Jimmy Carter still wants your vote Ex-leader campigns for esteem of voters who rejected him

November 30, 1997|By ALBERT EISELE

JIMMY CARTER must have felt a special kinship with George Bush that goes beyond their intertwined political fortunes when he attended the recent dedication of the $83 million George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. Just two weeks earlier, Carter had announced a $150 million fund drive for his own presidential library and museum, a sprawling, multimillion-dollar, ultramodern complex near downtown Atlanta.

In sharp contrast to the raw revelations in recent weeks of alleged ethical and moral transgressions by President Bill Clinton and three of his predecessors in the White House - Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy - the shortcomings that helped send the last Democratic and last Republican presidents into retirement pale into insignificance.

Indeed, Carter's admission, in a famous 1976 Playboy magazine interview in which he confessed to committing adultery in his heart, seems disarmingly innocent 21 years later, when Clinton might have to prove in court that there are no distinguishing characteristics on his genitals, and the reputations of Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy are being trashed in new accounts of secret White House tape recordings and investigative reporting.

Such mini-scandals during the Carter years as Billygate and Bert Lance are easy to overlook alongside Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Vince Foster, Jennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Dick Morris and now the selling of the White House to campaign fat cats, not to mention Nixon's illegal actions, Johnson's prevaricating on Vietnam and Kennedy's sexual escapades. As a result, the standard by which we measure presidential character has progressed or regressed within the span of a generation from prudish to prurient.

Not surprisingly, selective amnesia and nostalgic revisionism were the order of the day when more than 700 former officials, campaign workers and Peanut Brigade volunteers gathered to help Carter, now a vigorous 75, celebrate the 20th anniversary of his administration in Atlanta last month. There was much reminiscing about the good things that happened after the former Georgia governor and peanut farmer stunned the experts by winning the Democratic nomination and defeating President Gerald Ford in 1976, and before his bid for re-election was flattened by the Ronald Reagan juggernaut in 1980.

Dismissing the widely held notion that Carter's was a failed presidency - the proof was his failure to get re-elected - he and his defenders pointed to such successes as brokering the historic Camp David Accords, making human rights an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, signing the SALT II treaty, normalizing relations with the People's Republic of China, and cutting government spending and the size of government.

But Carter's crushing defeat by Reagan, which left him and his wife in a funk for more than a year, is ancient history. The 39th president is involved in a broad range of humanitarian programs at home and abroad. These include the well-known Habitat for Humanity Housing initiative; international conflict resolution in such hot spots as Haiti, Nicaragua, North Korea, the Middle East and Bosnia; and eradicating river blindness and guinea worm disease in Africa. Also, Rosalynn Carter has promoted a program to educate Americans about mental illness and emotional disorders.

Self-confident and competitive as always, Carter has, in effect, awarded himself a second term. Best of all, he doesn't have to worry about term limits or re-election campaigns but only about raising enough money to finance the ambitious agenda being carried out under the aegis of the Carter Center, which spent $37.5 million in the year ended Aug. 31, 1996, and had net assets of $117 million.

Since the Carter Center was founded in 1982, Carter has raised an enormous amount of money - probably more than $200 million - from corporations, foundations, individuals and foreign governments.

Many of the corporate donors are Atlanta-based giants such as Coca-Cola, whose CEO, Robert Gozieuta, died the weekend of the Carter-Mondale reunion. Carter hopes his ambitious agenda will rehabilitate his reputation and achieve the goals he hoped to achieve in the second term that was denied him.

"The Carter Center is an extension of what we did in the White House," Carter told the Atlanta Constitution during the reunion. "The things we couldn't get accomplished because I only had one term, the things that have evolved since then because of the passage of history - peace, human rights, democracy, freedom, environmental quality and alleviation of human suffering. . . . Had I not been president, had Rosalynn not been first lady, none of this would have been possible."

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