Jimmy Carter rose above his presidential mediocrity

The Argument

A truly satisfying and balanced biography of the whole man must await accomplishments yet to come

Books

January 05, 2003|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | By Joseph R.L. Sterne,Special to the Sun

How does one reconcile Jimmy Carter's mediocre presidency with his undoubted success as an ex-president? A sampling of the growing Carter bookshelf shows that this is a persistent conundrum for scholars and scribblers trying to figure out the 39th president.

His supporters rail against the judgment of voters who retired him from office in 1980 after one very troubled term. They insist his presidency was not a failure though they do not claim greatness. His detractors insist that Carter got what he deserved by trying to convert the presidency into an isolated aerie from which he issued pious wisdom for the edification of ordinary folk and the political establishment.

Yet most authors give him high marks for his accomplishments since leaving Washington -- accomplishments that culminated in his capture of the latest Nobel Peace Prize after a quarter-century pursuit. He now is confirmed as the world's No. 1 do-gooder, free-lance diplomatic mediator, global election monitor of choice and Habitat for Humanity carpenter-in-chief.

Perhaps Carter's hubris is a good place to begin to consider the Carter dichotomy. William B. Quandt, a Brookings scholar speaking at a Carter symposium, attributes the president's problems to his "almost total belief that if he made the right decision -- through diligent study, hard work, sincere application, looking at the globe, putting himself in the shoes of other persons -- people would support it because it was right."

A Carter biographer, Betty Glad, told the same conference that Carter is "a proud man, very certain of his moral and intellectual superiority ... [who] aimed high, in part, because he saw himself as destined to accomplish great and difficult goals."

Burton I. Kaufman, author of The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr., a 1993 biography published by the University Press of Kansas, said the president believed he had "wisdom superior to the collective wisdom of Congress" and thus "disregarded the pluralistic nature of American society."

"The president buried himself in an endless flow of paper, distancing himself from his own staff and curtailing his time for thought and reflection." The result? "An image ... of a presidency that was increasingly divided, lacking in leadership, ineffective in dealing with Congress, incapable of defending America's honor abroad and uncertain about its purpose and priorities," wrote Kaufman.

Garland A. Haas, in his 1992 book, Jimmy Carter and the Politics of Frustration, (McFarland & Co.), said Carter ignored Democratic Party interest groups, subordinated Congressional opinion to hold out for the "right" solution, drained the presidency of its majesty and fought with the media -- all to his own detriment.

However, many of the characteristics that troubled Carter as president served him well as a post-president in charge of the highly active Carter Center in Atlanta. "While in office, Carter projected the image of being constrained by events beyond his control," wrote Mark Rozell in his article "Carter Rehabilitated: What Caused the 39th President's Press Transformation?," an attack on contemporaneous media treatment of his presidency. "As a private citizen he has the luxury to pick and choose the issues he cares about most." Leveraging the majesty of the office he once held, he could gain access to dictators and tyrants and use his belief in redemption and morality to tamp potentially explosive conflicts.

In Jimmy Carter, a Comprehensive Biography (Scribner, 1997), Peter G. Bourne, an aide in the Carter White House, cites his subject's encounters with such bogeymen as Syria's Hafez Assad, Panama's Manuel Noriega, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and North Korea's Kim Il Sung as examples of "Carter's Christian belief in the power of moral persuasion."

"What Carter really wanted was to find some way to continue the undertakings of his presidency," wrote Douglas Brinkley in his 1998 Viking book, The Unfinished Presidency. "No matter what the American press said, most nations revered Jimmy Carter as the most trustworthy American politician alive . . . Nothing about the White House so became Carter as his having left it."

From the composite of portraits on the Carter bookshelf, one pattern that emerges is the continuity between the president and the post-president on foreign policy issues. If he had any real success in the Oval Office, it was in pursuit of conflict resolution between the United States and Panama (the Panama Canal Treaties), between Israel and Egypt (the Camp David Accords) and between the superpowers (recognition of China, Salt II pacts with the Soviet Union.) Though the Iran hostage crisis undercut his chances for re-election, he avoided war despite immense provocation. Since the mid-1980s, he has mediated at least a dozen Third World conflicts.

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