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Friday, January 30, 2009

Our greatest ex-President

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.


Jonathan Leaf said...


Sometimes I agree with your opinions, and sometimes I disagree. But rarely have I disagreed so strongly as with this column.
When Reagan was President, Carter went to Nicaragua, criticized Reagan and posed for pictures with Daniel Ortega. This was a clear break with the tradition of bipartisan foreign policy. It was also shameful in as much as Ortega was a would-be dictator and a known child molestor.
When Clinton became President, Carter betrayed Clinton in negotiations with North Korea by revealing the U.S. fallback position in our talks with them over their nuclear program.
Most recently, Carter has been defending terrorists and parroting the political stances of anti-semitic America-haters.
Carter is not one of our best ex-Presidents. He's just our most publicity-seeking and our most self-righteous.
Jonathan Leaf

John Craig said...

Most of you who read these comments don't know Jon Leaf, but he is pretty much the smartest guy I know. (No offense to the rest of you, and I'm guessing you wouldn't be offended if you knew him.) Given which, I shouldn't even be attempting to argue with him, but here goes anyway.

Jon -- When I say Carter is our most noble President, a large part of that is that he has never tried to turn the Presidency into a money-making operation. Whether you agree with his politics or not, I think you have to acknowledge that. As far as Ortega goes, you're right; I had forgotten about that episode. And I hadn't even known about the North Korea incident. As far as his stance towards Israel goes, he is the one who brought Begin and Sadat together at Camp David in 1978, meaning, he started out as an well-intentioned broker, and it's his honest opinion that it's the Israelis who have been standing in the way of peace since. A lot of Jewish people objected to the title of his book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," but from what I can see, apartheid is not an inaccurate word to describe the way things are run over there. And Carter's other stuff (habitat for Humanity, eradicating third world disease) is hard to argue with. Is he publicity-seeking and self-righteous? Yeah, I guess. And his world view is namby pamby liberal. But in terms of his character, he strikes me overall as a very decent guy, by Presidential standards.