Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

America’s Best Ex-President

Jimmy Carter is 91 years old, has published a new memoir titled “A Full Life/Reflections at Ninety” and has been a living ex-President longer than anyone in our nation’s history. He also has emerged as our best ex-President ever.


His one-term presidency wasn’t so promising.

Jimmy Carter’s election as President in 1976 was a factor in my decision to accept a job in Washington, DC. He seemed like the perfect antidote to what ailed Washington – principled, smart and unsullied.

I arrived in the nation’s largest company town just as Carter was inaugurated. As a newcomer, I was as befuddled by the rituals, bureaucracy and political bickering as much as Carter.

My work for Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin didn’t routinely involve interaction with the White House. When it did, the result was frustrating. For example, the Carter governmental relations team never seemed to grasp the relatively simple concept that some Members of Congress were Democrats and others were not. More than a year went by with the Carter administration filtering state-specific announcements about grants and appointments through Oregon’s Republican senators, not its Democratic congressmen.

But that rookie mistake paled in comparison to larger policy gaffes and political predicaments Carter engineered. His presidency always seemed to wobble. He came to be viewed as hapless, even in the face of a “killer rabbit.”

The main exception was his effort to bring together the disparate  leaders of Egypt and Israel to sign the Camp David Accords. It was a game-changing agreement in the Middle East, which stands as Carter’s most significant legacy as President and the reason Anwar Sadat was later assassinated in a Cairo military parade.

AuCoin and I had two notable encounters with Carter and his team. The first involved AuCoin’s legislation to normalize commercial relations with China, which was the first pro-Mainland China piece of legislation to reach the House floor since World War II.

Then I got a call from Gary Hymel, chief of staff for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, explaining that AuCoin’s bill had been pulled from the floor at the request of the Carter White House. Hymel said cryptically, “Expect a call.”

AuCoin received word that the bill wasn’t necessary because Carter planned to normalize diplomatic relations with China. AuCoin was told his legislation had accelerated the decision, and he was told to expect another call. In his book, Carter said he had been fascinated with China because of its tangled history with Baptist missionaries and his first-person experience going there as a submariner.

president_jimmy_carter_nigeriaI fielded that call from an official at the Chinese outpost in DC. It was an invitation for AuCoin and a small delegation of his choosing to visit China on the eve of normalization. AuCoin, his wife, a small group of Oregon business leaders and I travelled to China, seeing sights from the Great Wall to Snake Alley to the Butterfly Mountains, discussing trade with Chinese officials in Shanghai and Tianjin and meeting with a few Chinese people who were eager to practice their English.

As the 1980 election approached and Carter was under self-imposed sequestration in the White House pending release of American hostages in Tehran, our political paths crossed again, thanks to an act of God. Mt. St. Helens erupted.

We saw this as a perfect way for Carter to escape his political imprisonment. AuCoin pitched the idea to Vice President Walter Mondale. The Carter team bit. Before you knew it, Carter and AuCoin were on Air Force One flying to Oregon and in a helicopter surveying the devastation caused by the eruption. The hostages were still hostages, but Carter was freed.

jimmy-carter-jesus-and-the-matthew-effect-L-69K3HREarlier in 1980, I spent nearly a month in Des Moines campaigning for Carter, calling angry farmers trying to explain the wisdom of the President’s ill-fated grain embargo. There also were lots of questions about a new Panama Canal treaty, the Chrysler bailout and widespread industry deregulation.

Carter’s re-election bid was unsuccessful. I vividly remember standing in the Galleria in Portland on election night in 1980 watching results that were devastating to Democrats. True to political form, Carter conceded before voting had stopped on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Democrats, fairly or not, blamed losses, including that of Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman of Oregon, on Carter.

Once he left office, Carter seemed to regain his footing. He became a visiting scholar at Emory University. As he planned his presidential library, Carter decided to create the Carter Center to apply the energies, life lessons and passions of Rosalynn and himself. The Center has played crucial roles in mediating intractable international disputes involving North Korea and Cuba, eliminating debilitating and lethal diseases from rural reaches of the world and espousing human rights as a primal policy.

Carter drew on his lifelong fascination with building things as he dedicated himself to Habitat for Humanity. He emerged as a writer with a string of book titles, including bestsellers, which provided him a post-presidential living. He continued his crusade for ethics and civil rights.

The missteps that were his hallmark while President faded away. We instead watched someone step confidently onto an international stage as an elder statesman. He redefined what it meant to be a Christian in dealing with people of other faiths and different colored skin.

Even his presidency, with the benefit of some time and distance, can be put into a more upbeat perspective. As Nicholas Kristof notes in an excellent column about Carter, the former President elevated human rights to a policy doctrine and appointed large numbers of women and minorities to key positions. Carter installed solar panels on the White House, which his successor, Ronald Reagan, dismantled.

Maybe the trait that tended to get Carter into the most trouble – his honesty – is what we remember and miss most of all. There is never enough honesty when you need it.

P.S. Carter’s latest book is a good read. It offers an especially revealing look at his youthful years and his time in the Navy. The book betrays Carter strong sense of self-confidence and provides a reminder of the Carter mafia that followed him to the White House. It doesn’t mention Congressman AuCoin in connection with either China policy or the Mt. St. Helens trip. And, on Page 160, it incorrectly refers to the late Senator Mark Hatfield as from Montana.

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