Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Glorifying the past

Jackson and Grace in the replica of the Oval Office at the Jimmy Carter museum in Atlanta.
On a visit to Atlanta last month we spent an afternoon at the museum at Jimmy Carter’s presidential library. We took two of our grandchildren, Grace and Jackson, who endure their grandfather’s history bug with patience and sometimes even enthusiasm.

This was the first time they had accompanied Monique and me to a historical site where we had lived through the history being presented, and it introduced a new dynamic. As we viewed the blowups of the grinning Carter and his family, videotape of his finest moments and displays heralding his admirable post-presidency, I kept wanting to stop and say to the kids, “Yes, but . . .”

The museum does not ignore the crises of the Carter presidency: double-digit inflation, long lines at gas stations, the taking of American hostages in Iran. But neither does it convey what it was like, as a citizen, to endure the Carter presidency.

Jimmy and Rosalynn and Grace and Jackson
The malaise speech” sums up the frustration. Before this televised address in the summer of 1979, Carter had literally gone to the mountain. He invited politicians and experts to Camp David to speak their minds in private and help him decide what to do about energy and the economy. As Carter closeted with his advisers, public anticipation grew. What would he say?

The speech included ideas about energy independence, but for the most part Carter delivered a ruminative talk about the “crisis of confidence” of the American people, the scourge of materialism, the lack of faith and togetherness. Despite the president’s urging, the speech left people not rolling up their sleeves but rolling their eyes and scratching their heads.

In November 1979, Iranians took 52 Americans hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the Carter presidency began to drip away. A mission to rescue them the following April ended with U.S. helicopters twisted and broken in the desert and eight servicemen dead. Newspapers, including the Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., ran a front-page box each morning with a count of how many days the hostages had been held.

Because of the crisis, Carter remained in Washington rather than hitting the campaign trail. This became known as “the Rose Garden strategy,” and it failed. Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged Carter from the left in the primaries, and Ronald Reagan easily beat him in the 1980 election. The hostages in Iran were freed on the last full day of Carter’s presidency.

At the museum in Atlanta, Carter’s voice speaks in good-natured tones about how his presidency ended four years before he had hoped it would. I suppose it is a blessing that he was able to move on from the desperation and frustration of his presidency. Possibly he adopted the same rosy, self-forgiving view that dominates the museum display. 

Carter came to office as a healer, one who would help America move beyond Watergate and Vietnam. Instead, I remember him, especially in the second half of his term, as the central figure in a country that was adrift and rudderless.

I’ve been to many presidential libraries, museums and homes, including the Carter museum at Plains, Ga. It’s only natural that these sites accentuate the positive. I just hadn’t realized the extent of that glorification until I visited the Carter museum in Atlanta.

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