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The president was here 33 years ago
President Jimmy Carter was all smiles at the town hall meeting in Merced held 33 years ago Thursday. He later helicoptered to east Modesto for a fundraiser.

I shall not forget 33 years ago tomorrow -- the day I shook hands with the president of the United States.

July 4, 1980. Jimmy Carter came to the Valley at the behest of then Congressman Tony Coelho. It was a political trip as the embattled president was facing prospects of losing re-election to Ronald Reagan. Carter's Fourth of July trip included a town hall meeting inside the Merced Junior College auditorium which had all the trappings of a political rally, as well as a big money fundraiser luncheon at the Wycliffe home of Modesto attorney Frank Damrell.

I was just 18 then. I didn't pay any attention to aspects of Carter's failed presidency. I was just entranced by the cult of presidential personality. Kind of sounds familiar, huh? So many young people today were/are enthralled with Obama but either ignore his policy failings or give him a pass because he is a "hip" dude. Carter, however, was bounced out on his ears that year when the electorate saw a clear contrast between Carter and Reagan who articulated a clear, conservative message for a brighter American future. Romney was no Reagan.

So there I was, a young liberal, basking in the glory of spending my holiday listening to the president as he stood before an array of American flags, as I sat two rows behind the first lady and Pat Brown, the former governor of California.

A friend of mine and my grandmother and I won a lottery for seats inside the auditorium. We got there at 4 a.m. to get a choice of good seats on the end of the row in case Carter walked by us. I carried in a sign that read, "Mr. President, please shake our hands!"

The wait seemed like forever (politicians are never on time, especially presidents) but a surge of excitement came when we received word that Carter landed in Air Force One at Castle Air Force Base. The excitement returned upon hearing the sound of Marine One's rotor blades chopping in the hot Valley air outside the packed gym.

Minutes later there was the playing of Ruffles & Flourishes and then "Hail to the Chief" as Jimmy Carter, in 3-D, waltzed into the room and past us. It was surreal as the crowd went wild. The president stood with Coelho at the lectern, flashing his famous wide grin. I watched the president's eyes scan the adulating crowd. His eyes stopped on the sign I was holding and I read his lips mouth the words "I will" to my request for a hand shake.

Carter spoke a while, even mentioning bringing home American held hostages in Iran. Of course, he failed to do so which is what helped lose the election to tough-as-nails Reagan.

After fielding questions from the audience, Carter pressed our flesh as promised. My right hand grasped his left hand as others were grabbing at him. He had the softest hand I ever shook, something my grandfather confirmed, too, after a handshake outside of the auditorium.

Carter boarded his helicopter for Modesto, flying above Santa Fe Avenue, then in the sky between Hughson and Ceres. Along the way the president noticed some farmer had spelled out "Hello Jimmy, welcome" in limestone. The chopper touched down at Christine Sipherd Elementary School, an Empire School District facility. The motorcade whisked him and Rosalyn down Lillian Drive to Damrell's residence where a young county supervisor with political ambition by the name of Gary Condit of Ceres was hoping to get some presidential one on one.

Being a poor college kid, I was unable to shell out the thousands to attend the posh fundraiser. But Carter said some things in that yard along the banks of Dry Creek that I found interesting with respect to immigration. It was a hot button issue even then. Carter aptly observed that most Americans came from other nations or immigrant ancestors and that people flock to the United States because of its opportunity and greatness. But Carter also stated: "...our Nation can assimilate this as long as we do it in accordance with the law and in accordance with a searching out, once people arrive here, of the true responsibilities of citizenship-hard work, dedication, struggling at first to learn a new language and to be part of a societal structure that's not a blend where we lose our religion and we lose our history and we lose the values that we brought here..."

I assume that his reference to "hard work" means waiting turns at the border, not jumping it.

But what must Carter have felt when he heard about American citizens of Mexican descent booing the American soccer team in the Gold Cup in Pasadena in 2011?

Since Carter mentioned the importance of learning the "new language," what would Carter think strolling the aisles of the Ceres Walmart to hear customers and employees not speaking English?

Unfortunately America is losing its history and values, among them the respect for all laws and not just the ones that can be ignored for economic advantage. Because of our lax border security, we now have an estimated 7 to 20 million illegal immigrants living here, mostly from Mexico and Latin America. The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research documented in its report, Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States in 2008 that most immigrants do well at assimilating except Mexicans, largely because a lack of legal status keeps many Mexican immigrants from advancing economically.

Even those here illegally have the audacity to presure police chiefs to look the other way when it comes to enforcing driving laws.

A lot has changed in 33 years since Carter came here. Our Valley is one of the poorest regions of the country. The Valley is predominantly Latino in most communities. The Latino voter bloc consistently supports Democrats, the party that has California bound up in budget mire, overtaxation, overspending and high regulation and taxes force industries to flee the state with jobs. Latinos and Democrats generally favor lax immigration policy.

Democrats appear reluctant in beefing up border security first and now push for illegal immigrants to vote and be issued drivers' licenses. Republicans are less enthusiastic about granting amnesty without some consequences for jumping the border. Joe Biden commented last week that Republicans are just "mean" because they wish for illegal aliens to be denied Earned Income Tax Credit (welfare on the federal tax form) and/or Social Security benefits. Democrats, of course, are generous in doling out government hand-outs and eager to usher in voting privileges because, frankly, the majority of Latino immigrants would support Democrats (even though the values of Mexicans more align with the pro-life, pro-family conservative values of the GOP.)

Few in Congress talk about how the U.S. could strength Mexico's economy so that its citizens prosper in their economy and not seek out ours in wanton disregard for our laws.

Carter's was the last visit of a sitting president to Modesto, which if located in the Midwest would have major city status with its 202,751 population (but is off the radar screen being next to San Francisco). Stanislaus County rarely attracts the interest of a president or a presidential candidate (the last being Bob Dole in 1994). When former Rep. Dennis Cardoza invited Obama more than once to visit the Modesto area to see the effects of the foreclosure crisis, the White House couldn't find the time, even when Obama was in San Francisco collecting big money at black ties.

It would be nice, for a change, to have a leader give a damn about an important part of California. We are rarely visited by our U.S. senators or governor. Our region feeds the world, after all, and is an economic engine of great importance.

But honestly, what I'd like to see even more are leaders who had the courage to do what they were sworn to do: preserve, protect and defend the Constitution" and with it all American laws.

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