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Wednesday, 14 November 2007 00:00

Carter through the eyes of a friend

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Prophet From Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy by Frye Gaillard. University of Georgia Press, 2007. 144 pages

In the prologue to Prophet From Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy (University of Georgia Press, 2007), Frye Gaillard writes that his book “is not a presidential biography but an extended profile, one writer’s understanding of this complicated man, based on encounters off and on for twenty years.” In these words he sums up both the strengths and flaws of Prophet From Plains, and unintentionally issues the reader a caveat regarding his own admiration for the former president.

That Carter has performed admirable deeds in the public arena since his failed one-term presidency is beyond doubt. Most notably, he has done a yeoman’s job working for Habitat For Humanity, swinging a hammer on worksites across the country, extolling the virtues of home ownership, and helping by his influence to expand this unique program. Since leaving the White House, Carter has also spoken out for peace in troubled areas of the world ranging from Nicaragua to North Korea, from Bosnia to the Middle East. He has written more than 20 books, some of which offer noteworthy insights into the moral and religious issues of our time. He has promoted environmental causes, particularly those surrounding our national parks, and has spoken out around the world on the importance of human rights. He has lived out his Christian faith, distributing Bibles when he builds houses, teaching Sunday school in his church, and applying his religious beliefs to his works.

In all of these various endeavors, many including some of his former political critics have hailed Jimmy Carter as a success. And in such endeavors Carter does indeed shine, for here he can cut his own path, follow his own ideas, promote his own ideals, and compose his own agenda regarding right and wrong, justice and injustice.

He succeeds, in short, as a sort of secular Mother Teresa.

Where he failed was as president of the United States. By the time Carter entered the last year of his presidency, the consensus among a majority of Americans, including many of those who voted for him, was that “Jimmy Carter is a good man, but he shouldn’t be president.” With the exception of the peace accords between Egypt and Israel that were largely the work of his administration, Carter failed as president both to inspire and to lead the American people. He came to Washington an outsider and left an outsider, and whatever virtue may attach itself to that lonely condition, a president who disdains politics and compromise, as Jimmy Carter frequently did, usually dooms himself to failure.

Though Gaillard offers excuse after excuse for Carter’s failures as our chief executive, hinting that Carter’s high standards of morality crippled him as a politician (or quoting from various historians and political commentators who proclaim without much evidence that Carter will one day be regarded as one of our presidential greats), Gaillard himself seems unable to avoid the conclusion that Carter failed as president. He writes that Carter “never quite managed to translate his vision, to communicate in the symbols of the television age and explain himself to 230 million Americans.”

Gaillard is Jimmy Carter’s friend, has written a book on Habitat for Humanity, and is in this present volume published by the University of Georgia Press. Other historians less biased than Gaillard might respond that the American people understood all too well Carter’s message and were having none of it. They showed their displeasure by making Carter the first elected president since Herbert Hoover to fail to win a second term in office. Truman, though not elected to his first term in office, won re-election; Kennedy was assassinated; Ford, who became Carter‘s friend after losing a close election to him, was never elected president.

In addition to his failure to win re-election, Jimmy Carter bears a strange similarity to Herbert Hoover in other areas of his life as well. Like Carter, Hoover had a penchant and a talent for humanitarian causes. Before and after his disastrous presidency, Hoover was admired for his efforts to get food to the poor and hungry overseas, and for his abilities to speak out for those whose circumstances left them voiceless. Like Carter, Hoover was an engineer who coupled his talents for organization to his sense of principle. And like Carter, Hoover’s ideals and his sense of justice were often more evident than his sense of politics and political games.

The weakness in Gaillard’s argument for a strong Carter presidential legacy may be found in this passage at the end of “Chapter Five:

Perspective in Plains:

For the next generation, the pendulum of perception continued to swing between those two realities—two competing sets of truth that defined the Carter presidential legacy. And yet another piece of truth, simpler perhaps, but every bit as durable, can be found in the words of James David Barber. “When an American president leaves office,” he said, “with the Constitution more or less intact, and without a lot of dead American boys scattered around the planet, we ought to give him a medal.”

By this standard we would be giving a medal to Herbert Hoover while turning our backs on Franklin Roosevelt.

If we take into account Frye Gaillard’s hagiographic approach to his Prophet from Plains — we know from the book’s title and from the prologue that Gaillard intends to praise Carter, not to bury him — then we will find a good deal of pleasure and instruction in this sketch. It remains for someone else, however, to write any final analysis of Jimmy Carter and his legacy.

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