WASHINGTON — When historians, polled by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., rated Jimmy Carter in the "lower middle" of our presidents through the years, I, demurred. That was in 1996. Since then Mr. Carter's standing among historians has not risen, and I continue to believe that this good man deserves a better grade.
Now, as an ex-president who has devoted the past 20 years to seeking peaceful resolutions to international conflicts and advocating human rights causes around the world, Carter has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
And now editorial writers, commentators, and pundits in general are coming up with this assessment: Carter has shown himself by his attention to peacemaking and to personally helping the poor to be the greatest among our former presidents.
I go further. I think historians of the future will assess the total Jimmy Carter, and his performance in the presidency will be seen in a better light. Historians have viewed Carter as a president whose administration was marred by roaring inflation and the hostage crisis and who was beaten badly by Ronald Reagan when he sought reelection. That's all they seemed to see.
I think the Nobel Prize will cause these graders of presidents to take a new look at Carter and, among other things, give him more credit for the remarkable achievement for which he, in large part, won the award brokering the peace accords between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. I covered that historic event (as closely as I could; the press was kept out of Camp David for hours on end as Carter hustled back and forth on his bicycle between Begin and Sadat).
I also think historians' new look at Carter, occasioned by the Nobel Prize, will prompt them to see his other positive aspects. They'll note that Carter was an exceptionally smart man who dignified the office with his straight-shooting approach and modesty.
I must admit I liked Jimmy Carter from the moment I first met him when he popped up as a guest at a Monitor breakfast back in 1971. Los Angeles Times newsman Jack Nelson had suggested that we invite this Georgia governor to meet with us. At that point I had heard little about Carter. "We should keep our eye on him," Mr. Nelson said, because someday Carter was going to run for president.
So Jimmy, with wife Rosalynn, dropped by to see us. I was immediately impressed by how unassuming they both were and how intelligently Carter answered questions on both domestic and foreign affairs. And then there was that wide, warm Carter smile that, it seemed to me, no one could resist. In fact, I told my wife that evening that if Carter ever got that smartness and smile on national TV, he could well become a formidable presidential candidate.
I liked it when Carter, as president, walked the inauguration parade route back to the White House, and when he wore a sweater at his first press conference. These incidents drew criticism some said that he was downgrading the presidency. But, to me, Carter was simply sending out a message: He had no use for the imperial presidency concept. He would be a people's president. And he was.
James Reston of The New York Times had a theory that so many politicians, after they win office and come to Washington, become "full of themselves." More than once he wrote, "They swell instead of grow." Reston called this a Washington disease and dubbed it "Potomac Fever." Well, Jimmy Carter's chest never swelled. He never forgot where he came from. He would get back to his little hometown of Plains, Ga., whenever he could and teach Sunday School.
I do not say that Carter wasn't a politician. No, he was superb in the craft of winning over people to his side. But he did his politicking by going out among the people and talking to them about his stands on issues and, most of all, his vision. He said he would try to bring about a presidency "as good as the American people." There was no bombast, no disparaging of an opponent.
I'd like to think that historians, in a "new look" at Carter, would note that he wouldn't play the political game when he got to Washington. He wasn't interested in making deals or listening to the lobbyists. Indeed, some observers criticized him for not "playing ball" with leaders in Congress, asserting that he'd have gotten more done if he had. I'd like to think that historians now would give Carter credit for the breath of fresh air he brought to the presidency.