Carter Looks Better Than Ever

BEFORE the presidential primaries started I came up with an idea that politicians call a "nonstarter." Why not bring back Jimmy Carter?, I asked.

The silence that greeted this suggestion was not exactly deafening. There was a stir of interest in the press and from several former Carter supporters.

But among Democratic Party officials I talked to, the response could only be called scornful. "Jimmy Carter," one shaper of the party's future said. "Are you kidding?"

My answer today would be: "Yes, I do mean Jimmy Carter. And wouldn't you say he would look awfully good to you now if you could choose him over the candidates who did run, and particularly, the candidate who is now the likely party nominee?"

The other evening I attended a welcome-back-to-Washington gathering for Mr. Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, at a downtown hotel. Friends of the Carters packed the spacious ballroom. Jody Powell was the master of ceremonies. Bob Strauss, back for a few days from his ambassadorial assignment in Moscow, was at Carter's side.

As I moved around and chatted with many former Carter aides and co-workers, I heard again and again words like these: "Wouldn't it be great if Jimmy were running against Bush this fall?"

And after Carter had spoken about what he was doing to try to help the disadvantaged of this world, I heard people talking about how "smart" Carter was and how deeply he felt for those who needed help.

What caused me to talk about a possible political revival of Carter months ago was an article by New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, in which he wrote that the Democratic Party needs "a modern version of FDR - a candidate who knows where he or she wants the country to go and how to get there; who can persuade the public to go along, take the blows of a campaign and hit back harder."

Carter proved in 1976 that he was just that kind of a man.

Oh, I know why Carter, who is legally eligible for another term, is rejected by the ticketmakers.

They accept the conventional verdict that Carter had been a weak and ineffective president. Carter's presidency had been tarnished in its last stages by the lingering hostage crises and the long gas lines.

But the criticism of Carter has greatly ebbed. People are remembering that this was a president who scored spectacularly at Camp David, who worked hard for human rights all over the world, and who proposed and pushed for a US energy independence that might well have averted the Gulf war.

No ex-president has looked better in retirement than Carter. He's all around the country carrying a hammer as he pitches in to help build houses for the poor. And he's raising funds to make life better for the have-nots. Yes, he is writing some books. But he is not spending his latter years profiting from his presidential name.

What Carter possesses that the party could use today is his good name. Carter's integrity never has come into question. And now in light of the Los Angeles riots, it seems obvious that the Democrats could also use a candidate who is widely accepted among the blacks and other disadvantaged Americans as a man of compassion.

At breakfast recently the Speaker of the California House, Willie Brown, expressed strong reservations about Bill Clinton.

He said he felt certain Mr. Clinton would be the nominee. But he wasn't cheering over the prospect. He saw an opportunity for Democratic victories in his state next fall, but this seemed doomed with Clinton heading the ticket.

As I thought about it, I could see that the idea of a Carter comeback was fanciful. Yet when one thinks about what has come about: Well, it wasn't too bad an idea.

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