Jimmy Carter was a product of his time -- "a time of transition," as he said in his farewell address, "an uneasy era." That the nation was uneasy with his leadership and rejected his bid for a second term may be less a reflection on his shortcomings as a president than an evidence of the fitful spirit of the age.
Jimmy Carter was a southerner, shaped by his witness of the civil rights revolution in which black men and women -- as he often movingly said -- liberated reluctant and resistant whites from the shackles of their own fears and prejudices. He came away believing that the cause of civil rights-equal rights-human rights was one that America must carry around the world, even to lands whose rulers found it as frightening as had Carter's own generation in Georgia.
Jimmy Carter was a military man a midshipman at Annapolis when the first nuclear weapons were exploded, a young officer on the first nuclear submarines. He came away believing that this awesome new source of power and destruction must be curbed -- lest it overwhelm and obliterate its inventors.
Jimmy Carter was a sixth-generation farmer, with a love of the land and enough engineering and scientific training to know how mines and dams and chemicals -- to say nothing of negligence and greed -- could destroy the land. For him, the conservation ethic became a moral imperative as strong as his passion for human rights and his fear of nuclear war.
Jimmy Carter was a small entrepreneur, not just in business but in politics. While big business made economic life hard for men like him, the shattering of the big party structures opened unrivaled opportunities in politics. He had the wit to see that, in a time of institutional fragmentation, the "friends and neighbors" technique he had learned in the non-party politics of Georgia could be parlayed into presidential victories in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
It is impossible to imagine a man like Jimmy Carter being nominated and elected president in any other year of our history. Had the civil rights revolution not enfranchised southern blacks, he could not have won. Had the old leaders and leadership-recruitment systems of the Democratic Party not been shattered by the bitter internal conflicts over Vietnam, he could not have won. Had the Republican Party not been disgraced by Watergate, he could not have won.
It is hard to remember now, as he leaves the White House, how gratefully he was received by the American people just four years ago. His arrival on the national scene was a surprise, but his assurances that he was not a racist, not a warmonger, not a crook were what the voters wanted to hear.
That he was unable to rise above the circumstances that made his election possible and shape a consensus for governing effectively is hardly a condemnation. It would have taken a leader of extraordinary skills to do that, and Jimmy Carter was not that man.
As his own closest associates know, he was hobbled by his almost complete lack of eloquence and was embarrassed by his too-easy tolerance of mediocre performance by some of his too-familiar aides. He was victimized by one of the characteristic failings of the age -- the belief in expertise. Some of the "expert" energy and economic advice he received was way off the mark.
His personality was such that he could not easily gain the trust and affection of other politicians. He was unable to persuade them to take risks on his behalf and on behalf of his policies, even when Carter and the policies were right. It was a flaw of character that came as no surprise to the politicians of his home state or those who served as fellow-governors with him. But their views did not count in the system in which Jimmy Carter was nominated.
Whatever his failings, Carter was true to his own principles as president. He avoided military conflict; he protected land and resources; he spread the message of human rights. But he was unable to discipline the threatening forces in this transitional world: the energy-fed inflation, the technological decline of American heavy industry, the spread of militant Muslim theocracy, the imperialist tendencies of Soviet power.
So he is leaving, as his four predecessor presidents left -- without completing what we once thought of as a "normal" two-term cycle.
His departing words were modest: "I am looking forward to the opportunity to reflect and further to assess -- I hope with accuracy -- the circumstances of our times." It is an activity in which all of us could profitably join, as yet another new president takes up the burden of leadership.