth-grade class cast ballots for president in 1976, Mr. Carter nearly swept every vote. Farther back, his tenure as governor of Georgia began January 12, 1971. Less than a month later, I turned four. He’s the first politician registered in my memory.

I told him as much late last summer, when I arranged to interview him for this particular issue of Alaska and had to submit questions before we spoke. In the prelude to the questions, I confessed, “Aside from family and family friends, the first three people in my memory are you, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, and Pistol Pete Maravich. Everyone should be so lucky.”

I didn’t think any more of the comment but tried to prepare for the interview, which progressed as expected. The President’s famous drawl proved engaging and full of graciousness. He’s 92, but his mind, it seemed, couldn’t be any clearer. We discussed fly fishing, changing the name of Mount McKinley park, and the President’s signature legislation—the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act—that put to rest issues of land claims and Native rights that had lingered since 1959 when Alaska became a state.

Two things, above all else, stood out: first, the degree to which his political and personal mores are intertwined, and second, the level of importance he places on small gestures. Both traits come out in the interview, but I’ll share a portion of the discussion that didn’t make it to press.

As the conversation ended President Carter said, “I appreciate your letter. Best wishes to you.”

Now I fully expected to interview a nice man—anyone so heavily involved with Habitat for Humanity obviously has a big heart. Still, he had once been the most powerful man on earth, initiated the Camp David Accords, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He has stood on the largest stages the world has to offer.

I’m important to only a few people, but President Carter made my personal history more colorful than it had been. He treated me with dignity, and his acknowledgment of my note of introduction says more about him than it does me. I assume he treats everyone, regardless of world significance, similarly.

Before the interview ended, I concluded that a person would have to go a long way to outnice Mr. Carter. Being nice to people when you don’t have to be: Now that’s ambition.

Russ Lumpkin