Jimmy Carter, Superstar
How Carter rebuilt his reputation in the wake of his failed one-term presidency, and provides the model for what President Obama should do once he leaves office.
If there were a Guinness World Record for books signed in a single sitting, it would probably go to Jimmy Carter. Hundreds of people queued up in a line that snaked around the block at Washington’s Politics & Prose bookstore last week. A sudden downpour sent some scurrying into storefronts along the way, but the line moved quickly as the former president affixed his “J Carter” on book after book with assembly line efficiency.
Carter didn’t leave office a rich man. His peanut warehouse in Plains, Georgia, which was held in a blind trust during his presidency, had fallen into disrepair. Writing books is how Carter makes his living, and 35 years after leaving office, he’s promoting his 29th book, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, a look back at his rural beginnings, his improbable road to the White House, and his even more improbable post-presidency.
For a group of adoring fans, Carter is something of a cult hero now, his post-presidency wildly more successful than his single term in the White House. And that’s no accident, says Les Francis, a former Carter White House staffer.
“I believe that once he got over the 1980 election, Carter decided that to repair his reputation and his standing was going to take exactly the same determination and relentless drive it took for him to win the White House,” he says.
Where Carter’s comeback from crushing defeat and near financial ruin took years to overcome, President Obama will leave the White House in January 2017 with a huge advantage that neither of his Democratic predecessors had. An historic figure and a proven writer, Obama can write a memoir that will command a hefty advance, as will Michelle Obama’s, which means the couple will be pretty well set financially and freer much sooner to raise money for their post-presidential programs and causes than either Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton were when they re-entered private life at the same age, in their mid-fifties.
Obama, who will be 55 when he leaves the White House, won’t have to write 30 books like Carter, and he won’t have to hit the speech circuit with the same zeal as Clinton, who, at 54 in 2001, had never made serious money. Though Hillary Clinton’s lament that her family was “flat broke” upon leaving the White House was an offensive exaggeration considering the couple’s earning potential, the Clintons did have millions in legal fees they had to pay down before building their now very handsome nest egg.
Obama’s popularity has not reached 50 percent for some time. How he is regarded after he leaves the White House depends a lot on the next president. If a Democrat is elected, it will be seen as an affirmation of the Obama presidency. If a Republican wins the White House, it could be seen as a repudiation of Obama and a presidency that veered off course and fell short of expectations.
With either outcome, Obama will have a lot of unfinished business, and to the extent that he can burnish his presidency through acts of public service, the prototype is the Carter Center. Originally modeled after Camp David as a place where warring factions could come together to mediate conflicts, the Carter Center in Atlanta is a major player in international peacekeeping, election monitoring, and global health issues.
Established by Carter after he lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide in 1980, it is the vehicle through which Carter transformed his image. And it is the prototype upon which the Clinton Foundation and the George W. Bush Library continue the signature efforts of the presidents that bear their name. The success of Carter’s post-presidency boosts his presidency as well, says Francis, who believes, “People will ultimately view the Carter presidency in part through the prism of his post-presidency.”
Most Americans, if asked what Carter has done with his life since leaving the White House, might know that he teaches Sunday school, he builds houses through Habitat for Humanity, and he works for international peace and health. These activities are who he is, and it is this authenticity that explains his popularity in the autumn of his life.
The parallels for Obama would be teaching law and/or public policy at the University of Chicago, or Columbia University, his alma mater; devoting his time and standing to the initiative he launched in the White House, My Brother’s Keeper, extending his reach as the first black president in ways that perhaps were not fully available to him in the White House; and helping define America’s role in an ever-changing world while bridging the divides at home, which he largely failed to do as president.
Obama says he expects to live long enough to be accountable for the outcome of the historic nuclear arms control deal with Iran. He will have to be more of a team if a Democrat succeeds him in the White House. Carter was followed by 12 years of Republican rule, and Democratic presidents were wary of him as well. He has the history of being a lone ranger and not caring what others think of what he says or does, qualities that today’s voters admire and that together with his sheer longevity have made him a politician who overcame his presidency’s shoddy legacy.