2012: Haiti experience helps provide context

I have 10 minutes with President and Mrs. Carter.

We spend eight on their relationship, the rest on what I need for my story: the election and the Middle East. Their longtime advisor tells me President Carter sticks to time limits because he doesn’t like interviews much. They take away from work time — in this case, building houses in Haiti’s 90-degree weather. The president and Mrs. Carter are in their late 80s, but manage the heat as well as the rest of us, if not better.

The longtime advisor also said the president is known to just stand up when time’s up and leave interviews without much warning in order to get back on the build site. I was warned.

My first question: why they’ve done the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project for so long. Was it one of those special things they did together?

Mrs. Carter says, “We go birding together, we learned to ski together, I was 59, he was 62 … we do almost everything together.” She adds that she learned how to play tennis with him some 30 years ago. “We have special rules that were developed by Dr. Brzezinski that give both ends on my side of the court the doubles,” the president noted. Mrs. Carter’s side would get singles lines.

“I’ve never played [tennis] with anybody else,” Mrs. Carter points out. The president clears his throat, his eyes well, “We’ve had 66 and half years together … we’re still learning and we’re still accommodating each other every day.”

Who wins more often? “We often come out to tiebreakers,” President Carter says with a twinkle in his eye, hinting the high school tennis champ may have let her win a couple here and there. Three decades and Mrs. Carter has never played tennis when President Carter wasn’t by her side.

The interview goes long five minutes, yet Mrs. Carter lingers to share a bit more as the president quickly returns to the work site. It is my first Work Project. It is the Carters’ 29th.

Earlier in 2012, I traveled on a Global Village project to Al Mokhabeh Al Tahta, a city at the apex of Jordan, Syria and Israel, at the foot of the Golan Heights. We were welcomed every day into local homes for chicken and rice, learned broken Arabic, and closed each day the way we started it, with the unfamiliar but comforting resonance of prayers filling small town streets.

My first Global Village project was in Ghana. Bodaa had under a thousand people. We lived in locals’ homes. It was a small village, but residents lived large lives: welcoming, embracive, loving. We went to church with families, their sugar cane farms, and soccer games. We made long-term friends we may never see again but remember well.

These Habitat projects keep me sober; they remind me of who I am. They give me context. I get to work hard to help others achieve something I take for granted: affordable housing.

They also help me learn more about me. Ghana because it was a major slave port to the U.S., and as an American, slavery is my history. The Middle East because of geopolitical and domestic Muslim misunderstandings. Haiti, a fellow earthquake-stricken land (I’m a native San Franciscan). I grew up in the American melting pot. These Habitat experiences, my conversation with the Carters included, help me understand what that means.

Richard Lui, MSNBC dayside and NBC News Early Today show news anchor