Carter presidency will be able to pass the test of history

HOUSTON -- History often misleads us, the same way our own memory does when we gloss over some unpleasant fact from the past. Abraham Lincoln, for example, did not free a single slave at the time he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The document covered only the Southern states, all of them beyond federal authority, and ignored slavery in the border states that he needed so desperately to remain in the Union.

For much of his political career he resisted his own anti-slavery eloquence. His former law partner, Billy Herndon, wrote of the time Lincoln left the country to avoid an invitation to speak to a group of abolitionists, fearing he would jeopardize his chances in a race for the U.S. Senate.

It was the long term that conferred greatness on Lincoln. It is in our own best interest that time gilds historical lilies, giving us the heroes we need and teaching us to be wary of contemporary judgments about the men who serve us as president.

One of the most vilified of all our presidents, Harry Truman, has emerged from a recent poll of hundreds of historians as one of eight presidents they consider to be great or near-great, reflecting a dramatic turnaround not only in academia, but in the general population as well. Woodrow Wilson also made the list, but for decades he was derided as a dreamer. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose problems with syntax once caused his intellect to be compared unfavorably to that of a rubber tree, was reconsidered and adjudged 'above average.'

Given the generosity history reserves for many of our national leaders, it is likely that Jimmy Carter will someday emerge as one of our better presidents. I write this not as an admirer, but as one who worked for him briefly, knew him slightly and came to consider him a fairly mean-spirited political anomaly, blessed with the sort of vision most often encountered at Rotary Club meetings.

There are, however, several areas of Carter's presidency that will probably command a better historical account than his contemporaries have been willing to concede.

First, he was one of the most non-interventionist of all our commanders in chief. As President Reagan disports himself as something of aglobal adventurer, as the numbers of his American dead eclipse the eight who died in the desert sand, Mr. Carter's restraint begins to rise like some foreign-policy phoenix from the ashes of his overwhelming defeat.

The Camp David Accords are repeatedly referred to as his only foreign-policy triumph. In fact, Israel and Egypt have been at peace ever since. Should this fragile situation endure, then for strategic reasons it will render widespread conflagration in the Middle East unlikely if not altogether impossible. His 'sole triumph' may be sufficient to satisfy history's demand for proof of greatness.

Moreover, those public figures and elected officials sanguine over their contribution to the death of SALT II may have derailed nuclear disarmament entirely. The current silence in Geneva bespeaks in empty eloquence the necessity of the treaty he could not get ratified. While the agreement was undoubtedly flawed, it was a step along the continuum toward nuclear disarmament, a goal that seems increasingly unattainable if indeed it is a goal of this administration.

Next, to those of us who have practiced law in the federal courts, who have played hardball with the U.S. attorneys and federal judges who sometimes stand as impediments rather than instruments of civil rights, his appointments to the bench are unparalleled. He nominated more women, blacks and Hispanics to lifetime judgeships than all of his predecessors combined. It is here that history converges: Lincoln proclaimed a kind of freedom that Carter could help fulfill a hundred years later.

Reagan managed to defeat Carter in 1980 in part by advocating an end to deficit spending. The irony is that Carter managed to alienate many liberal voters with his own call for a balanced budget during the 1976 campaign. Pat Caddell, his pollster, surveyed the resultant headlines and said to me wearily: 'We told him to show fiscal restraint, not to blow the election.'

Carter was in earnest. The total of all his budget deficits is less than one-half of those of our erstwhile conservative, President Reagan. Let the lamp affix its beam: Despite his promise of a budget surplus by 1983, Reagan is the real emperor of ice cream.

Our national debt, saddled with $364 billion dollars in additional deficits since 1980, has risen 50 percent. As the late Sen. Everett M. Dirksen said: 'A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money.' And pretty soon Ronald Reagan will be unable any longer to blame his unbalanced budgets on the ghosts of administrations past.

There were haunting stories out of Independence, Mo., of the aging Harry Truman in his library, poring over history books, trying to stay ready for what and for whom, no one could say precisely. But he had to have known there was a very good chance his measure would be taken again. So too, Jimmy Carter can console himself in the privacy of his workshop in Plains that there will come a day, not so very long from now, when historians will reassess his tenure, elevate his place in history and wonder how we could have been so wrong.

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