FOUR YEARS AGO tomorrow, on a bright but cold morning in southwest Georgia, Jimmy Carter stood in front of his home in Plains and voiced the hope that others who had been in his position had also harbored.
"I think I'm ready not to be president," he said. "I'm determined to do the best I can and I think I have within me, to the extent I can represent the American people well, [the ability] to achieve greatness."
He did his best, that much can be said for the country's 39th president as he spends his last few hours in the White House. Few of his predecessors worked as long or as hard at the job as he or cared more deeply about achieving his noble but elusive goals -- peace for the country, the elimination of nuclear weapons, the advancement of social and economic justice. He respected the nation's laws and its Constitution, and he did not use his position to enrich himself, the minimal moral requirements for any president, one would think, but standards not always met by his predecessors.
But it turned out that he was wrong about one thing he said that morning in Plains and he never learned how to compensate for it. He was not, after all, ready to be president then. He had goals for his presidency, and some firm convictions and principles he never wavered from, but beneath the brimming self-confidence he always displayed in public he was inexperienced and uncertain about how to lead a nation as vast and complex as the United States.
From the beginning, Carter presided over a deeply flawed presidency of good intentions. His inexperience and uncertainty showed themselves early and often during his tenure as his administration lurched from one crisis to the next. If he had a coherent vision and sense of direction for the country, he never learned to articulate it.
Carter brought to the most political office in the world great intelligence and severely limited political skills. Political leadership in a modern democracy is largely a matter of communications and the president was never much of a communicator except when he was at ease with a small group, say a gathering of ordinary Americans in a living room somewhere in Iowa. He would never be a great orator and, even worse, he was terrible on television, which is both the great weapon and the great enemy of the modern presidency. Unable to master television, which does not necessarily require great oratorical skill, he ended up speaking into a vacuum.
Carter's skills as a politician and communicator were limited in another, more traditional sense as well. His strength as a candidate in 1976 -- that he was a Washington outsider, untainted by the ways of the capital -- hampered him as a president. He had no network of friends and allies to speak of and, try as he might, he was unable to build one. He ended his term with precious few passionate allies on Capitol Hill, the burial ground of so many of his good intentions.
Rather than lead the country, the president tried to manage the government. He threw himself into the task with great energy, but the Oval Office is a poor place from which to try to do this. The manager in him tried to deal with the complexities of too many problems at once, leaving him little time to do what presidents do best -- set priorities, provide a sense of direction, inspire confidence.
And worst of all, for this may be the greatest failing of a man of such intelligence and caring about the country, he did not seem to grow in the office. The political cartoonists, the cruelest of our public critics, chronicled what others in the country felt. In their cariacatures over the years, the figure of Carter grew smaller and smaller, always dwarfed by whoever represented his or the country's latest crisis, be it Brezhnev or Kennedy, Khomeini or Reagan.
The most critical juncture of the Carter presidency may have come early in the second year, in the spring of 1978, when he summoned his Cabinet and senior advisers to Camp David. Carter knew then that things were not going well, but he also knew it was not too late to change them. He ordered a shakeup of sorts, and for a time his administration seemed to function better, but nothing fundamental changed. The makeup of his administration and White House staff remained the same and in the next two years, as the economy deteriorated at home and the United States faced growing challenges abroad, he seemed and was more and more the captive of events.
Still, for all his limitations and failings, the president leaves Washington this week able legitimately to claim a record of some accomplishment. His harshest critics, who tend to be not Republican partisans of Ronald Reagan but bitter and disillusioned Democrats, badly overstate their case when they dismiss him as incompetent and a failure.
The list of his accomplishments, many of them imperfect but not to be overlooked, is familiar: the Panama Canal treaties, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the opening to China, a vast improvement in U.S. relations with the nations of black Africa.
For all the ridicule he endured by the way he went about it, Carter did finally focus the country's attention on the long-term importance of energy dependence and he put in place a policy to begin to deal with it. His appointments generally were excellent and one of his enduring legacies may be found in the federal judiciary. His environmental record was strong. He was savaged by the left wing of his own party, but despite the increasing; scarcity of federal resources he did not abandon the poor and the needy; rather, he did his best to protect them. With his civil service reform legislation, he identified and tried to tackle one of the insidious problems of modern America, the bloated and mindless federal bureaucracy, even if he will justifiably be forever remembered as the "government reformer" who created two new Cabinet departments, Energy and Education, the latter of which was little more than a blatant payoff to his political supporters in organized education.
And it can also be said in his defense that he was right when he spoke of the extraordinary difficulty of the issues he faced and of the time he served. He didn't duck any of those issues, even when he should have.
But politics is a cruel and unforgiving business and elections measure results, not good intentions. For the Carter presidency, the immediate and unavoidable verdict was this: The country that the president-elect will take over in two days is in a far more vulnerable position, both at home and abroad, than the country Jimmy Carter inherited in 1977. Maybe much of this was not his fault, and maybe no one could have done much better given the circumstances. But Carter was the president and he could not and should not have escaped the ultimate responsibility.
Elections measure the results of the times, but history sometimes takes other factors into account. With Carter about to leave office, there is the predictable round of attempts to guess how the historians will see him, and the contemporary consensus is: not very well.
I agree with a friend who says such exercises are hogwash, since none of us has the faintest idea of history's verdict.I covered the man for four years, never got to know him in any meaningful way (this being difficult with any president and more so with a man like Carter) and I confess my ignorance of what the historians of 20, 50 or 100 years from now will say. Still, anybody can play the game.
Every president, whether he likes it or not, is tied in one degree or another to the others who have shared his burdens. It is only against the accomplishments of the few giants who have held the office that we can measure the deeds of the others. This is particularly true of the very few who have sought a reaffirmation of faith from their contemporaries and been rejected. Herbert Hoover was also said to be a good man who did his best in difficult circumstances, but he was followed by Franklin Roosevelt, one of the giants, and has been relegated to the ashcan of American history. Maybe this is the verdict that awaits Jimmy Carter, maybe not.
Carter, the country's first true post-Vietnam, post-Watergate president, followed Gerald R. Ford to the White House. Ford's great accomplishment, his legacy to his successor, was to restore a sense of trust and integrity to the presidency. Carter, in his first words as president, paid homage to this: "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land." And Carter, to his credit, did not quander Ford's legacy as he squandered the initial faith in his own abilities; he nurtured it and will hand it over intact on Tuesday.
Now Carter is to be followed by Ronald Reagan and I find this a fascinating prospect because they seem to me such fundamentally different kinds of men.
At some point during his tenure, Carter decided that he was a transitional president. He said as much in his farewell address Wednesday night: "We live in a time of transition, an uneasy era which is likely to endure for the rest of the century." He expressed his long-term optimism about the country, but in the short term, by which he meant at least the rest of the 20th century, he preached to us constantly about sacrifice and limitations, which none of us wanted to hear.
The president articulated no coherent political vision, but that does not mean that he could not see ahead. I think he saw, or thought he saw, the shape of the 21st century, which, no matter what, will be far different for the United States than the 20th century -- "the American century," as Henry Luce liked to call it.
Carter defined his role as steward of the "uneasy era" leading to the next century and when it came time to give his last speech as president he spoke of those things which he cared about most deeply, for which he wants to be remembered, and which he knows will endure far beyond his term and Reagan's as well: the crippling effects of "special interest" politics; the growing danger from the spread of nuclear weapons, which he understood better and warned us about more often than any other president; the fragile nature of the environment, which is coming under heavier burdens from the advance of modern societies; and human rights, the ideal by which he sought to realign the United States with the aspirations of a majority of the world's people, and which is not a bad place for the country to be.
You do not have to defend every aspect of the Carter policies to say that he had thought about his country's future and thought he knew where its long-term interests lay.
Now comes Ronald Reagan speaking of "a shining city on a hill." I have no idea what he means by that, but I am afraid it is a vision rooted firmly in the past, not the future. And remembering the past, rather than thinking about the future, can be a dangerous business in an uneasy era.
The greatness to which he aspired eluded the president, that much we can say for sure. We can measure his time and his promise and say that he did not measure up, to our hopes or his either. But larger, more definitive judgements, the kind we say are rendered by history, must of necessity wait. Because history is a long time and it remains possible that it will see Jimmy Carter as the first American president of the 21st century, and Ronald Reagan as the last of the 20th.