Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Carterism" in Retrospect - It is axiomatic that those who are least satisfied with the judgements of history are most likely to attempt to revise history itself. Such is the unsaid but self-evident motivation for this weekend's "CarterFest." The University of Georgia-sponsored event, entitled "The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century," uses the 30th anniversary of the inauguration of Jimmy Carter as a perfect occasion to stand the historical record of the last three decades in front of a funhouse mirror of liberal imaginary thinking.

The conference itself went beyond mere hagiography. Indeed, it bordered on an attempt at mass brainwashing (or perhaps more to the point, whitewashing.) For his part, Mr. Carter left the same impression on the stump as he did while he was as president: rigid, inflexible and overflowing with certitude of the correctness of his views. Add to that a helping of post-presidency anger at government officials within and outside the party, and one has a fair representation of the tenor of the event.

In his ex-Oval Office exile, Mr. Carter continues his quest to be the statesman that he never was while in office. As noted elsewhere, this explains much of his behavior as of late. As I listened to Mr. Carter, I ultimately felt sorry for him, as he seemed confused about the nature of current events (and how his tenure as president laid the foundation of much of what besets the nation presently.)

In a pitiful display of adolescent petulance, Carter complained that he did not receiving foreign policy briefings by the staffs of his successors. He later lashed out at Sen. Ted Kennedy for sabotaging his efforts to instate a national Catastrophic Health Care plan. (I am struck by the delicious irony that it is as much out of character for me to applaud the action of Sen. Kennedy as it is for him to work against any sort of nationalized health care scheme.)

All this effort is all the more a strain to credulity in that there are living witnesses (my own vanity will barely allow me to confess that I am among that number) to the history of those benighted times. Even as a boy, I could sense the frustrated impotence that all Americans felt as the staff of U.S. Embassy in Iran was held hostage for 444 days. Following that era's OPEC-manufactured "oil crisis," I remember my father only being able to gas up his land yacht on certain days of the week, as the Carter administration implemented a gasoline rationing system that required drivers to fill their vehicles on "odd" or "even" days based upon the last number of their licence plates. I certainly recall my parents watching prices rise inexorably, with wages not nearly keeping up. (To Mr. Carter's credit, there was little of today's concern about rising income "inequity" as everyone suffered equally under his regime.)

To be sure, this is not the first time that a Democratic president has felt the need to spin his record for posterity's sake; Bill Clinton beat Carter to the punch in doing a "buff and wax" on his reputation, and he seems to have been going non-stop in that vein ever since.
But one wonders how the most recently departed former chief executives - particularly the media-maligned Presidents Reagan, Ford and Nixon - got on with their lives without such a blatant effort to manage their legacies.

It is my sense that two things are at work. First, despite each of the three making significant missteps during their presidencies, most historians will concede - even in the case of Nixon - that these men did more good for America than harm. But just as important, in their heart of hearts, most Americans would agree that each of these men was decent. These were not petty men of infinitesimal motivations. They genuinely liked and trusted the American people, and were not of the opinion that the United States was a malignancy in the world, but rather a force for its betterment.

As this season's slate of Democratic presidential contenders sets up in the runner's blocks for next year's race, each would be well served to remember that while voters ask for many things from a candidate they only seek one thing from a president. Namely, that their best interest be taken into account by those who would lead them. This surely cannot be done in a spirit of post-presidential legacy-gazing.

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