Sure, this Washington Post article on Jimmy Carter’s unpretentious lifestyle is a bit of a puff piece, but who really cares. I actually find several points interesting here, as Carter is in fact a really fascinating man, even if he wasn’t a very good president.
First, although the article doesn’t make this connection, Carter is actually living closer to the republicanism ideal of the leader returning to his farm and retiring to a modest life than nearly any other president in our history. And as the article points out, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are very much living it up, making a ton of money, and costing taxpayers quite a bit of money for all of it. I don’t really care, although I think Obama’s post-presidency is pretty disappointing considering the times. It isn’t surprising either than it was Gerald Ford who first started the modern era of cashing in after leaving the Oval Office. After all, despite Ford’s reputation, he was nothing if not a pro-corporate hack and was a very, very conservative president. But this was striking:
The federal government pays for an office for each ex-president. Carter’s, in the Carter Center in Atlanta, is the least expensive, at $115,000 this year. The Carters could have built a more elaborate office with living quarters, but for years they slept on a pullout couch for a week each month. Recently, they had a Murphy bed installed.
Carter’s office costs a fraction of Obama’s, which is $536,000 a year. Clinton’s costs $518,000, George W. Bush’s is $497,000 and George H.W. Bush’s is $286,000, according to the GSA.
That’s a lot of money those ex-presidents are spending!!
Second, for all Carter is in many ways a wonderful human being, there’s plenty in here that gets at why he was elected in 1976 and why he wasn’t a very effective president, which are connected. Carter could only have been elected in the aftermath of both Watergate and McGovern. A moderate explains the latter easily enough, but with the former, Carter was a politician for people who hated politics. From the beginning of his career in Georgia, Carter despised the gladhandling of politics, as well as its perks. He was clean, he seemed bipartisan, he was barely a politician in terms of how people thought about that. But then there was this:
Carter says this place formed him, seeding his beliefs about racial equality. His farmhouse youth during the Great Depression made him unpretentious and frugal. His friends, maybe only half-joking, describe Carter as “tight as a tick.”
That no-frills sensibility, endearing since he left Washington, didn’t work as well in the White House. Many people thought Carter scrubbed some of the luster off the presidency by carrying his own suitcases onto Air Force One and refusing to have “Hail to the Chief” played.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, a Carter aide and biographer, said Carter’s edict eliminating drivers for top staff members backfired. It meant that top officials were driving instead of reading and working for an hour or two every day.
“He didn’t feel suited to the grandeur,” Eizenstat said. “Plains is really part of his DNA. He carried it into the White House, and he carried it out of the White House.”
This was actually a big problem. Carter’s attention to effectively meaningless expenses like that not only alienated everyone around him, and had when he was governor, but also undermined the effectiveness of government that Carter idealized. He was the classic “penny wise, pound foolish” politician, as that story of drivers demonstrates. These details just shouldn’t matter to a president, but they sure did for Carter. And they just irritated everyone.
I will say that Plains is a pretty cool place to check out if you are in west central Georgia.