Monday, August 24, 2015

The Unfinished Presidency




Some years back, I read Douglas Brinkley's biography of Jimmy Carter's administration, entitled The Unfinished Presidency.  Carter echoed this sentiment at a press conference last week announcing that he had cancer.   He noted that his biggest regret was not sending in a stronger detachment to free the American hostages in Tehran.  He felt a successful rescue operation would have saved his presidency.

The hostage crisis did weigh down his presidency, but it is hard to say if he would have survived a re-election bid with a faltering economy that left so many persons unemployed and inflation that was through the roof.  Together, they became the "misery index," which Reagan exploited during the 1980 campaign, portraying Carter's administration as a complete failure.  Of course, Carter couldn't be held fully to blame for the woeful economy, as he inherited a mess from the previous Nixon-Ford administration, but it seems Democratic presidents can only be held accountable for past economic sins.

To Carter's credit, he didn't leave the White House in shame, but held his head high and devoted himself body and spirit to Habitat for Humanity and The Carter Center. Whereas most presidents build libraries as memorials to themselves, Jimmy Carter created a Center with goals far grander than his own personal legacy, and he did it on a fraction of a budget than we see spent today for these lavish presidential shrines.  He has unquestionably done more to help lift people out of poverty and eradicate virulent diseases than any other former president has done.

You would have to devote several volumes to the work Carter has done since he left the White House, as he has been a very active man, devoting his energy to stalled peace agreements, whether invited to do so or not.  He frustrated Presidents with his behind the scenes negotiations, whether in Palestine or North Korea.  He particularly angered the H.W. Bush administration with his "meddling" in the Persian Gulf region in an attempt to avert war in 1991.  Many criticized Carter for his "shadow foreign diplomacy," which Brent Sowcroft felt violated the Logan Act.

However, Carter's greatest concern has been alleviating the misery in Africa and other under-developed regions of the world brought upon by guinea worm and other virulent pests that are virtually unheard of in the West.  He joked at his press conference that he would like to see the last guinea worm eradicated before he goes, a goal that is on the very near horizon.

Jimmy Carter is a man of deep faith, but unlike the Republicans we see running for president today, he believes that religion and politics don't mix, and strongly supports a separation between church and state.  He has been very critical of the increased role the Southern Baptist Convention has had in politics and split with the Convention over the matter, stating,

When our denominational leaders or any denominational leaders, Jewish or Catholic or Protestant, try to align our religious organizations with government and use the government's strength and power and influence and money to further our own faith, to me that subverts not only Christ's teachings but also the Constitution of the United States.

Even if Carter tried to separate church and state as president, he brought to the Oval Office the same evangelical zeal to create a foreign policy based on human rights.  He stumbled a bit on the war in Afghanistan, supporting the Jihadists in their battle with the Soviet Union, when he definitely would have been better advised not to do so.  However, what most persons bitterly remember was his decision to not send an American Olympic Team to Moscow in 1980.

In recent years, he has also been scolded for his position on Palestine, believing that Israel has essentially created an apartheid state.  His book on the subject was largely panned for his perceived naivety, or what Ethan Bronner described as a "Rip van Winkle feel to it."  But, Carter was not wrong in stating that the wall did more to stymie peace talks between Israel and Palestine and the negotiation of a two-state solution, which had eluded the previous Clinton administration.

It is hard to say whether the freeing of the American hostages in Iran would have won Carter a second term, but it is clear that he has been more successful is pushing his agenda as an ex-president than he ever was as president.  Carter had ruffled a lot of feathers within his own party, notably Ted Kennedy, who ran against him in the primaries in 1980, and extended a weak handshake when Carter secured the nomination.  He was subsequently crushed in the general election, the biggest electoral loss for an incumbent president.

At 90, Jimmy Carter has much to be proud of.  His presidential legacy is felt today in Obama's return to the former president's energy policy, even to the point of re-installing the solar panels on the White House roof, which Reagan had removed when he came to office.  How many years Former President Carter has left in him remains to be seen, but his legacy will be felt for decades to come.  He has every right to hold his head up high, as he sees many of his long-deferred initiatives finally come to pass.


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