Tony Norman: Jimmy Carter deserves a second look

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There's a very interesting photograph from January 2009 of the five living American presidents gathered in the Oval Office.

The most striking thing about the photo, taken two weeks before the inauguration of Barack Obama, is how effortlessly it conveys the personalities of the men.

Hanging back and absorbed in their own conversation are George H.W. Bush and Mr. Obama. A smiling George W. Bush occupies the center while Bill Clinton, looking trim and revitalized, leans in with an observation that makes him smile in the telling.

As if to demonstrate that even the most exclusive club in the world has a social hierarchy similar to high school, Jimmy Carter stands apart from his colleagues like the class nerd -- not exactly shunned, but not seriously engaged by the more popular boys, either.

For his part, Mr. Carter doesn't attempt to bridge the social and physical distance with his colleagues by shoehorning his way into their conversations. Instead, the former president squares his shoulders and settles for a long stare into the distance, as if totally inured to his role as the fifth wheel of American politics.

If anything, he looks as if he can't wait for their empty display of presidential bonhomie to be over.

There's no doubt that among his peers, Mr. Carter is probably considered the "least successful" of their club, though he and the elder Bush served only one term each due to fractious primary challenges and events beyond their control.

Because Mr. Carter was so thoroughly defeated in his 1980 re-election bid by Ronald Reagan, who established a conservative hegemony we've only recently begun to emerge from, the former peanut farmer, Navy officer, Georgia governor and Nobel Peace Prize winner is considered the worst of our modern presidents -- a judgment that isn't borne out by either history or the facts.

Recently, Mr. Carter, who is 89 but still spry enough to travel around the world monitoring contested elections, began making the rounds promoting "A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power," the latest of nearly two dozen books he's either written or collaborated on since leaving the White House.

Whether enduring a good-natured ribbing by Stephen Colbert or tough questions from skeptical political reporters, he's been both gracious and honest. He's not afraid of saying what he really thinks, which by itself sets him apart from his peers.

This week, Mr. Carter made headlines by saying that he believes the National Security Agency monitors his email and that he would probably pardon Edward Snowden if he were president and had the option of sparing the whistleblower from the death penalty.

Without condoning everything Mr. Snowden did, Mr. Carter said that he appreciates the fact that Americans are better informed now about the extent of government snooping.

Still, mockery descends on the former president like clockwork whenever he says something that deviates from conventional wisdom. Critics can't wait to dust off decades-old slanders about fending off a swamp rabbit, "malaise," the Iranian hostage crisis and the failed attempt to rescue them, anti-Israel bias and gasoline lines. They hope to minimize any claim Mr. Carter has to being taken seriously.

What's galling about it, especially with Republicans using the Ukrainian crisis to make the same accusations of fecklessness against Mr. Obama as they did against Mr. Carter, is how much Democrats have bought into conservative talking points.

Democrats have always been weak-kneed and craven, but the degree with which they, including Mr. Obama, run from any association with Mr. Carter is shameful. The equivalent of sprinkling holy water on a vampire when it comes to spooking Democrats is to compare them to Jimmy Carter. Our hopelessly compromised Washington-based political media only perpetuate this herd mentality.

For some reason, I remember a lot more international mayhem and economic dislocation under President Reagan, the two Bushes and Mr. Obama than under Mr. Carter, yet somehow he's become the standard for failure. I hated the '70s, too, but I don't blame Mr. Carter for every bad thing that happened in that decade.

Given a choice, I'd rather have a glass of hard cider with Jimmy Carter than a beer with any of his successors. I'm sure they're all interesting people, but life is short. I'd rather get straight talk about this nation from the guy most likely to give it while it is still available.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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