A few weeks ago, the PBS program The American Experience aired a two-part film about the life and Presidency of Jimmy Carter. Being something of an amateur Presidential historian, I taped the program and watched it over a series of nights.
Carter was not the first President of my life -- that would be Nixon -- but he is the first that I remember, during the tempestuous days of the late 1970s. Carter's single term spanned my years from Kindergarten to fourth grade, so my memories are probably not the strongest, but I recall frustrating times economically (gas lines, inflation, et cetera) and in foreign policy (the hostage crisis being the first significant hostile act against Americans that I can remember). I remember the annoyance with President Carter that many adults seemed to feel, and I remember the sense of near-salvation when January 20, 1981 finally rolled around when Ronald Reagan was sworn in. (Yeah, yeah....little did I know....)
It was interesting, then, to watch this documentary and see just how accurate my memories had been. Carter was a lackluster President, whose substantial accomplishments were overshadowed (and still are) by his failings at home. He grossly misunderstood the nature of the Washington power establishment; he made no effort to either acknowledge his shortcomings or compensate for them; he assumed that the moral strength of his positions would prove sufficient, thus eschewing the types of political leadership and maneuverings that savvy pols know are necessary to the advancement of an agenda. Watching this film after the Democratic party suffered serious losses in this year's midterm elections, losses which in many ways are a result of the same errors on the part of the Democrats of today that Carter committed, was particularly interesting. That old canard about those who fail to learn from history being doomed to repeat it really does bear some truth.
If Carter's Presidency was something of a failure, though, his post-Presidency has most certainly not. The way that Carter has parlayed his status as a former President into one of the most successful careers as an Elder Statesman is nothing short of remarkable. This is a man who has worked, virtually his entire life, in service to the same set of fundamental principles, promoting the cause of human rights wherever and whenever he can. Jimmy Carter may not have been a great President, but he has most certainly been a great man.