The position of former President has always been a revered and exalted one in the United States, ever since George Washington did his Cincinnatus impression and retired to his… well, sort of like a farm. Later Presidents wrote good books (like Grant and Coolidge) or bad books (like Clinton) and did good works (like Nixon) or bad works (like Clinton.) Or they could paint funny watercolor self-portraits like George W. Bush.
Indeed, such was the esteem in which Americans held Jimmy Carter that they promoted him to the august role of former President after a single term in office! He left the White House on January 20, 1981, to be welcomed by the lusty cheers of a grateful nation.
Men and women of a certain age recall Jimmy’s tenure as Chief Executive with a shudder, often accompanied by a cold sweat. It is hard to communicate to the younger generation how different life was in those halcyon days. Back then you bought a home by signing a mortgage in the range of fifteen percent. Yes, you heard right, fifteen! That is a mere five times the current rate. You can imagine how much fun life was in that environment.
Now Jimmy, he figured out who was blowing all that muggy air into the economic climate. It was us, the American People. We were afflicted by this odd “malaise” which had sapped us of the pioneer spirit of yore. He sternly rebuked us for our lack of good cheer. “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
His words did move mountains. He delivered that address in Washington, D.C. on July 15, 1979, and ten months later Mount St. Helens erupted in the state of Washington. You can draw your own conclusions.
Of course the most significant response toward rebuilding national confidence came when we elected Ronald Reagan and crowned Jimmy as Former President Carter, as noted above.
Since that time, Carter has been very active in playing that role, although lately he has been kicking himself over why he did not think of making a Global Initiative. Instead he divides his time between writing books and overseeing elections in hot spots around the world. The unique style of his literary output was immortalized in these pages in 1987 by P.J. O’Rourke, who reviewed Everything to Gain: Making the Most Out of the Rest of Your Life by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. P.J. introduced a parlor game in which one player reads the first half of a typically banal Carter sentence aloud and the others compete to see who can guess the apposite cliché climax. In his work as election observer, Carter typically overlooks egregious violations by the left and magnifies the slightest slips on the right.
There was one aspect of his service that went well. This was his husbandry of the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, building on the good will of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to hammer out a real deal that stands to this day. As snidely as we may scoff at the rest of President Carter’s legacy, we must acknowledge that treaty as a genuine and meaningful accomplishment which left the world a better place.
Sadly, perhaps typically, he could not leave well enough alone. He has not been content to bask in the well-deserved accolades for substantive accomplishment. Instead he has consistently used the pulpit of his emeritus status to pillory Israel for its purported mistreatment of the Palestinian masses. He has cashed big checks from Arab patrons while bemoaning the plight of the “occupied” Palestinian.
Still Israel has always greeted him warmly. With gritted teeth perhaps, it has continued to welcome him with a smile. But in 2007 old Jimmy crossed a line, shedding his last fig leaf of objectivity by publishing Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. This odious equivalence between Israel and the late unlamented South African segregationist regime burned the last bridge between the Camp David of his youth and the campy writing of his dotage.
All of this history is back on the front page today, if only for a fleeting moment. Carter is visiting Israel now, where he asked to meet the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Knesset. Both parties responded with a memorandum from the Foreign Service, advising them not to meet with an author hostile to the state of Israel. They are walking the fine line of delivering the snub without playing the snob.
Elements of tragedy — and comedy — abound in this episode but at the end of the day there is more bathos than pathos. A man was elected to the highest office in the world and showed a flash of greatness. Then he left center stage and became a ridiculous embittered little man.