Posted on April 23, 2001 in Washington Watch

When American Presidents leave office, the battle for their legacy begins. Historians debate their contributions, reporters examine their records and the public weighs their memories.

Partisans also enter the fray, with each side attempting to elevate their favorites, while working to discredit those whom they have politically opposed. At stake, for the partisans, is more than the public memory or the standing of their favorite past-President in opinion polls. As political activists seek to enshrine the legacy of their heroes they also seek to elevate their philosophy and its currency.

For decades, for example, liberals elevated the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his New Deal programs. He was America’s longest serving President–having been elected four times. He led the United States out of the Great Depression, instituted social programs that provided support for the poor, the unemployed and the retired. And he led this nation through the Second World War, calming fears and inspiring greatness.

The FDR memorial, recently constructed on Washington’s Mall, has become one of the city’s great tourist attractions. It commemorates not only the history of the man, it also imparts his political philosophy as well.

Conservatives have long regarded FDR’s New Deal as the embodiment of all that was wrong with what they call, “big government.” They have struggled both to discredit his political philosophy and to replace him in the ‘pantheon of great presidents” with an icon of their own–Ronald Reagan.

There is currently an effort, led by conservative activists and supported by some Republican members of Congress to build a Ronald Reagan memorial in Washington and to name more federal buildings and installations after him. There is already a new Washington government office complex named after Reagan and Washington’s National Airport, has been renamed “Reagan National Airport.” Not yet satisfied, this group is working to have at least one building in each of the 50 states named after the former Republican President. And some members of Congress have proposed putting his face on one denomination of U.S. currency and, possibly even, having his face carved on Mount Rushmore!

Reagan, though suffering from Alzheimer’s and out of the public eye, is a living former President and so some have questioned the appropriateness of these efforts. But what of our other living former Presidents?

Bill Clinton, who sought to enhance his legacy during his last year in office by attempting to negotiate a Middle East peace was frustrated by the collapse of his effort. His quest for a legacy suffered further blows resulting from a number of controversies occurring during his final days in office.

But Clinton is young and enormously talented and despite the many controversies, fed by his partisan opponents, the public view of his eight-year term is still quite good. This, coupled with what he does with the rest of his life, may restore his chance of a positive historical legacy.

His predecessor, George H.W. Bush, has had a largely quiet life since leaving office. Bush, whose own term in office was characterized by his struggle to emerge from under the shadow of Reagan, saw only momentary greatness at the victorious Commander in Chief of the Gulf War. This ended with an election defeat in 1992. Bush, though, may find that his legacy will depend, to a degree, on the success of his son’s term as President.

Gerald Ford, the other living Republican former President, served only a short time in office and has also led a fairly private life in retirement.

That leaves, Jimmy Carter, the last of our living former Presidents. Carter, a Democrat, served from 1977 to 1981. His term in office ended under the clouds of a failing economy and U.S. hostages held in Iran.

But since leaving office, Carter has done more to establish his legacy than, I believe, any former President in history.

He first closely identified himself with a non-profit volunteer project, Habitat for Humanity. During its two decades of existence, Habitat has become a household word in many communities across the United States. It has built 100,000 low-cost homes for one-half million people in more than 60 countries around the world. Through its 1,900 affiliates, Habitat has worked to transform communities and make a real contribution to the quality of life for millions.

Carter, himself, has often times actively volunteered in Habitat projects and when thinking of him today, more Americans call to mind Carter in denim working to build a house, than Carter in a suit at the White House. Though not a young man, Carter and his wife Roslyn still volunteer one week each year to Habitat. Last year they helped to build 100 homes in New York City, the year before 300 in Philadelphia.

His Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, has further established his credentials as a great ex-President. The Center was established in 1982 and describes its role as “waging peace, fighting disease and building hope.”

Known world wide, the Carter Center’s programs have had a significant impact on the lives of those who have benefited from their projects.

Many of the Center’s projects are personally led by the former President himself. They have provided technical assistance and monitored elections in 20 fledging democratic states; negotiated peaceful solutions to conflicts in Haiti, Korea, Nicaragua and several African countries; and continued to campaign for global human rights–a theme of his presidency.

The Center’s health projects have been equally significant. Through Carter Center efforts, a dreaded disease that plagued parts of Africa and Asia has virtually been irradiated. And programs initiated by the Center have assisted more than one million farmers in Africa to increase their yields and improve their lives.

I had the honor to serve under President Carter as an election monitor in Palestine in 1996. His very presence brought integrity to the process and inspired all who saw him stand up to the many challenges he faced in ensuring that that election would be “free and fair.”

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Carter about a number of issues related to his work. We spoke of his having been awarded an international prize, named after UAE President Sheikh Zayed, in recognition of his work on behalf of the environment.

I also asked him for his reflections on two major Middle East issues, the conflict in Palestine and the sanctions against Iraq. His answers were direct and powerful.

On the Palestinians:

    I got in some trouble when I was the President because I called for a Palestinian homeland, publicly, just a few weeks after I became President. And my primary negotiating technique was to protect the basic rights of the Palestinians. In the Camp David Accords, which Prime Minister Begin and the Israeli Knesset approved, as did President Sadat and the Egyptian Parliament, the Camp David Accords reemphasized the commitment to United Nations Resolution 242, the prohibition against the acquisition of territory by force, and called for the complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza of Israeli’s political and military entities, except for a few outposts which would be mutually decided…. However, when the United States has in effect looked the other way, which I’m afraid we have in the last few years as Israel continued to build additional Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, that’s when I have been critical, publicly.

On Iraq:

    I personally feel that the sanctions against Iraq have been counterproductive. The World Health Organization estimates that between 100,000 and 500,000 Iraqi children have probably perished because of inadequate medical care, partially brought about by the sanctions, and partially brought about by the ineptness or callousness of Saddam Hussein. I think there’s a shared responsibility there, because more of the income from oil that is sold could have been devoted to the alleviation of suffering and the prevention of the death of these children. But I think the sanctions are counterproductive for several reasons. One is what I’ve just described, the humanitarian cause. Secondly, the United States and Great Britain are now acting, to a substantial degree, without the authority or approval of the United Nations organization itself. And the third is because I think the sanctions are hurting the people of Iraq, and not Saddam Hussein, whom I consider to be a dictator, and I think an insensitive dictator, and he is able now to blame all of his maybe self-induced problems, economically and socially, on the United States because of our sanctions and because of our fairly infrequent aerial attacks. I think this gives him an excuse and I think in a strange way it probably makes opposition to him within Iraq much more difficult than would be the case if the sanctions were not imposed, so I really don’t agree that the sanctions are doing any good, I think they are counterproductive.

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Carter’s term in office may have ended under a cloud. He was, for years severely criticized by Republicans and shunned by Democrats. But his work since leaving office and his continuing commitment to human rights and public service have insured that his legacy will be recognized–not by partisans–but by people of good will everywhere.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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