A Full Life: Reflections at 90
For many Americans Jimmy Carter will be remembered as one of the worst US presidents in recent history.
His legacy remains blighted by memories of the Iran hostage crisis, still a painful national humiliation, soaring energy costs, crippling stagflation and a sense that the US was emasculated by a weak commander.
The kindest critics describe him as more effective as an ex-president than he ever was as leader of the free world.
He deserves better, both for his term in office from 1977-1981 and as a diplomat and mediator confronting some of the most divisive issues of modern times.
This latest book, the 29th he has published, is not, like so many political autobiographies, an attempt to redeem or even burnish his reputation. It’s more of a personal, matter-of-fact plod through the arc of a diverse life.
There’s a quiet dignity about his perspective on his presidency. There are regrets, but no attempt to retrospectively justify policies and decisions that didn’t work out.
“I look back on those four years with peace and satisfaction, knowing that I did my best and had some notable achievements.”
Foremost among those achievements was the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords in which Egypt formally recognized the state of Israel.
He defers to his vice-president, Walter Mondale, to sum up the best of their administration, quoting him saying: “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace.” And then he goes on to add: “We championed human rights.”
For a man who has endured so much opprobrium the book is remarkably even-toned, a monochrome view of a colorful career.
There’s no bile or anger directed at political opponents, no hyperbole or intrigue and no ‘setting the record straight’.
He does wish he’d sacked his supreme commander of US forces in Europe, General Alexander Haig, stating: “I had difficulty in understanding what he was trying to say and was concerned about his partisanship and derogation of my policies emphasizing peace and human rights.”
He also had a testy relationship with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, recording in his diary after a meeting: “He’s a strange man and a good leader of Germany. I’m afraid he has a problem in his attitude toward me…he’s constantly critical of the United States, of our fairness, our commitment, our honesty”.
There may be frustration, but there’s no deep-rooted vindictiveness, no spiteful retorts. Events and meetings are recorded almost as if viewed by an onlooker rather than a key participant. What does shine through, especially in the post-presidential years, is a continued desire to make the world a fairer, better place.
Carter comes across as that rarest of men, a politician who refuses to bend his beliefs to court popularity, and a principled individual whose firmly held opinions have led him into deep and troubled waters.
In 2006 he faced harsh criticism from members of his own Democratic party, the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, and hard-liners in Tel Aviv for condemning Israel’s attitudes towards the Palestinians in his book Palestine – Peace not Apartheid.
He has talked to tyrants, despots and “unsavory people” like North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Ethiopia’s Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
These choices “are not always popular”, he blandly states, but they are not allowed to divert him from efforts to find compromise in intractable situations or broker peace deals where other avenues have ended in deadlock.
He also continues to speak truth to power, denouncing Supreme Court rulings on unlimited, secret campaign funding as a subversion of the US political system.
The country had become an oligarchy in which there was “unlimited political bribery”, he said on a nationally syndicated radio show last month.
Earlier this year he vowed to tackle violence and injustice against girls and women saying it would be the highest priority for the rest of his life.
He hadn’t known then that he had cancer of the liver that has since metastasized to parts of his brain and which he expects to continue to spread as he undergoes treatment.
Just as he did at the end of his presidency, the inevitable parting is being met with a calm dignity: “It is in the hands of God and I am prepared for anything that comes. I feel very good. I have had no pain or debility.”
Telling the truth, obeying the law, keeping the peace and championing human rights is quite a legacy.
So forget Iran, the handover of the Panama Canal, the economic woes and all the other perceived failings. America briefly had the kind of principled president who could pass scrutiny as an exemplar to the rest of the world of the kind of decency, humanity and humility required from a leader in the democratic world.