Jimmy Carter still wants your vote Ex-leader campigns for esteem of voters who rejected him

JIMMY CARTER must have felt a special kinship with George Bush that goes beyond their intertwined political fortunes when he attended the recent dedication of the $83 million George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. Just two weeks earlier, Carter had announced a $150 million fund drive for his own presidential library and museum, a sprawling, multimillion-dollar, ultramodern complex near downtown Atlanta.

In sharp contrast to the raw revelations in recent weeks of alleged ethical and moral transgressions by President Bill Clinton and three of his predecessors in the White House - Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy - the shortcomings that helped send the last Democratic and last Republican presidents into retirement pale into insignificance.


Indeed, Carter's admission, in a famous 1976 Playboy magazine interview in which he confessed to committing adultery in his heart, seems disarmingly innocent 21 years later, when Clinton might have to prove in court that there are no distinguishing characteristics on his genitals, and the reputations of Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy are being trashed in new accounts of secret White House tape recordings and investigative reporting.

Such mini-scandals during the Carter years as Billygate and Bert Lance are easy to overlook alongside Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Vince Foster, Jennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Dick Morris and now the selling of the White House to campaign fat cats, not to mention Nixon's illegal actions, Johnson's prevaricating on Vietnam and Kennedy's sexual escapades. As a result, the standard by which we measure presidential character has progressed or regressed within the span of a generation from prudish to prurient.


Not surprisingly, selective amnesia and nostalgic revisionism were the order of the day when more than 700 former officials, campaign workers and Peanut Brigade volunteers gathered to help Carter, now a vigorous 75, celebrate the 20th anniversary of his administration in Atlanta last month. There was much reminiscing about the good things that happened after the former Georgia governor and peanut farmer stunned the experts by winning the Democratic nomination and defeating President Gerald Ford in 1976, and before his bid for re-election was flattened by the Ronald Reagan juggernaut in 1980.

Dismissing the widely held notion that Carter's was a failed presidency - the proof was his failure to get re-elected - he and his defenders pointed to such successes as brokering the historic Camp David Accords, making human rights an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, signing the SALT II treaty, normalizing relations with the People's Republic of China, and cutting government spending and the size of government.

But Carter's crushing defeat by Reagan, which left him and his wife in a funk for more than a year, is ancient history. The 39th president is involved in a broad range of humanitarian programs at home and abroad. These include the well-known Habitat for Humanity Housing initiative; international conflict resolution in such hot spots as Haiti, Nicaragua, North Korea, the Middle East and Bosnia; and eradicating river blindness and guinea worm disease in Africa. Also, Rosalynn Carter has promoted a program to educate Americans about mental illness and emotional disorders.

Self-confident and competitive as always, Carter has, in effect, awarded himself a second term. Best of all, he doesn't have to worry about term limits or re-election campaigns but only about raising enough money to finance the ambitious agenda being carried out under the aegis of the Carter Center, which spent $37.5 million in the year ended Aug. 31, 1996, and had net assets of $117 million.

Since the Carter Center was founded in 1982, Carter has raised an enormous amount of money - probably more than $200 million - from corporations, foundations, individuals and foreign governments.

Many of the corporate donors are Atlanta-based giants such as Coca-Cola, whose CEO, Robert Gozieuta, died the weekend of the Carter-Mondale reunion. Carter hopes his ambitious agenda will rehabilitate his reputation and achieve the goals he hoped to achieve in the second term that was denied him.

"The Carter Center is an extension of what we did in the White House," Carter told the Atlanta Constitution during the reunion. "The things we couldn't get accomplished because I only had one term, the things that have evolved since then because of the passage of history - peace, human rights, democracy, freedom, environmental quality and alleviation of human suffering. . . . Had I not been president, had Rosalynn not been first lady, none of this would have been possible."

Even Carter's harshest critics, many of them in his own party, can't deny that he has accomplished much as an ex-president, perhaps more than any other. Unlike Bush, who appears satisfied with his place in history, or Gerald R. Ford, who faded into obscurity, or Ronald Reagan, afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, Carter has set an example that has inspired others, including former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.


"I thought I was done with public life," said the 69-year-old Mondale, who recently completed a widely praised tour as U.S. Ambassador to Japan in the Clinton administration. "But I kept watching Carter and . . . one of the key reasons I went to Japan was that I just couldn't stand doing so little when the Carters were doing so much."

Yet, for all the warm memories and claims of unrecognized achievement at the Atlanta reunion, there is still an aura of defensiveness and thinly veiled resentment among the Carter crowd about the failure of the American people to give Carter what they think is his due.

"I get angry when people say he's the greatest ex-president we've ever had," said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor who served as Carter's ambassador to the United Nations until being forced out for indiscreet contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization. "Although it is true, I think it still means they don't understand what a great president he was."

It's clear that Carter feels that he has been a prophet without honor in his own country, and that the reason was not in what his administration did or failed to do but in his failure to win re-election. "The most important single thing that discolored what we accomplished was not being re-elected," he told the Atlanta Constitution. "That kind of put a stamp of failure on it."

Carter also leaves no doubt that he believes his image and reputation are starting to be rehabilitated. Yet he appears not to understand why Americans rejected him in 1980 and haven't given him the kind of admiration and esteem he craves. Perhaps it comes down not to his honesty and integrity, which have never been effectively challenged, but to his penchant for self-righteousness and pettiness, which he demonstrated by sharply criticizing his Democratic successor for campaign spending abuses that occurred during the last election.

Nor has Carter shaken the image he had as president that he wasn't quite up to the job. He thought being president was like being governor of Georgia, only 50 times more complex and difficult. But he discovered it is infinitely more complex and difficult; after all, the governor of Georgia doesn't have to worry about South Carolina or Florida taking its citizens hostage.


Then, too, there was evidence at the reunion of his disturbing tendency to never completely own up to his mistakes. "Not a single American gave his life on the field of battle," Carter declared at a reunion dinner. His statement ignored the fact that eight servicemen were killed in the disastrous failure of the Iranian hostage rescue attempt in April 1980.

Reagan, with his celebrated ability to explain away his blunders as honest mistakes, and Bill Clinton, who has shaded the truth so often we don't expect him to come clean about any of his shortcomings, can get away with it. But not a born-again Christian who promised never to lie to the American people.

Jimmy Carter's greatest flaw wasn't that he had impure thoughts about women other than his wife, but that having gotten to Washington by running against its elite, he wasn't able to stop running against Washington when he got there. He also relied too much on people such as himself, who had little experience dealing with the complexities of national government.

Perhaps, now, he is just beginning to understand what he failed to grasp as president, that the power of the presidency cannot be fully exercised by someone with a chip on his shoulder.

Albert Eisele is editor of he THill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress, and was press secretary to former Vice President Mondale.

Pub Date: 11/30/97