Jimmy Carter may not be our greatest living President, but he has certainly conducted his post-Presidential years the most admirably.
Unfortunately, the same qualities which make him so honorable now -- his decency, his almost Puritanical rectitude, perhaps his lack of alpha male drive for dominance -- made him pretty much a failure as a President. But Carter is an example of how Presidents should conduct themselves after leaving the White House.
Carter never had that arm-twisting ability, perhaps best personified by LBJ, which would have allowed him to bend Congress to his will. He simply had neither the instincts nor the ability to intimidate and bully. He also never stooped to making himself beholden to various interest groups in order to get their support. So all he could do was lead by example, never a very effective mode of leadership.
He also had the misfortune to preside during an oil crisis and a period of stagflation. Every President gets either too much credit or blame for the economy, which seems to have a life -- and a mind -- of its own. In Carter's case, what he got was blame.
Carter's essential decency might be best illustrated by that 1976 Playboy interview in which he confessed to having lusted in his heart for women (other than his wife), as if this were a shameful sin. (Please, name another politician -- or anyone -- who beats himself up for this.) Carter was widely mocked at the time, and his confession did seem silly. But it was also telling.
The only thing Carter has visibly lusted for since leaving office was the Nobel Peace Prize, which he finally got in 2002. He certainly hasn't lusted for wealth. He has devoted himself instead to good works, from building homes for Habitat for Humanity to monitoring elections abroad to eradicating disease in the Third World to trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. (There are still homeless and sick people, questionable elections, and an unstable Mideast, but not for lack of effort on Carter's part.)
Carter's behavior presents a very pleasing contrast to many of the other recent ex-Presidents.
Nixon was relatively dignified in his post-presidency (as opposed to his Presidency). He cashed in with a book deal and then fell from public view for a while. As time went on, Watergate faded and the public seemed to focus more on his keen intelligence (he was certainly one of our smarter Presidents) and foreign policy expertise.
Gerald Ford was the first to turn the ex-Presidency into a business, serving on up to eight corporate boards at a time. It was said that when he was asked for favors by people who had done him favors early in his career, he refused unless they paid him.
Reagan limited his cashing in to a book deal and a well-paid speech in Japan, but he also developed Alzheimer's soon after leaving office, so he didn't have time to fully exploit his financial opportunities. He certainly hadn't shown any aversion to commercial pitchdom while an actor.
Bush the Elder got the usual book deal, then joined the Carlyle Group, one of those semi-shady finance operations which hires ex-politicians partly for their connections and partly for their prestige. But he at least has had the decency to mostly stay out of the limelight.
Bill Clinton outdid even Ford in his desire for money, selling himself to anybody who would pay, continuing a tradition he had established early in his career (with Stephens and Tyson Chicken). Worse, he seems to have decided that his circle of friends be pretty much restricted to billionaires.
Bush the Younger hasn't been out of office long enough to establish a track record, but one senses that demand for his services will, by Presidential standards, be minimal. (Is he capable of writing a book?) Anyway, he was enough of a whore for business interests during his Presidency.
Throughout it all, Jimmy Carter has been a shining example of decency and honesty and dignity. It's almost enough to restore your faith in politicians.
Not quite, but almost.