HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., NOV. 18 -- The men and women of Jimmy Carter's administration struggled with the forces of history a decade ago. Many would say they lost.

This weekend, they were battling again over history's meaning and seemed to fare much better.

At a three-day conference at Hofstra University, many of the major players in the Carter administration including the former president argued that when the man from Georgia was stacked up against the presidents who came after him, he looked far better than he did in the midst of a hostage crisis and economic chaos.

Some of the participants suggested President Bush is about to learn how hard it is for an administration to look good when it is engulfed by oil price increases and Middle East troubles.

What became clear between Thursday and Saturday is that arguments over the meaning of the Carter years are more than an exercise in history.

Because Republicans have spent the last decade running against the Carter legacy, his policies are central to the political debate over the direction the country took under his Republican successors, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who calls the Carter era "those malaise days."

"Perhaps no other president in the postwar era has run for the highest office as often as Jimmy Carter, sometimes without even being a candidate," said Ann Mari May, an economist at the University of Nebraska, noting that Carter has been an issue in every election since he first ran in 1976.

Moreover, the academics and former administration officials agreed this weekend that the differences between Carter and Reagan were so fundamental on many issues that both could not be right. If Carter was right in his approach to energy conservation, then the Reagan-Bush approach was wrong. If Carter's rather stringent fiscal policies were right, then Reagan's were wrong. If Carter's sometimes Calvinist insistence on the need to sacrifice for the future was right, then Reagan's unbridled optimism was wrong.

The debate over who was right also reverberates within his own party. Carter's fiscal caution and his uneasiness with the Democratic Party's traditional constituencies pointed to a move away from New Deal liberalism. If Carter was right about the Democratic Party, then Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his liberal allies are wrong.

As Stuart Eizenstat, Carter's chief domestic policy adviser, put it: "President Jimmy Carter, almost alone, recognized that if the Democratic Party was to retain the loyalty of the American people and to remain the majority party at the presidential level during a conservative era, it needed to move into a post-New Deal era, while still retaining the best of the party's traditions."

Carter got a fairly good run from the scholars for his administration's specific achievements: the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the Panama Canal treaties, the deregulation of key industries, energy conservation, successful trade negotiations, and civil service reform.

He won something close to raves for placing human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

"He is highly regarded but for a handful of rotten people," said Patricia Derian, Carter's assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, referring to Carter's unpopularity among the world's dictators. "He has a terrific set of enemies."

But Carter's impatience with politics and what many saw as his self-righteousness drew strong criticism.

"He was a proud man, very certain of his moral and intellectual superiority," said Betty Glad, a professor of government at the University of South Carolina.

"Behavior Carter enthusiasts attribute to high integrity was often the product of stubbornness instead," said Leo Ribuffo, a historian at George Washington University. "Carter rejected the imperial presidency, yet in this respect, he was an imperious president."

Criticism of Carter's failure to offer traditional inducements to members of Congress -- roads and bridges for votes, for example -- grew so strong that a frustrated Jody Powell, Carter's former press secretary, was driven to exclaim at one point: "There ain't enough bridges in all of America to pay someone for a vote on the Panama Canal treaty or arms to Saudi Arabia."

It often seemed like old times with the likes of Powell, Eizenstat, Hamilton Jordan, Carter's former chief of staff, Tim Kraft, his appointments secretary, and Pat Caddell, his pollster, fielding questions and offering fierce defenses of their former boss.

All of them played off the popularity Carter has achieved since he left the White House because of his hard work on behalf of a seemingly endless series of humanitarian causes.

"He's finally being seen as the good, unselfish, devoted man that he is," Jordan said.

Yet Jordan and other Carter staffers were also self-critical. Jordan traced some of the administration's difficulties to its failure to "arrive in Washington with a unifying philosophy."

At the heart of the defense of Carter was the notion that he was the victim of both economic and foreign policy events that were largely beyond his control. An emerging view among scholars, said Erwin C. Hargrove, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, "is that Carter is a good president who made the most of his opportunities, which were not great."

Carter fans like Bert Lance, Carter's budget director and loyal friend, take heart in the fact that "when you've been out of office for a while, there is something to compare you to." By comparison with Reagan and Bush, Lance insisted, Carter will start to look good.

What Lance said struck him were the similarities between Bush's situation in 1990 and Carter's in 1980. "Both were dealt body blows by their own party," Lance said, referring to the rebellions of liberal Democrats, led by Kennedy, against Carter and conservative Republicans against Bush. "They're both stuck in the sand in the Middle East. And they both had problems on tax issues."

Carter basked in the warm welcome and positive revisionism. He received such a boisterous greeting from a group of about 1,000 high school students on Friday that he said they had made him "inclined to get back into politics."

"I held that thought for about 10 seconds before I checked it," Carter said.

After years of being attacked by Republicans for being "too soft" in foreign policy, Carter could not resist offering an impassioned criticism of Bush's approach to the Persian Gulf and a warning about the dangers of war.

He also implicitly contrasted his administration to Reagan's when asked why people seem to think better of him these days.

"One of the reasons for that," he said in an interview, "is that we're not embarrassed or concerned about what will be discovered. I don't have anything to hide. We haven't had any sort of allegations of a scandal or inappropriate goals for our nation to achieve."

Special correspondent Stacie Bright contributed to this report.