JIMMY CARTER


Excerpted from an essay by Hendrick Hertzberg:

Jimmy Carter is a saint.

carter center Now, by saying that, I don't mean to assert that Jimmy Carter is perfect, or that he is a total stranger to base motives, or that he is one of the elite of God's elect--though for all I know that third item, at least, may well be true.

Nor am I referring strictly to Mr. Carter's post-presidential career. It is now the conventional wisdom to say that Mr. Carter is a far better ex-President than he was a President. And in this instance the conventional wisdom has got it right. No historian would place Carter among the three or four greatest presidents of our history, and not even his most fervent admirers would place him in the top ten. But as an ex-President, he has only a tiny handful of rivals.....

Carter put his post-presidential ambitions this way in the opening sentence of his farewell address from the Oval Office. He said (and I should note that while I may have typed this line, Mr. Carter, by virtue of his character, was its true author), "In a few days I will lay down my official duties in this office, to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of President, the title of citizen." In the fourteen years he has held that title, he has brought carter centerhonor to it. He hasn't just talked about housing the homeless, he has built houses for them with his own hands and has inspired and organized others to do likewise. He hasn't just talked about comforting the afflicted, he has mounted a little known program through the Carter Center that is well on its way to eradicating Guinea worm disease, a painful, crippling parasite that has inflicted suffering on millions of Africans. He hasn't just talked about extending democracy, he has put his reputation and sometimes his very life on the line in country after country often with little or no publicity, to promote free elections and expose rigged ones. And, of course, most controversially, he hasn't just talked about peace, he has made peace, or made peace possible, by using his moral prestige and his willingness to take risks and his persistence and his patience and his stubbornness to bring hostile parties that extra little distance that sometimes makes the difference between war and not-war.....

It's useful to look at post-presidential careers, because if they can't change our judgement of a presidency they can certainly deepen our understanding of it. Away from the constrictions and exaggerations of office, undistorted by the powers he wielded and was buffeted by, a President's character and personal qualities may emerge in stronger relief once he is back in private life. We can see which of the qualities he projected as president were authentic and which were fake, which of his strengths and weaknesses were inherent in his character and which were products of chance and circumstance.......

His trip to Haiti in September 1994 is the best know example of Carter the ex-President at work. Carter's inteference--combined, of course, with President Clinton's determination to use force if necessary--turned what would have been a bloody invasion with casualites and bitterness on all sides into a peaceful and apparently quite successful occupation. Carter was roundly attacked for his efforts, and some of the attacks seemed valid on the surface. A lot of people were outraged that Carter treated Haiti's military strongman, Lieutenant Raoul Cedras, with respect and called him a man of honor. A lot of people were outraged that Cedras and his henchmen initilly were permitted to remain in Haiti and allowed to keep some of their ill-gotten financial gains. A lot of people were outraged that at one point Carter said he was ashamed of his country for the way it had treated Haiti over the years. A lot of people were outraged that Carter, in defiance of official State Department policy, allowed the puppet president of Haiti to sign the agreement, thus seeming to give legitimacy to an essentially criminal regime. And, of course, a lot of people were outraged, or maybe just baffled, that Carter kept talking about how slender and attractive Mrs. Cedras was. For those of us who still wince at the memory of Carter's notorious "lust in my heart" Playboy interview from the 1976 campaign, that detail was what made the episode true vintage Jimmy.

aristide The bottom line was: There was no bloodshed. The elected, legitimate president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was restored, the killings and human rights violations were stopped, Cedras and his pals ended up leaving the country, and Haiti now has a better chance than anyone thought possible to become a relatively normal country instead of a nightmare of death and cruelty.

Many people, including some of Carter's customary critics, understood this in the immediate aftermath of Carter's trip and were willing to give him credit. And if Carter had just come home and issued a statement saying he was glad to have been of service to President Clinton and the country and had then gone back to Georgia and kept quiet for a while, he now would be a universally recognized and celebrated hero. Clearly, this was one of those times when modesty and reticence would have been the most effective form of boasting. But he didn't do that. He went on television and talked and talked, and ended up saying some rather graceless and foolish things. The result was that he ended up reminding a lot of people of what they had never liked about him--the self-righteousness, the assumption of moral superiority--and quite thoroughly taking the shine off his triumph....

One of the most curious charges lodged against Carter after his trip to Haiti--and, even more vociferously, after his trip to the former Yugoslavia, where he tried, with little short-term success and no long-term results, to persuade the Serbs to halt the shelling of Sarajevo--was that he has some sort of compulsion to be nice to dictators. His critics recalled that as President, he toasted the Shah of Iran and the authoritarian rulers of the Philippines and South Korea, described Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, improbably, as one of his "best friends," brezhnev and, at the SALT II signing ceremony in Vienna, embraced Leonid Brezhnev and kissed the startled apparatchik on both cheeks. But these gestures spoke not to any admiration for tyrants but to a Christian eagerness to redeem sinners--and, as in the later case of Cedras and the Serbs, a not-so-Christian willingness to manipulate the emotions of his negotiating partners. In practice, Carter has always showed himself as ready to anger authoritarians as to flatter them, in pursuit of peace and human rights....

Carter's style of leadership was and is more religious than political in nature. He was and is a moral leader more than a political leader. And I think this helps explain not only some of his successes as President but also some of his failures.

Look at how he was elected in the first place. In the early and decisive days of his campaign, he spoke the language of religion and morality far more, and far more effectively, than he spoke the language of politics. He spoke openly and convincingly about his Christian faith--and he managed to do this in a way that was inclusive and tolerant. Nowadays every politician seems to feel obligated to talk about being born again, just as in decades past politicians seemed to feel obligated to have themselves photographed wearing an Indian chief's bonnet. But Carter was Christian before Christian was cool. Carter was the first and is still the only candidate for President who ever used the word "love"---in its specifically religious and Christian sense--in virtually every campaign speech he delivered.....

Though Carter didn't have a political ideology, he did have what I would call a moral ideology--and on this he was faultless. He knew the difference between right and wrong. This may sound like faint praise--after all, doesn't everybody know the difference between right and wrong?--but it isn't. It is very high praise.....

Carter's moral ideology--his ability to tell right from wrong--would have made him a great President for a time of moral crisis. If the overriding problem facing America in the late seventies had been racial segregation, for instance, or the Vietnam War, Carter would have known how to rise to the occasion because he knew how to do what was right--even when the political cost was high.

Carter was elected in the backwash of a moral crisis, but the biggest problems he faced as President, especially in the domestic arena, were not primarily moral problems. They were primarily managerial, technical problems, involving tremendous vested interests and offering few political rewards. There was no right or wrong way to solve these problems; just effective ways and ineffective ways...

In foreign policy, Carter's moral ideology was a clearer guide to action. He could pursue his vision relatively unhampered by the built-in frustrations and roadblocks that hobble our political system in the domestic arena...

Carter believed in peace--in preventing war--and in human rights. These two values were the lodestars by which he guided his conduct of foreign affairs. And again, these values were expressions of his sense of religious and moral duty.

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