COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA. — SEVEN YEARS AGO, I attended the inaugural symposium of the Carter Presidential Center of Emory University in Atlanta. It was called ''A Middle East Consultation,'' a mundane title that in no way captured the vigorous, illuminating dialogue that it spurred between various diplomats, academics and other pooh-bahs from this country and abroad.
The very fact that the affair was co-chaired by two former living presidents -- Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford -- gave it a certain uniqueness and stature that set it apart from the run-of-the-mill, think-tank colloquies where pedagogues and pundits regularly suck their thumbs and furrow their brows over global agendas.
Now, as then, I am reminded of the useful, insightful -- but generally limited -- roles that are played by our presidents once they have left office. The thought returned the other day with the election of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Florence Pendleton as the District of Columbia's two ''shadow senators.''
Their status as non-voting delegates is unclear at this time. What privileges, floor and otherwise, are to be accorded them will be worked out with the Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell, D-Maine. While he is about it, Senator Mitchell should use his clout to push enabling legislation designating former presidents as free members of Congress.
After leaving the White House 37 years ago, Harry S. Truman lobbied for allowing former chief executives to sit on the floor of both the House and Senate as non-voting members and take part in debate, subject, of course, to the parliamentary procedures in each body.
''One of the first things I thought about after returning to my home in Independence (Mo.) was how the unique experience and special knowledge that a former president acquires could be put to some use to serve the country . . . '' wrote Truman in ''Mr. Citizen.''
Noting the reluctance of presidents to counsel with their predecessors, especially when they are members of a different political party, Truman said permitting former presidents access to the floor of Congress ''would not only utilize men of talent and experience who could render valued public service but would also cushion the shock when an abrupt change in administration takes place.''
During his presidency, Truman, a Democrat, twice called on former President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, to spearhead important projects. At Truman's request, Hoover organized an international program to get food to those starving in depressed regions of the world. Later, the Hoover Commission helped streamline the executive departments and new agencies that had been created to meet the various needs of World War II. ''Only a man of Hoover's talents, with the very important experience he had as president, could have achieved so difficult a task with such marked results,'' Truman wrote.
John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, represented Massachusetts in Congress and William Howard Taft, the 27th, served as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Our other chief executives have generally retired from public life after leaving the White House.
Currently, there are four living presidents: Ford, Carter, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. All have written memoirs and spoken out from time to time on the weighty issues of the moment. Unsurprisingly, President Bush regularly consults with fellow Republicans Reagan, Nixon and Ford.
Democrat Carter has been the most visible and active. Since leaving office in defeat in 1981, he has established the Carter Presidential Center and acted as negotiator and peacemaker in such diverse regions as Ethiopia, Latin America and the Middle East. He has drawn attention to the need for housing for the poor in the United States by donning dungarees, taking work tools in hand and helping with renovations. When Mr. Carter received the 1990 Philadelphia Liberty Medal, he was cited for ''his exemplary use of the post-presidential period.'' Last year, Time magazine said he ''may be the best former president America has ever had.''
I'm sure Jesse Jackson and his ''shadow'' colleague from Washington will provide their own distinctive know-how and sparkle to Senate deliberations. But could their input possibly match the collective wisdom of Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan? I think not.