Jimmy Carter Rediscovered

IT might have been a scene along the 1976 Carter campaign trail. The overflow crowd and the noisy reception were reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's days during his first presidential quest. Finally able to quiet the cheering friends and former cohorts who had assembled in a hotel ballroom for a Washington reunion, Mr. Carter, with that wide, glowing smile, said, ``I've just had a thought. ... Let's take over.''

No doubt about it, Jimmy Carter is making a comeback. There will be no new try for the presidency. No chance of that. What he is coming out of - and fast - is the humiliation that marked his leaving.

Indeed, the worse Ronald Reagan has begun to look - with his $2 million fee for a trip to Japan and with Nancy Reagan's bitter book - the better Carter is looking.

Carter's approach to life - he mediates international disputes, helps build houses for the poor, and, all in all, lives quite modestly - stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Reagan's self-centered lifestyle.

And Rosalynn Carter, gracious as ever when speaking briefly following Carter's comments, was a reminder that first ladies don't have to try to be queenly or need to meddle in the presidency.

Obviously enjoying himself, Carter quickly turned to the subject of Reagan's trip to Japan. ``I've been telling the press,'' he said, ``that I don't criticize former presidents. But here among friends, I'll say, if you hear of another deal like that, let me know.''

I stood directly before Carter as he spoke from the ballroom stage. As a newsman, I had covered the Georgian during all of his presidential years, and long before, starting when as a young governor he had disclosed to reporters at a Monitor breakfast that he had aspirations of seeking the White House some day.

Once again I was on hand to chronicle a Carter event - but this time to see how he was faring after eight years of being kicked around.

No one needs to be reminded what caused Carter to leave office with his tail between his legs. TV coverage of the Iran hostage crisis daily focused attention on a continuing tragedy and on a president who wasn't able to end it.

The Carter image became that of a president who was weak, inept. Even Democratic officeholders pretty much disowned him. No candidates wanted the president's campaign help.

But now Jimmy Carter is on the rise. People are talking about the Carter trait that won him so many supporters back in 1976: his decency.

People are also beginning to remember that it was Carter, not Reagan, who not only talked family values but lived them. Even toward brother Billy, who was a constant burden, President Carter always expressed love and understanding.

It was Carter who unabashedly talked of his reliance on prayer. He taught in Sunday school. He told of being lifted out of despair, after losing his first race for governor, when he turned to God.

It was Carter, too, who had little talks with members of his administration in which, along with asking for dedicated performance, he would advise marriage for those who were living together without vows.

Compared with the Reagan years the Carter presidency was scandal-free. The worst ethical allegations during the Carter years were the charges of inappropriate banking practices by Bert Lance - actions that had preceded Mr. Lance's joining Carter in the White House (and of which Lance was ultimately acquitted after resigning from the administration).

The Carters just don't put much emphasis on making money or accumulating material things. So it's not surprising that Mr. Carter ended up with an administration that was not marked by corruption.

Remember how Carter, as a new president, strove to put an end to the ``regal presidency'' - the kind of pomp that had grown to ridiculous proportions under Richard Nixon. Carter wore a sweater at his early TV fire-side chats with the American people. He had walked hand-in-hand with Rosalynn back from the inaugural. Jimmy was always saying, through his actions: ``Just because I'm president, I don't think I'm any better than any other American.''

This show of modesty played very well for a while with the public. Then - somehow - people tired of this. They seemed to want to feel they had someone better than they - someone special - in the White House. So it was that the voters appeared to be ready for the Reagans.

One does not have to put Reagan down in order to elevate Carter. Reagan has been given very good reviews for his presidency, particularly for setting the stage for global arms reductions. Reagan, too, remains very popular. The important thing to note is that Jimmy Carter, and rightly so, is being rediscovered.

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