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A look back at history and politics via the Carter Library and Museum

The Carter Presidential Center (a.k.a., The Carter Library/Museum) is located in Atlanta, GA.
The Carter Presidential Center (a.k.a., The Carter Library/Museum) is located in Atlanta, GA.
H. Michael Mogil

George Santayana quipped, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Others have offered similar perspectives. Daily, we see leaders (or so-called leaders) in Washington, DC refuse to recognize history’s lessons.

However, when viewing the historical perspective presented at a presidential Library / Museum, it is easy to see just how correct Santayana really was. The implications to next week’s presidential election (and future elections) quickly become painfully obvious.

On Halloween Day, 2012, my wife and I removed an important item from our bucket list. We visited the Carter Library/Museum, also called the Carter Presidential Center, in Atlanta, GA (Fig. 1). It was the first Presidential Library we had ever visited. Some friends visited the Reagan Library in California earlier this year and raved about the learning experience. This served as a catalyst for our most recent outing.

The Carter Library was, for lack of a better word, “low-key.” Yes, it had awe-inspiring displays, contained historical memorabilia that one could only dream of ever seeing up close and personal, and the offered an easy-to-follow historical trail. However, the overall exhibit was not ostentatious.

The gardens outside, obviously beautiful in spring (Fig. 2), had lost much of their luster due to seasonal changes. Still, many flowers graced the rose garden and the pathway to the lack offered a beautiful view to downtown Atlanta. The nearby, tall radio tower was the only eyesore.

The Library/Museum briefly traced James Earl (“Jimmy”) Carter’s early life (and that of wife Rosalynn, in even less detail). Missing was how the Carter family handled the Great Depression, even while peanut farming in Georgia.

Then the storyline moves to Carter’s naval career, his ascension to the presidency and his actions during four difficult years. It quickly became obvious that one could have changed the name Carter to Bush, Obama or anyone else in high-level presidential shoes. The problems, albeit with only a slight geographical shift or a small transformation of people or political parties, were almost identical to those on the presidential platter today. Even with the obvious spin (in which some events on display were not even close to how my wife and I remembered them), the overall story line paralleled 2012 far too closely.

Watching one of the replays of the 1976 presidential debates (Fig. 3), one could only marvel at the similarity to the 2012 debates. In 1976 Carter claimed that, under then President Gerald Ford, unemployment had soared and that the budget deficit had grown dramatically. In 2012, with political parties flipped, history replayed itself as Romney attacked Obama on similar grounds.

The economic malaise that ended Carter’s presidency was not even noted. The Iranian hostage crisis was showcased by Carter’s 444-day focus on getting the American hostages freed. It did not address Carter’s limitations in global leadership and how the United States once again took an ally (no matter how malevolent The Shah of Iran may have been) and disposed of him for political expediency. In 2012, it was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarek who was sacrificed. In both situations, “freedom from tyranny” was replaced by religious tyranny and fanaticism. Unfortunately, we are paying for Carter’s late 1970’s mistakes today! We may also be paying a future price for Obama’s recent miscues.

There’s little doubt that Carter’s humanitarian efforts, both as president and beyond, border on unprecedented in presidential history. The Carter Foundation has worked to ensure the eradication of disease, improvement of education and the fostering of political freedom. Only the Clinton Foundation seems to have similar humanitarian objectives. The Bush Foundation and the Reagan Foundation are more focused on non-humanitarian issues within the United States.

From what I know about Carter (even outside the visit to his Library/Museum), his heart was almost always in the right place. Implementation was another matter.

Also, his words and actions in recent years often showed an unexpected bias against Israel. First, he worked hard to develop a long-lasting Middle Eastern peace, interacting directly with Jewish and Arab leaders. Also, ending racial discrimination was one of his claims to fame as Georgia governor. The latter was due to his upbringing in a segregated society, even though many of his friends and acquaintances were black.

Given Carter’s history to put an end to this overt racial disparity, it is hard to justify his views toward Israel.

Following in the historical parallelisms, it is hard to explain President Obama’s views toward Israel, either.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the visit was the “day in the life of the president.” Starting at sunrise, it was one meeting, followed by a briefing, then more meetings, briefings and memo writing. The treadmill didn’t stop until dinner. Then it resumed in the evening. It looked as though Carter even needed to schedule five minutes to see his wife. Bathroom breaks, showers and exercise were missing.

I bought a presidential library passport (Fig. 4) during our visit. I am now planning to go out of my way to visit the other presidential libraries. I am curious about gaining insights into how all of these great people (Hoover to Bush) governed. I am also intrigued by how the historical spin will play out.

One thing is obvious. In recent times (i.e., the past 13 presidents), presidential hometowns are far-removed from the vicinity of Washington, DC. Our highest leaders seem to hail from places nowhere near the quagmire known as our Nation’s Capital.

© 2012 H. Michael Mogil

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