Small World: Looking back, presidential preferences

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Last week, I watched on the Internet an interview of former President Carter with two Washington Post reporters. He was promoting his most recent book — he’s written almost two dozen. The new one has to do with religion, women’s rights and related issues. Carter is 89 and remains as bright and sharp as he was in the White House.

That leads me quickly to my opinion for today: I think Carter was the best leader the United States has had since World War II. My standards are tough but simple and come in two parts, the personal and the policies. First, was the president a person of intelligence, judgment, honesty, courage and empathy? Second, during his tenure did he waste American and foreign lives and treasure? Did he pursue measures to improve the material and moral prospects of this nation?

Some of our elected leaders don’t make it pass the first hurtle. They were plainly ill suited for the post. While Nixon registered some signal achievements — opening to China, progress in the Middle East, détente with the USSR — his deceptions, criminality and the disaster of Vietnam would exclude him from any historian’s list of greats. Johnson scored with Medicare and Civil Rights, but failed over Vietnam and the Arab-Israel conflict. A “D+” for him, I would say — a higher grade than that earned by George W. Bush. Obama is, at this stage, graded “Incomplete,” but with a warning to work harder with fewer politically influenced actions.

A disappointing failure may be said of Clinton, a man of talent and charm who wasted his presidency pursuing political deals and personal pleasures. Reagan offered a cheery disposition but was lacking when it came to hard decisions and adherence to the law (Iran-Contra). His successor, George H.W. Bush, handled the collapse of the USSR skillfully, as well as Arab-Israel tensions firmly and had the courage to raise needed taxes. But, he started us down the ill-fated path to war in Iraq and never “reached” the American people. “B+.”

Truman, who gave us the Cold and Korean Wars, was very much in thrall to Acheson, Marshall and other greats. The unsung hero of those early years was Eisenhower. True, he spent a lot of time on the golf course and had difficulties with syntax, but he kept us out of war (albeit fostering destructive subversion in Iran and Guatemala) plus keeping the economy out of the dumps. Another “B+.” Kennedy had great intentions and moments (Cuban missiles), but insufficient time. Finally, Ford. Who?

Carter bested them all in his ability to see ahead and the guts to say what needed to be done. He pushed energy conservation and education improvement, but his audience was confused by deriding critics. He took on the Panama Canal Treaties despite hidebound opposition. He pushed SALT II nuclear disarmament with Moscow and widened the opening to China. Most significant of all were the Camp David Accords, which brought peace to Israel and Egypt. Had he been reelected, he would, I am sure, have made further progress with the Palestinians and Israel. Maybe that is what some of his opponents feared.

Carter inherited stagnation and inflation and bravely administered the unpleasant, belt-tightening medicine that hurt him with voters. Even more damaging was the prolonged Iran Hostage Crisis. He could have escaped the burden by moving militarily to attack Iran. That would have meant sacrificing the lives of the Embassy personnel. He ventured in that direction with the ill-starred rescue mission, but finished his term bringing safely home all of our people. The kinds of opponents he faced — war-seeking, reform-averse reactionaries — tell you what is wrong about some of the elites of this country and what was right about the president.

Out of office, Carter has proved what he was capable of: The Carter Center effectively fights disease and promotes human rights. No other ex-president can approach his record of service to humanity. It is a pity and a loss that he did not have a second term to seek those goals officially.

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, was born and raised in Georgia.

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