Professor Joe Goldblatt
In the far distance that stretched from where I was standing upon Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC I could already hear the growing cheers rolling in giant waves toward me. My friend and I leaned forward and strained to see the motorcade slowly inching its way down the historic street known as The Avenue of the Presidents because it connects the U.S. Capitol with the White House. Then, suddenly, without advance warning, the Presidential limousine slowed to a full stop and the doors on both sides opened and for the first time a U.S. President walked from the Capitol to the White House.
This symbolism seemed to bring a dramatic end to the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon and the, although less formal, still distant leadership of his successor Gerald Ford. During my twenty – five years in Washington, DC as a citizen and local neighbourhood councillor I had witnessed the progression of history from Nixon through George W Bush and noted that every time a U.S. President departed from office, either by choice or through the decision of the voters, they sought significant personal gain from the previous office they had the privilege of holding. With one notable exception, Jimmy Carter.
It always struck me as odd that prior to departing office the U.S. President immediately began planning for his legacy through the construction of a monument to their achievements. The monument that is often constructed a few years after leaving office is known as a Presidential Library. There are currently fourteen presidential libraries scattered throughout the U.S.A.
The most recent Presidential Library was the one constructed to honour former President George W Bush in Dallas, Texas at a cost of $300 million US dollars (£251 million pound sterling). Prior to this library being constructed, former President Bill Clinton’s shrine to his achievements cost $165 million US dollars (£138 million pound sterling). By contrast, in 1984, the cost of the Carter Library and Museum was only a modest $24 million U.S. Dollars (£20 million pound sterling). His predecessor, Gerald Ford, constructed his library for only $4 million U.S. Dollars (£3 million pound sterling) and Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan spent $60 million U.S. dollars (£50 million pound sterling) which was over double the cost of the Carter library. Although these temples to the legacy of the names above the front door generate modest economic impact through tourism, their value has been questioned by the U.S. Congress.
In 2011, members of the Congressional Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure examined the future of Presidential Libraries and questioned whether it was appropriate for a sitting President to conduct fundraising for his future library while still holding office. The resolution of this committee was to continue to study the value of these institutions and no further action was taken, which may be more reflective of the free trade capitalistic culture of America than the overall real value of these buildings.
However, when President Carter established his Library and Museum he ushered in a different style of post presidential servant leadership. Almost immediately, Former President and Mrs Carter literally rolled up their sleeves and began building homes for poor people through the well – respected Habitat for Humanity charity . Every year since 1984 the Carter’s donated one week of their time to help build a shelter for a needy family. In addition to this servant leadership, the Carter Center pioneered with serving as scrutineers at elections around the world to insure they were conducted fairly and honestly and Jimmy Carter often travelled to these distant locations to personally supervise.
Upon demitting office, the Carters promised that they would not seek nor encourage economic gain from their previous positions. How different and refreshing this was from Carter’s successor former President Ronald Reagan who reportedly received hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars for one single speech. This pattern of receiving lavish speaking fees has continued through former presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Even in the U.K. our former Prime Ministers have sadly been found at the feeding trough receiving massive fees for one hour of so of speaking about their sometimes quite dubious achievements. These fees are not required to support the lifestyle of a former U.S. President as their life time pension upon leaving office is $226,000 U.S. Dollars (£188,000 pound sterling) per year for the rest of their lives and subsequently for their widow.
During my tenure in Washington, DC I was a teacher and one of my students was Amy Carter, the daughter of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. I was impressed with how natural, modest, and yes normal my eight year old student was although she lived in the White House and her father was arguably the most powerful man in the world. Perhaps this humility was part of the DNA of the Carter clan because her grandmother, Miss Lillian Carter, who at the age of 68 volunteered and served in the U.S. Peace Corp in India.
Therefore, I wonder if future U.S. Presidents and U.K. Prime Ministers and other leaders might consider signing a Compact with the Electorate during their campaigns in which they promise not to benefit financially for the first five years upon leaving public office. If they wish to follow the noble example of former President Carter they might further promise to roll up their sleeves and raise money to build schools, hospitals, care homes and other structures rather than personal libraries. For example, the estimated cost of an new Edinburgh Primary School is £12 million Scottish pounds. Therefore, 20 new primary schools could have been built with the funds that were used to construct the most recent U.S. Presidential Library.
As a light snow began to gently fall in 1977 upon the Avenue of the Presidents, the hopes of those witnessing living history with the President and First Lady strolling hand in hand toward the White House rose exponentially and I was privileged to be among them. Like millions of fellow Americans I wondered if the symbolism of their walking as common citizens was the start of an even bigger and more important evolving narrative for the land of my birth.
Now, at the end of his long, humble and valiant life, as Jimmy Carter receives home hospice care, I hope he can rest comfortably knowing that his post presidential examples of servant leadership were the greatest monument any person could hope to construct and will outlive the bricks and mortar of egotistical temples. Rest well former President Carter for you have provided the type of role model current and future politicians would benefit from emulating as we seek to grow and sustain a just society for all citizens.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His views are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot