What to make of Jimmy Carter?

     In this photo provided by CBS, former President Jimmy Carter, left, talks with David Letterman on

    In this photo provided by CBS, former President Jimmy Carter, left, talks with David Letterman on "Late Show with David Letterman," Monday March 24, 2014. Carter said during the broadcast that the Crimean annexation was "inevitable" because Russia considers it to be part of their country and so many Crimeans consider themselves Russian. But he says Russian President Vladimir Putin shouldn't be permitted to go any further. (CBS, Jeffrey R. Staab/AP Photo)

    Regardless of how we feel about Jimmy Carter – as president, his political skills were less than stellar – we can surely unite to praise his stamina.

    The guy is pushing 90, yet he has gigged lately with David Letterman, Charlie Rose, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Piers Morgan, and Joe Scarborough, he taped an interview for Meet the Press, he attended the debut of a play dramatizing his Camp David Accords, and out in Oregon he signed 1,600 copies of his new book (his 28th) in two hours.

    Andrea Mitchell probably slobbered the most (“I wanna ask you about foreign policy given all of your expertise…What is the secret, the magic of Jimmy Carter?”), but all his hosts respectfully indulged his victory lap. It’s the victory of aging well – mentally sharp, physically fit, and morally committed.

    But just because Carter is a great ex-president, and impressing us anew with his moral verve (as evidenced by his current crusade against the worldwide abuse of women), that doesn’t mean we’ll start waxing nostalgic for his stint as president.

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    Perhaps at some point he’ll get rehabilitated like Harry Truman – today Truman is highly rated; in his own day, the national joke was “To err is Truman” – but it won’t happen any time soon. Memories of the late ’70s are still too raw: Double-digit inflation, high unemployment, oil shocks, gasoline lines, the so-called “malaise speech,” the Iranian hostages, and, as American Hustle reminds us, very bad clothes.

    Back then, people called him a wimp, columnists called him “Wee Jimmy,” cartoonists depicted him as a cowlicked boy perched on an oversized chair, and on re-election night in 1980 he became the first incumbent Democrat since Martin Van Buren in 1840 to lose the popular vote and electoral vote. Heck, Carter was the only incumbent Democrat to lose a re-election race in the entire 20th century – and to this day, Republicans invoke his name as a punch line. (As in, “Obama is gonna to lose his re-election, he’s another Jimmy Carter.” Although that mantra didn’t work out too well.)

    It’s great that Carter has lately been so ubiquitous, but whenever I see him, I remember what it was like to live through his tenure. Carter was often quite good on policy – he was green before it was cool, talking up energy conservation when nobody wanted to hear it; he was the first president to invoke “human rights” as a foreign relations priority; he gave the Panama Canal back to Panama, and took the heat for it; he pardoned the men who had refused to become grist for the Vietnam meat grinder – but he had a very fatal flaw. He was awful at politics.

    A foe of backroom deal-making, he had a terrible relationship with his Democratic Congress. A University of Virginia presidential study says, “Carter did not like to bargain and appeared arrogant and aloof” – and morally superior. He denounced the Democrats’ traditional pork-barrel bills as corrupt, and in return they sandbagged the stuff that he wanted (consumer protection reform, labor reform). Democrats on the Hill didn’t like it much when he referred to many of them as “a pack of ravenous wolves.”

    The shorthand on Carter is that his fatal poll plunge occurred during the year-long standoff with Iran over the fate of the hostages. But his slide actually accelerated earlier, in the summer of ’79, when he delivered what’s now known as his “malaise speech.” He never actually used the word “malaise,” but his message was a synonym. He said that America was in crisis because its people were morally and spiritually deficient.

    Talk about having a tin ear for politics.

    A president who blames his woes on the citizenry is not likely to be applauded by the citizenry. A president who preaches condescendingly about the evils of materialism – “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning…piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose” – isn’t going to make any friends. People didn’t appreciate being told that their lives were meaningless and empty of purpose.

    Six years after Carter was ousted, I asked him about his presidency. He was in New York, touring for one of his books, and he sat with me for an hour (Secret Service guys in the adjoining room). He was 61 at the time, and he had piercing blue eyes, the color captured in a menthol cough drop. I specifically asked, isn’t it important for a president to be good at politics? Did he regret that he wasn’t better at bargaining, selling, and communicating his policies?

    I still have the notes. He replied, “It just wasn’t part of my nature….My major goal was not get re-elected. That simply was not my major purpose in life. It’s just a fact.”

    I questioned that “fact.” I suggested – diplomatically – that he surely wanted to get re-elected, just like any other competitive president.

    He shrugged. He said that he had wanted the voters to judge him solely on the basis of his “moral and ethical” decision making.

    I suggested – diplomatically – that presidents need to be good at politics, at salesmanship, if they hope to be successful.

    He replied, “It just wasn’t in my nature. It was in my nature to exclude, from my responsibilities, those things (like politics) that didn’t directly require my involvement. Those things were just not part of my life. If I was ever (president) again, which I don’t intend to be, I woudn’t be any different. Whether that’s pride or dedication or foolishness, I don’t really know. It’s just the way I’ve always been.” As for his place in history, “I’m willing to let the chips fall where they may.”

    That was 28 years ago, but Carter is still vital today without the requisite presidential rehab. Perhaps he knows what’s really important in life.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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