Too little made of Carter's presidency, too much made of his ventures today

Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2002

No one can quite explain the riddle of Jimmy Carter. And those who chronicle history seem to be as confused as those of us who have witnessed Carter's rise to the presidency, his subsequent defeat by Ronald Reagan, and his later resurrection as "America's greatest former president."

It is no secret that insiders in the Bush administration viewed Carter's visit this week to Cuba with extreme dissatisfaction. The administration made that clear when, just days before Carter's visit, the White House suggested that Cuba and its dictator, Fidel Castro, were secretly researching and perhaps stockpiling biological weapons.

The oddity of it all is that Carter's legacy since leaving the White House has been as overblown as has been the frequent denigration of his presidency, and the many strange circumstances that accompanied those days in the limelight. Let's revisit the days of Jimmy Carter as president.

First, we should remember that the 1970s were, for the most part, an economic disaster for our nation. President Richard Nixon had to impose wage and price controls, President Gerald Ford had to create his silly "Whip Inflation Now" buttons to somehow convince Americans that prices weren't spiraling out of control, and Jimmy Carter ran headlong into a combination of OPEC resolve and international instability not of his making.

Second, it would be wise to remember that Carter, who was viewed as a true Washington "outsider," actually had many domestic and foreign policy successes as president. For all of us who argued the U.S. should have a "free-market economy," Carter engaged in heavy deregulation. For those who wanted deft diplomacy, there were the Camp David Accords, which brought peace between Israel and Egypt. And unlike with many presidents, no one believes Carter ever personally profited from his service or that he had anything but the highest personal integrity.

Finally, let's recognize that although the one event that really sealed his re-election fate -- the Iranian hostage crisis -- may have made America appear weak and helpless, the tireless work of Carter and his staff managed to set the stage for something that rarely ever happens -- the safe return of those in captivity.

Carter's biggest problem was poor timing. Witness the fact that he lost his re-election bid to the man who would later be widely viewed as one of the greatest presidents in our nation's history, Ronald Reagan. Sure, Carter was more "butter than guns," but the alleged damage done to our military was as much a knee-jerk, post-Vietnam reaction by almost all members of Congress as it was poor policy by Carter.

This brings us to the present. As much as the good side of the Carter presidency has been given too little attention, his post-presidency efforts have received too much. There's an old saying in politics: "When you're in office, you're in, but when you're out, you're gone."

That's why it is so perplexing to witness administration after administration expressing consternation over some foreign visit by former president Carter. So he visits some remote location to monitor its national election, or tries to bring order out of chaos to some remote nation for whom chaos will always reign. Who cares?

Jimmy Carter is a private citizen. He has a right to make brilliant and stupid comments, just like every other American. And his visit to Cuba will neither end Castro's control nor undermine America's legitimate elected officials in their efforts to protect our nation from the aging dictator's endless shenanigans.

If anything, the details of Carter's trip were symbolic of the irony of the situation. He arrived in Cuba walking down a "dusty red carpet" and riding in limousines manufactured when he was still president. The whole scene was like some time-warped, made-for-television re-enactment of "what might have been" some 25 years ago.

But for Carter to take heat for this visit is absurd. He simply is not an essential part of modern-day geopolitics. And everyone on the "inside" of the international community knows it.

What he is, however, is an essential part of the history of the American presidency. Perhaps it's time to reassess his four years and give a little more credit to Jimmy Carter. Even for Carter it must grow old to hear people say, "He was a greater former president than he was president."

There was a time when Jimmy Carter was very relevant. It was 1977 to 1981. And he met that test with greater ability and dignity than most want to afford him.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

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