Most political observers think Jimmy Carter is finished.His single term is over. The people have replaced him, and he seems to have no chance of regaining office. Historians may speak more kindly than contemporaries of his performance and accomplishments, but he has had his day in the sun. Americans have no phrase to correspond to the Britishers' "The King is dead! Long live the King!" yet they understand its meaning. Everyone focuses now on President Reagan.
Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, will continue to be Jimmy Carter, and those who know him best will not be surprised if he reemerges in a new and important role. He offered striking clues about the nature of this role in his farewell address.
Before identifying these clues, it will be well to look at Carter's political career to date. Washington never understood Carter, partly because it never knew that, in addition to having been a naval officer, a peanut farmer, and a governor, he had been a county school board member and a state senator. As if mesmerized by an exotic butterfly whose earlier stage as a caterpillar was outside their ken, Washingtonians focused on Presidentm Carter, and largely ignored the younger Carter's metamorphoses from school board member to senator, from senator to governor, and from governor to president.
The rest of his story, though it appears different to different individuals, is well known. The born-again Christian who spoke to the people of love; the nonpolitician who captured the Democratic Party but never won its heart; the President who gave away the Panana Canal and betrayed Taiwan but strengthened ties with China; the politician who helped achieve peace between Israel and Egypt but lost the Jewish vote; the laissez-faire businessman who alienated capital as well as labor; the friend of the Shah who lost Iran to revolution but brought the hostages home. Ousted by popular vote, the man's political career seemed over as it had before.
Don't bet on it! In his farewell address Jimmy Carter three times defined his new role. "I will lay down my official responsibilities in this office," he began, "to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of President, the title of citizen." Columnists rarely think of the citizen (little "c") as superior to the President (capital "P"). It must be emphasized, for Jimmy Carter's deepest political principle is the democratic (little "d") principle, that the people rule.
As he reached the heart of his address, citizen Carter defined his new role again, in slightly different words. "I want to lay aside my role as a leader of one nation and speak to you as a fellow citizen of the world about three . . . issues: the threat of nuclear destruction, our stewardship of the physical resources of our planet, and the preeminence of the basic rights of human beings." For once, if never before, Carter's message was unambiguous; and columnists caught the substance of his address. Still they failed to note the role he assumed. Jimmy Carter, formerly chairman of Sumter County's Board of Education, senator of Georgia, governor of Georgia, and President of the United States of America, called himself a fellow citizen of the world.
Citizen Carter of the world has not forgotten that he is also citizen Carter of the United States. Concluding his farewell address, he defined his new political role a third time."I intend to give our new President my support," he asserted, "and I intend to work as a citizen, as I have worked as President, for the values this nation was founded to secure." What are these values? "Each generation," said Carter, "must rediscover the meaning of [the Declaration of Independence's] hallowed vision in the light of its own modern challenges. For this generation, lifem is nuclear survival; libertym is human rights; and the pursuit of happinessm is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants."
Precisely what occasions citizen Carter will find to articulate his subtle theme we must wait to see. The Atlanta-based Cable News Network is one place to watch. The floor of the Senate, open to former presidents by law, is another. Visits to national leaders --Deng Xiaoping, Anwar Sadat, Ronald Reagan --there are others. Having seen Jimmy Carter perform metamorphosis after metamorphosis, we should not be amazed should he now emerge in the transcendent office, the office more nearly universal than that of President, or King, the office for which the previous offices have prepared him -- the office of world citizen.