"Of course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."
~~Noah Cross (John Huston) to Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), Chinatown

Former-President Jimmy Carter is now eighty-two years-old. He has survived Southern birth, a failed presidency, and a two-decade exile from any public role within his party. Notwithstanding, in his dotage, rather miraculously, he has ascended to the top of the "greasy pole" of public esteem. Give him credit. No previous or subsequent president worked harder during his post-presidential years to redeem his calamitous turn in office.

In truth, Carter's life rings with triumphal moments. He is an Annapolis grad. He was a successful farmer and governor of Georgia. His 1976 winning campaign for the grand prize of American politics is on the short list of the greatest political stories ever told. His success in securing peace between Israel and one of its major antagonists makes him singular among world leaders. His accomplishments in retirement resonate with seriousness and personal achievement: the Carter Center; his association with Habitat for Humanity; the Nobel Peace Prize; his friendship with Jerry Ford.

However, for nearly a quarter century, his woeful presidency washed out much of the charisma and dramatic splendor associated with his life. As president, he ranks high on the all-time feckless and hapless list. Seemingly, everything he touched during his long four years in office turned sour. He entered the White House during a period of flagging economic prospects and a collective psychological low point; both of those conditions deteriorated under his leadership and drastically improved during the reign of his successor. Jimmy Carter seemed forever synonymous with ineptitude.

Through it all, President Carter never seemed to question his own ability. He knew himself to be a brilliant man with a remarkable capacity to understand intricate problems. But like John Quincy Adams, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover before him, he proved a supremely intelligent and well-meaning president who failed as national chief executive.

Now that he is enjoying his brief moment in the sun, why not take this opportunity to graciously applaud former-President Carter for his perseverance and delayed recognition?

There is a quality about Jimmy Carter that continues to disturb me.

In all these successes and failures, Carter has consistently demonstrated a penchant for self promotion on the one hand and a record of over-estimating his own ability on the other. Moreover, he also has a nasty tendency to take cheap shots at his successors during the most inappropriate moments.

At times, he seems to embody hubris. He has reportedly claimed that a second Carter administration would have brought lasting peace to the Middle East. In essence, he seems incapable of admitting his limitations. I cannot remember him owning up to a fault. In his own mind, his great mistake was offering his vast knowledge and ability to an ungrateful electorate. In his view, he erred in casting his pearls before swine.

I am reminded of the Broadway hit, Wicked, in which Galinda (who later renames herself Glinda the Good) articulates a philosophy of amelioration and noblesse oblige:

I've decided to make you my new project.

You really don't have to do that

I know. That's what makes me so nice!
(sung) Whenever I see someone
Less fortunate than I
(And let's face it - who isn't
Less fortunate than I?)
My tender heart
Tends to start to bleed
And when someone needs a makeover
I simply have to take over
I know I know exactly what they need

For many years, the memory of President Carter's inadequacies remained fresh in our minds. During the Clinton administration, he made something of a comeback--but, even then, the former president seemed uncomfortable sharing the spotlight with a current president. He was sidelined once again. He had still not come into his own as elder statesman.

Then, with the advent of George W. Bush, former-President Carter found the perfect foil. He had always sniped at his successors--but, generally, no one had listened much. However, his pronouncements against the plan to invade Iraq brought Carter new life as an oracle. Suddenly, the Sage of Plains, Georgia, was alive and well and speaking truth to power. Where had this humble visionary been for so long? Carter was back enjoying a revival, even speaking at a Democratic National Convention in 2004 for the first time since his embarassing defeat of 1980.

Never one to rest on his laurels, former-President Carter recently reinserted himself into the storm of Middle East discussion with a new book: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Has Carter thrown himself under a bus once again? We'll see.

For this effort, Carter has run afoul of several thoughtful critics including an old writing partner, Emory professor and Carter Center fellow, Kenneth W. Stein, who dissociated with Carter in protest. Read Stein's article explaining his objections here, which appeared in The Middle East Quarterly.

Also, this weekend C-SPAN presented Carter's recent talk at Brandeis University defending the book (view here). Alan Dershowitz spoke in response immediately following Carter on that occasion, as Carter refused to debate head-to-head (view Dershowitz here).