Carpenter Jimmy

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WRITING books, as everyone knows, is the favorite occupation of former United States presidents. Jimmy Carter is no exception. Still, Mr. Carter does abandon his tape recorder or word processor occasionally to do some manual labor. The ex-President is back in New York City for the second straight summer, wielding hammer and saw in a project that rehabilitates housing for low-income residents. And he keeps up his chairmaking, which made headlines when he sold some of his wares a few months ago. There is something so American about a former chief executive callusing his hands by manual labor -- especially on behalf of those less fortunate.

It's also gratifying to see ex-presidents put their political and administrative skills back to work in the government sector. Many have done so, but none more directly than John Quincy Adams. The sixth US President is still the only one who returned to government as a legislator. After four unproductive years (1825-29) as chief executive, Adams returned to Massachusetts, where voters in his district soon elected him to the US House of Representatives. Adams was a constructive and respected congressman until his passing in 1848.

Proposals for making ex-presidents US senators or giving them some sort of formal governmental role surface from time to time. Better use should be made of their experience. The symbolic as well as practical influence of former leaders can be considerable. John Quincy Adams at a desk in the House chamber or Jimmy Carter pounding nails in a low-income housing project -- both epitomize the democratic ideal.

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