Jimmy Carter is unwell. The 44th President telephones the hospital in Cleveland, wishes the 39th President a speedy recovery. Then the brave 86-year-old continues his book tour, batting critics and embracing admirers, as relentlessly as he has pursued his various aims all his life...
This is our presidency -- not that of North Korea, where illness is concealed, and any perceived insult to the person of the ruler could end in a torpedo, or even a nuclear tipped missile in ones bowels!
To bring home an innocent American from North America, our distinguished former president recently made the journey to Pyongyang -- the only president we have humble enough to undertake such a humanitarian mission. He has, of course, been there before, on behalf of the 42nd President (Bill Clinton) -- just as he also flew to Haiti on behalf of the 42nd President, to ensure the ouster of the military junta who would not leave. His courage and resilience is extraordinary. No wonder he has been called "the American Gandhi."
A man, like Gandhi, of profound faith, courage and ultimate humility.
Gandhi, of course, refused to serve as a politician in an Indian government -- a role he assigned to his mentee, Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi's lifelong mission was to make Indians proud of their national heritage and character: particularly their patience -- however downtrodden or abused by their British rulers. In the thousands of years of their civilization, he proselytized, the British occupation was but a brief infection. And with endless courage and patience he insisted on the British departing, without Indians resorting to violence. India, today, is very much a tribute to Gandhi -- who in the end gave his life for his country.
Some years ago, I wrote the first volume of a biography of Gandhi's protégé, Jawarharlal Nehru. The story of the Indian son who is sent to be educated at the best of England's high schools and universities and to take a British law degree, but who then returns to his homeland, sheds his smart suits and, traveling in a bullock-cart, follows Gandhi -- gradually winning over his own outraged, hysterical, but loving father -- is surely one of the most poignant stories of filial-paternal love in world history. Alas, my publisher here in the States did not think so! Not enough sex, not enough drama! The rejected manuscript, Nehruji: Father and Son, was tucked away in a drawer while its author turned to other subjects. But I have never forgotten the charm of the letters between père et fils that I read in the Nehru archives, or the stories of those I interviewed in Delhi and elsewhere.
When I came to research Chapter Eight of American Caesars, relating Jimmy Carter's path to the presidency, his term as U.S. president, and his private life (the structure modeled on Suetonius' famous history, The Twelve Caesars, written in 130 A.D.), I thought of Carter as an idealist, like Gandhi -- a man who was unsuited to the task of running the empire that FDR had established, in World War II. Why he proved so ineffective, even counter-effective, fascinated me in terms of leadership. After all, here was an individual trained as an officer in the military -- indeed in the U.S. Navy's top program, its nuclear-propelled and armed submarine service! How could Carter have proven one of the least competent rulers of the White House, let alone of America and the western world?
President Truman's daughter Margaret once recalled her father's words, when General Eisenhower took over the White House as 34th U.S. President, or third of its Caesars, twenty years before Carter did. "He'll sit right here, and he'll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike -- it won't be a bit like the army. He'll find it very frustrating," Truman had predicted. The reverse had, of course, happened -- for Eisenhower had learned to master, over a lifetime in the U.S. Armed Forces, the politics of the military, whereas Lieutenant Jimmy Carter had left the U.S. Navy in 1953, at age 29! In fact, when an interviewer later implied Eisenhower was not cut out to be a politician, he retorted: 'What the hell are you talking about? I have been in politics, the most active sort of politics, most of my adult life. There's no more active political organization in the world than the armed services of the U.S."
From successful farming in Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter made his way up the political ladder to the governorship, where his idealism, intelligence and absolute honesty were widely respected. But the White House, once won, was another matter. Serving on tightly-knit submarine crews, Carter had never learned how to delegate through a chief of staff; indeed his abiding conviction was that he could do everything better than anyone else, and only needed advisors, not deputies. He invented a "spokes of the wheel" theory for White House management, with no less than 9 pseudo-chiefs of staff! This led to endless bickering, crossed lines, and leaks. Yet Carter seemed incapable of learning this simplest of White House lessons -- and his presidency inevitably wobbled to the moment of his "malaise" speech, in which he admitted his impotence to lead a turbulent America.
Publishing his White House diary, former President Carter is reminding us of that less-than-illustrious period in his life. I for one admire his willingness to revisit that sorry saga, for it does possess many similarities to the present -- not least the struggle with militant Iranian Islam! The almost incredible responsibility that the President must carry, not only abroad but domestically, is wonderfully recorded in his diary -- and those of us with open eyes can only marvel at how patiently and, overall, dexterously by comparison, the 44th President has steered the ship of state, given the unholy mess on almost every front that his predecessor, George W. Bush, bequeathed.
Mr. Carter is a sort of national treasure, and large numbers of people will line up to shake his hand in honor of his life's work as an American. His diary, however, will do little to convince historians, or the public, that he was fit to lead the nation in its troubled times, for all his idealism and visionary intelligence. His finest efforts, on behalf of America and mankind, have been made in his post-presidential career -- earning him not only a well-deserved Nobel Peace prize, but the accolade he will surely treasure above all others: the American Gandhi.
Quotations are from American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt George W. Bush, Yale, 2010
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