The American president leaves the White House for the last time, ending a tenure marked by perceived failure, flies home to begin his new life as a former president, is greeted by several thousand loyal supporters, spends some time in self-imposed exile, writes his memoirs, nurses a grudge against his old nemesis, the Washington Post, advises and angers his successors, gets frozen out of the White House by those successors, takes foreign policy into his own hands, gets snubbed by his own party before its nominating conventions, establishes a center for serious discussion of substantive issues and remains as controversial and active out of office as he was in it.
This describes the post-presidential experience of not just one former president but two--men who were completely different politically and personally but who set the standard for post-presidential engagement. Out of the tragedy of Watergate, Richard Nixon became a respected elder statesman, to whom world leaders turned when they needed advice, a prolific author of foreign policy treatises and a savvy political advisor whose recommendations often became policy. And out of the tragedy of a lost election, Jimmy Carter embarked on a remarkably similar path, though with a fundamentally different philosophical bent and agenda for United States policy.
It is Carter’s life and career after the White House that is the subject of Douglas Brinkley’s new book, “The Unfinished Presidency.” A professor of history and the author of books on American policymakers including Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson, Brinkley wisely does not rehash Carter’s presidency; rather, he offers a well-sourced and thorough book that focuses on what is, in many ways, Carter’s far more interesting tenure as a former president.
Every presidential biographer approaches his subject with a bias, and Brinkley, who had access to Carter, his personal records and correspondence, clearly admires him both politically and personally. He lets the events directed by and surrounding Carter tell the story, and his criticism is often muted, as if he does not want to be the one to take away from Carter’s good works--at one point going so far as to refer to Carter as a worker of “miracles.” As a result, Brinkley has done much to help characterize Carter as a globe-trotting peacemaker and champion of the weak. This, however, is not a story of reinvention; Carter has arguably always been a kind of stubborn idealist. It is instead the story of how he carved out an influential and controversial role for himself in the political purgatory of post-presidential life.
According to Carter’s critics, his freelance diplomacy and humanitarian efforts are simply ego-driven attempts to redeem his failed presidency; Carter himself has insisted that he acts out of a selfless desire to remedy injustice. As Brinkley points out, Carter’s motives are more complex than either side of the argument suggests. No one achieves the presidency without a healthy dose of ambition, drive and ego; in all likelihood, Carter would have conducted his post-presidential years the way he has even if Ronald Reagan had not defeated him in 1980. That loss gave him an added incentive to accomplish things beyond the presidency, but because he, like Nixon, had spent much of his adult life in public service, he remains consumed by the need to advance the interests of the United States and to contribute in ways that he believes will have an effect.
Carter has channeled much of his energy into attempts to negotiate fragile peace agreements between warring factions--usually in some distant locale--that he could then lay on the doorstep of the current president. Never comfortable with great power politics, Carter has, as a former president, focused on intervening in areas such as Africa, the Caribbean and Central America that are less crucial geopolitically to U.S. balance-of-power calculations. Although Carter has spent considerable time on issues such as arms control, Brinkley emphasizes that he has consistently placed human rights issues above all others. As president, Carter expressed an understanding of the moral nuances of human rights policy and found that it was an admirable, though largely ineffective basis, on which to make the nation’s foreign policy. For example, the concerns he expressed to Soviet leaders about suppression of dissent and the right of self-determination were met by continued intransigence and the invasion of Afghanistan. But as a former president, he was freed from having to incorporate human rights into official policy and could promote them as an end in itself.
Brinkley shows how Carter’s Christian-based emphasis on human rights has thoroughly influenced everything he has done as president and after. For example, he opposed the Soviet Union primarily on moral grounds because its political system outlawed God and was responsible for murdering its own people and those of the countries it occupied. Brinkley attributes a good part of the collapse of Soviet Communism to Carter’s promotion of human rights behind the Iron Curtain. But he gives relatively short shrift to the role of the military buildup, begun under Carter and continued under Reagan, that bankrupted the Soviets. Indeed, Brinkley stresses Carter’s strong pro-disarmament views but does not offer the countervailing view that nuclear weapons played the decisive role in producing the long peace after 1945. Brinkley’s failure to address this side of the argument makes Carter’s anti-nuke crusade look inspired, when in fact it was considered misguided, naive and reckless by many in the foreign policy and defense establishments.
Carter, however, never let criticism get in his way. Brinkley profiles his trips to China, where he pleaded for the release of political dissidents; the Middle East, where he sided continually and forcefully with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians in peace negotiations; Africa, where he helped to fight obscure diseases such as river blindness; Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where he monitored elections and scolded dictators; and Bosnia, where he tried to urge the Serbs to stop the bloodshed.
Most of these trips, though noble in intent and varying in their degrees of success, inspired intense rage in his White House successors. His relationships with Presidents Reagan and Clinton are particularly frosty because they feel Carter either co-opted or disregarded the nation’s official foreign policy. Brinkley addresses this problem forthrightly: Carter will always be considered a loose cannon and a thorn in the side of whatever administration happens to be in power because of his propensity to set aside or go around policy and negotiate his own solution. Brinkley recounts one episode in 1994 when Carter--after coming back from Haiti, where he helped to negotiate the return of the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide--berated Clinton for ordering an invasion of the island while he was still there; Clinton, for his part, attacked Carter for having praised Gen. Raoul Cedras, the leader of the junta which overthrew Aristide.
Exchanges like that between Carter and the incumbent president have not been rare. Indeed, as Brinkley correctly points out, Carter’s freelance diplomacy is considered by many in both political parties to be irresponsible grandstanding, a disruptive intrusion upon other countries’ political processes and upon our own and deleterious to our ability to execute our own foreign policy.
Undeterred, Carter has soldiered on, working through his Atlanta-based Carter Center, which Nixon once described as “that group that was supposed to stop wars.” To Carter’s credit, he insisted that the center be a place for thoughtful discussion and a launching pad for influencing policy. Ironically, even though Brinkley asserts that Carter “shifted decidedly left” and became more liberal after his presidency, he looked less to the state to provide solutions than to private individuals and institutions. This shift in approach came out of necessity; traditional liberalism was dead, but Carter still saw unmet needs, so he established the center and aligned himself with private organizations such as The Atlanta Project, which coordinates government and private efforts to solve social problems affecting poor families, and Habitat for Humanity. Brinkley reports that Carter was reluctant initially to join Habitat’s cause, to build and provide housing in low-income areas, but that once he donned a pair of overalls and banged a nail into a Habitat house, he became its most visible advocate. This prompted admiration even from Nixon: “At least Carter puts his money where his mouth is. He practices what he preaches, and for that I give him credit.”
Brinkley’s book is an important history of Carter’s public life after the White House and will be an invaluable resource for future Carter biographers. It will also ensure that Carter will be judged historically on his full political career, which will not end until his life does.
Although it is fascinating in its telling of Carter’s public story, “The Unfinished Presidency” offers limited insight into Carter’s personal life and character. It tells what he has done but does not go very far in establishing who he is. At times, Brinkley seems to struggle with trying to figure him out. In one particularly striking instance, Brinkley writes, "[h]e followed an apparent contradictory approach to peacemaking because he believed it was the only way to put an end to human rights abuses and civil wars--and the end always justifies the means.” Then he contradicts himself several pages later by the assertion that "[m]ost of all, his faith taught him that a clear conscience was always preferable to Machiavellian expediency.” Carter’s complexities jump from the pages of this book, but few of them are examined in rich enough detail to help us navigate our prejudices about him or understand him better.
This is not to say that “The Unfinished Presidency” is unrevealing: Carter, like some other former presidents, including Nixon, seems to suffer from the “only I know best” syndrome. And perhaps, in many cases, they do know better than anyone else, including the incumbent president, but because they are out of power, they must fight to get their voices heard. What we expect from our presidents changes according to time and circumstance: We want a visionary leader when times are uncertain and turbulent and a steward of proven policies when times are stable and quiet.
But what we expect from our former presidents may never be the same after the precedents set by Nixon and Carter. Their continued passionate engagement will be the standard against which all future former presidents will be measured. Instead of going quietly into their golden years, they have shown the kind of commitment and purpose that inspired us to give them the highest office in the land in the first place. And because of these two men, historians may evaluate post-presidential years just as thoroughly and critically as they judge presidencies.
It must be immensely difficult to lose great official power and be left with an ambiguous role in which influence can be wielded only unofficially. How former presidents handle this transition is interesting in itself. How Carter and Nixon have done it suggests that you can take the man out of the presidency but you cannot take the presidency out of the man.