He-e-e's Back! Jimmy Carter, President and Poet

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: May 30, 2007 12:01 AM
He-e-e's Back! Jimmy Carter, President and Poet

This time not even Jimmy Carter agreed with Jimmy Carter - at least not after he'd taken a day or two to think abut what he'd just said.

That was quite a scoop the former president gave the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. When he called George W. Bush the worst president in American history, Mr. Carter managed to ignite a 24-hour brush fire out there in medialand. That's understandable. There's something irresistibly comic about Jimmy Carter's calling another president, any president, the worst in history. It's like Danny DeVito calling somebody else short.

Some of us who read Mr. Carter's comments had the bad taste, once we'd stopped laughing, to go back and dredge up the dismal record of his own presidency, which has to be a low-water mark in the history of that institution.

Nevertheless, Jimmy Carter should be pleased at all the play his interview got. Because it's been a while since folks took anything he said seriously enough to point out how impossible it has become to take him seriously.

Now even the Mr. Carter has joined the ranks of his critics, resorting to what politicians almost invariably do when the get caught saying something embarrassing: They blame the press.

Hey, that's what we're here for. It's all our fault for quoting them saying dumb things.

Well, maybe not all our fault. Or as Mr. Carter later confessed, "My remarks were maybe careless or misinterpreted."

There wasn't any maybe about it. And the published transcript soon enough revealed that his comments hadn't been misinterpreted. Which leaves "careless," a word that doesn't quite capture the encyclopedic range of the various misjudgments he delivered in the course of this interview. Nor does it do justice to the general petulance that has marked his whole ex-presidency, which has become as bitter an experience as his presidency was.

It's been quite a journey for Jimmy Carter - pretty much downhill ever since he took the oath of office. By now he's got to say something particularly outrageous just to be called irrelevant.

It's all kind of sad but, happily, no longer important. Unhappily, there was a time when what Jimmy Carter said did matter. For he was shaping American policy, or rather misshaping it, and the result was one disaster after another, at home and abroad, from national stagflation to international humiliation. Everywhere you looked, as far as the eye could see, it was all one big malaise.

These days, Jimmy Carter is proving just as successful an ex-president as he did a president. Indeed, he's become a kind of Renaissance Man of incompetence, not limiting his contributions to any one field like politics or nuclear engineering or environmentalism (remember that killer rabbit he once fought off?) but branching out into art, religion, poetry or at least verse.

This may be hard to believe, but the man is just as accomplished a poet as he was a president. ("The geese passed overhead,/ and then without a word/ we went down to a peaceful sleep,/ marveling at what we'd seen and heard.") And there are dozens more where that came from! Unfortunately.

Jimmy Carter's poetry may be fairly awful, but I've got to admit he's prolific. The only Southern poet who may rival his esthetic output is J. Gordon Coogler (1865-1901), the Carolina bard who penned the, alas, immortal lines: "Alas, for the South! Her books have grown fewer-/ She never was much given to literature."

H. L. Mencken used those elegiac lines to introduce his classic essay, "The Sahara of the Bozart," which would surely have featured Jimmy Carter's works if only he had been writing - well, producing - poetry at the time. Or his other literary specialty, historical fiction.