Jimmy Carter Brings His White House Diary to Politics and Prose

I was more impressed with Carter's presence than I expected to be.


Reader, here's a page from the diary of a liberal, one who dares to speak the name, even to etch it in the ether, how's that? Just to be clear, fair and square for foes and friends alike; hold your fire on musings mostly made of memory. Was it Nabokov who wrote: "Speak, Memory?"

In Washington, the last day of November rain was illuminated by good old Jimmy Carter, who came to Politics and Prose yesterday to sign his new book, White House Diary, for people like me. I was heartened to see and speak to so many different kinds of like minds—not only from here in Northwest, but also from good distances in Virginia and Maryland. One elegant African-American lady came just to look at the former Democratic president from Plains, Ga., not to buy the book. A white firefighter came with his family and asked Carter directly if he liked being president. [Are you on the list? Explore the White House visitor log.]

"Yes, I liked being president," the humanitarian replied with that silky Georgia voice and the sparkling diamond blue eyes. Smelling salts, please, but don't get me wrong. The spell of the past was what swept over me: an ephemeral era when the nation's political palette was cleansed of Richard M. Nixon's vicious Vietnam and Watergate wars on fronts far and near. To be perfectly clear, Nixon never rehabilitated his reputation with me and shattered my generation's innocence when we were young. My editor, Robert Schlesinger, had some amusing brushes with Nixon as a neighbor in New York—bringing down the neighborhood, as his father Arthur, the eminent historian, liked to say.

Back to the living moment. I'd never seen Carter before and truly, I was more impressed with his presence than I expected to be from what we read in the press. Well into his 80s, he signed his memoirs with military efficiency and yet radiated a gracious wisdom that put on no airs.

I met up with Joann M. Weiner, an economist and journalist who took notes for a post in PoliticsDaily.com. Comparing notes, we found we were college students on the November night—30 years ago exactly—when Carter went down in defeat to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980. Joann was at Berkeley and I was on a semester abroad in Madrid, where I walked the Spanish streets at midnight trying to shake the shock. George McGovern lost his Senate seat, too, which made it at least a double repudiation. Our country had changed literally overnight, an election vanquishing the liberal promise and dream of America—snuffed out like a candle that did not last the night.

I explained this memory rush to the young man who checked me out. Then I chatted with a middle-aged man named Jim, a delegate at the 1980 Democratic National Convention—for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose bitter feelings against Carter never subsided after the loss. They may be found in the pages of his vividly told 2009 memoir, True Compass, published in the summer shortly before he died. At his 1980 convention speech, Kennedy famously declared, "The dream shall never die." And brought the house down.

Remember? Carter, like an actor left alone on a darkened stage, now seems to be—or not to be?—the one defined by that beautiful tragic line.

  • Check out a slide show of the 10 worst presidents.
  • See a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats and Republicans.
  • Are you on the list? Explore the White House visitor log.