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The Lives Of The Saint

He's easy to like. He's easy to dislike. A new look at Jimmy Carter takes the former approach by far.

By Lance Morrow

TIME magazine

(TIME, May 11) -- What to do on the miserable January morning when you wake up and find you are no longer the most powerful man in the world?

Theodore Roosevelt mounted a grand, year-long safari to East Africa, where, nearsighted as Mr. Magoo, he fired off an astonishing amount of ammunition at every species in God's creation, to be stuffed for the American Museum of Natural History. Lyndon Johnson returned to his Texas ranch to drink and smoke and grow his hair long like a hippie and wait to die. Richard Nixon did brooding penance beside the Pacific, then went back East to reinvent himself as elder statesman.

Perhaps a President's life after the White House is the real manifestation of his character. Consider the interesting case of Jimmy Carter. Buried, after one term, in the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1980, widely scorned as the micromanager of malaise held hostage by the Ayatullah, Carter in his post-White House incarnation performed a cunning reversal. An engineer by training, he did not so much reinvent himself as reconstruct, in another dimension, the job from which the American people had fired him.

Carter appointed himself to a new historical position--which he made up as he went along--as America's anti-President: a psalm-singing global circuit rider and moral interventionist who behaved, in a surreal and often effective way, as if the election of 1980 had been only some kind of ghastly mistake, a technicality of democratic punctilio. And so, for nearly 20 years, Anti-President Carter has circled the world embodying hyperactive paradox: insufferable self-absorption and self-righteousness in the service of admirably selfless causes.

It is easy to like Carter. His passion for helping the helpless and making the world better has manifested itself in a hundred energetic ways--in his labor as a carpenter for Habitat for Humanity, for example, and in his less publicized crusades against the devastating diseases of guinea worm and river blindness in the Third World. Operating out of the Carter Center in Atlanta, he has used his commanding moral authority to mediate disputes and monitor elections and coax transitions to democracy in Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, Zambia, the Dominican Republic, Bosnia and other countries.

It is easy, as well, to dislike Carter. Some of his Lone Ranger work has taken him dangerously close to the neighborhood of what we used to call treason. However, in The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House (Viking; 586 pages; $29.95), historian Douglas Brinkley's verdict on Carter is mostly affirmative. In the first place, Carter's Administration, Brinkley believes, accomplished far more than critics have admitted. President Carter achieved the Camp David accords, the Panama Canal Treaties, a normalization in 1979 of Nixon's China initiative, and other strokes. And Carter's postpresidency, in Brinkley's reading, has amounted to a triumph of inner-directed moral activism.

Brinkley captures Carter's sometimes maddening authenticity--his commitment as a Christian, his moral clarity, stubbornness, occasional nastiness. But Brinkley often falls into the organ tones of hagiography, as if performing an oratorio for a living saint. (Every saint needs a Satan: Ronald Reagan comes off here, almost invariably, as an idiot and a disastrous President).

In the White House years Carter would astonish aides by proofreading their memos to him. Brinkley should have set Carter to work on the book manuscript, asking him to comb out the unaccountable sloppiness ("criteria" for "criterion," "bravado" for "bravura" and many other errors, including the "Pakistani billionaire" on page 224 who turns into a "Palestinian billionaire" on page 225) and moments of inadvisable rhetorical wing-flapping, as when Carter "embraced leprosy eradication."

Whatever its imperfections, Brinkley's is a rich, energetic American story. His account of Carter's behavior during the run-up to the Gulf War is especially fascinating. Here is the anti-presidency brought to logical extreme: a direct collision, over the most serious issue (imminent war) between the former President and the sitting President. As Brinkley writes, "Carter was prepared to do just about anything to prevent a Middle East war, even if it meant working against his own government." Carter, close friend of Yasser Arafat (and, at one point, his virtual speechwriter) and hero in the Arab world, wrote letters to the heads of state of the members of the U.N. Security Council, and later to the Arab heads of state, pleading with them to abandon President Bush's painstakingly assembled coalition against Saddam Hussein. Later on, Carter admitted his tactics were "not appropriate." But he never apologized.

TIME This Week

Cover Date: May 11, 1998

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