On Being A Great Ex-President

Jimmy Carter is now the longest-living president in American history. He also just may be the greatest ex-president.

Jimmy Carter, now 94 years old

Unlike other recent presidents, who devoted their post-political careers to self-enrichment (Bill Clinton) or historical vindication (Richard Nixon), Carter provides a model for post-presidential life. Always a champion of human rights, Carter has devoted his later years to furthering freedom around the world and working for charitable causes. The Carter Center at Emory University, founded in Atlanta in 1982, is committed to promoting democracy and human rights worldwide. Carter has labored, literally, for Habitat for Humanity, whose profile he raised, building houses for underprivileged people around the world. 

Former President Jimmy Carter and North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, 1994.

Reflecting his presidential concerns with international affairs, Carter has used his years after office to apply his experience and knowledge on the world stage. He has served as a freelance ambassador for a variety of international missions, observed elections in nations with histories of fraudulent voting or that recently emerged from an autocratic past, and advised later U.S. presidents on the Middle East. The State Department has employed Carter to mediate disputes with volatile foreign leaders, notably Kim Il-sung of North Korea and Muammar Qaddaffi of Libya. In 1994, the former president assisted the United States in resolving a tense nuclear weapons dispute with North Korea. In 2002, Carter’s active work for international harmony earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.  

The Iranian hostage crisis colors interpretations of Carter’s presidency. Yet, though he served only one term, Carter had successes. He tried to restore humility to the office, countering the tendency toward an imperial presidency by dressing informally, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue at his inauguration, holding frequent press conferences, and limiting presidential pomp. He introduced many social and economic reforms, most of which met with opposition in a Congress eager to challenge presidential ambitions in the aftermath of Watergate. 

President Jimmy Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin

In 1977, the Carter administration’s negotiations gave Panama eventual control over the Panama Canal and guaranteed the neutrality of that key water link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A year later, Carter brokered the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement when he hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland. Domestically, Carter worked to restore the trust in government frayed by the illegalities of the Nixon administration. His administration attacked fraud and mismanagement. He established the Department of Education and furthered aid to needy students. 

Cardigan-wearing President Carter

Failure, in the end, marked Carter’s tenure. The economy deteriorated with soaring inflation, increasing unemployment, and jumping interest rates. Some of this was not Carter’s fault, as he inherited an energy crisis resulting from our national dependency on imported oil. His attempt to appeal to public confidence faltered when he spoke of a “crisis of spirit” and a national “malaise.” Who can forget Carter wearing a cardigan and urging us to turn our thermostats down, as he had at the White House? Though he had some success with America’s Communist adversaries — recognizing China and signing significant arms control agreements with the Soviet Union — Carter’s inability to stem the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and his failure to secure the return of the hostages held in Iran for 444 days overshadowed the successes of his presidency.

President Carter pushed human rights, though critics painted his idealism as naive. It was as a former president that Carter’s decency and his commitment to human rights and democratic norms flowered. John Quincy Adams may be the only other ex-president who rivals Carter in worthiness. Adams had a long and productive career, notably being the inspiration — as James Monroe’s secretary of state — for the Monroe Doctrine guaranteeing the independence of Latin American nations. As president, Adams pushed a far-sighted program of internal improvements, conservation of public lands, national observatories, and the promotion of industrial development. But, it was an age of devotion to the common man and the expansion of democracy, and Adams could not win reelection against the force of Jacksonian democracy. In addition, Adams shared with his father, John Adams, the second president and noted revolutionary leader, a prickly personality and a certitude that made compromise difficult if not impossible. And, allegations that he earned the presidency in the Corrupt Bargain with Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky in which Adams bartered the presidency for naming Clay secretary of state guaranteed Adams’ defeat in 1828.

John Quincy Adams in the 1840s

But, what a later life he led! In 1830, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives, and in 1836 he led the crusade against the gag rule whereby Southerners sought to stifle debate of anti-slavery petitions sent to Congress. The Constitution guarantees citizens the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In 1834, the American Anti-Slavery Society began a petition drive demanding the abolition of the odious institution. Thousands of petitions reached Congress, which responded by passing a resolution automatically “tabling,” or postponing any action, on petitions relating to slavery. Adams led the fight on this blight on democracy, and in 1844, the House rescinded the gag rule on a motion he introduced. 

In  1841, Adams argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of escaped slaves in the famous Amistad case, winning release of the captives. He opposed the Mexican War, claiming it was a notorious land grab to extend the realm available to slavery. “Old Man Eloquent,” as he was known for his battles in Congress, collapsed on the floor of the House on February 21, 1848, while giving a speech. He died two days later of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. 

Adams and Carter have much in common as two mediocre-at-best presidents who led (is leading, in Carter’s case) stellar lives after their terms in office. Adams labored in an official capacity while Carter’s work has been mostly as a volunteer in the private sector. Both demonstrate that being a former president can be more than giving speeches for obscene amounts of money and serving on boards of directors. Both ex-presidents provide a template on how to be a valued citizen after the presidency. And, in Carter’s instance, a demonstration that a former president can use his reputation for doing good.

Posted April 5, 2019

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