Carter’s Post-Presidency Will Not Remake His Presidency

Greg Markley


In his play “The Tempest,” William Shakespeare famously wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” In today’s parlance, the phrase advances the idea that history provides entry for the present. Centuries later, Southern writer William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In the long life of Jimmy Carter, his troubled one-term presidency was not really a prologue. Yes, some of the diplomatic skills he learned while president served him well later. But the past is not dead, as his presidency will be judged based on its record and his performance in the White House, not his success later doing things such as building Habitat Houses.

In the 2021 Presidential Historians Survey, Carter came in at 26 out of 44 presidents evaluated. Out of 10 categories, his worst scores were 37.8 in Economic Management, 39.5 in Crisis Leadership and 43.0 in Public Persuasion. His best scores were 72.0 in Pursued Justice for All, 71.7 in Moral Authority and 50.5 in Vision/Setting an Agenda. I agree that the economy was not Carter’s strong point and that his leadership in the Iran hostage situation needed work.

But on the positive side, he has high scores in seeking social justice and in moral authority, such as his emphasis on a human rights approach in foreign affairs. In the conservative magazine National Review (July 8, 2021) Cameron Hilditch wrote about “C-SPAN’s Woeful Presidential Ranking List.”

“The list makes for ugly reading,” he wrote. “No one could reasonably argue with the ranking of (Abe) Lincoln and (George) Washington as first and second, respectively, but things quickly go off the rails after that. It’s probably unwise to spill too much ink over something so subjective and arbitrary, but I have to confess I’m something of a sucker for ranking lists. They’re awfully fun to argue over.”

One can say that presidents like Carter, whose rating is fair, cannot have a do-over. That is, all except for Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. For his two non-consecutive terms, Cleveland emerged one place above Carter — 25 out of 44 presidents studied.

To me, the four or five more Gallup poll jump points that a president gets after his funeral are not based on the president’s terms but on sympathy for the family. As the deceased president is saluted for his post-presidency, I recognize that is ridiculous. Presidents should be judged by their term in office, not what follows.

The belief that the post-presidency should help lift the burdens of a mediocre presidency goes against all work traditions in America. If you or I were booted out of a job, yet excelled at our next, would our previous failures be erased? No way. If an ex-president creates a center for spreading human rights and battling human suffering, is that added to his presidential resume? No, not likely.

If a former president regularly helped build some houses, do you cover over a disastrous Mideast crisis, to improve one’s image? Of course not. If he is very active in a Sunday School, does that cancel out a recession gone wild in his term? Never will. I do not aim at just one ex-president but those after we are gone.

Back to Carter. There was some question which was the justification for his award of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. Many people forgot that Carter missed a Peace Prize nomination in his presidency because the correct paperwork was not filed. That might raise his score because the honor was related directly to his presidency (1978 Camp David Accords).

Carter was honored for his diplomatic efforts and advocacy of peace. Though many of these accolades were awarded post-presidency, they should not be minimized. According to the terms of founder Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize was created to award those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

I attended Carter’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1977. I was 20 years old. I was only 8 feet from Carter as he left his car, surrounded by the Secret Service. With his family, he courageously walked down the street to the White House as the new president (My friend and I had press passes to walk in a close-up area.). That was my first election. I voted for Carter’s opponent, Gerald Ford. (I returned to D.C. on Jan. 20, 1981, for Ronald Reagan’s swearing-in ceremony.)

The big thing almost a half-century later is that this was the last time I can remember when a moderate liberal (Carter) ran against a moderate conservative (Ford). It was a very close election, 50.1% for Carter and 48% for Ford. In 2023, the extremes have their grips on both parties — a sad development, indeed.

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s in education from AUM and a master’s in history from Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education and books.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here