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Jimmy Carter Inc.

   The other night Jimmy Carter popped up on the Larry King show, live via satellite, standing in a ski lodge and wearing a fur-lined outdoorsman jacket as though he'd just come in from felling a spruce. He was publicizing an upcoming auction in which he would sell the furniture he'd been making.

    Also his wine. This may have come to many viewers as a surprise: There is Jimmy Carter Wine. The former president didn't say how he made it, but you know what it's probably called: peanut noir.

   Also he plans to sell his paintings. "My paintings," he told King, "have gotten to be pretty popular." In fact, he said, one of his paintings had been used as the cover for his recent novel.

   I didn't read the novel, but I'm currently reading his most recent nonfiction book, Our Endangered Values. It is a brisk read, which is good, because I want to finish it before he comes out with another novel or poetry collection or cookbook.

   It's a wonder that Carter has time to write, given his artistic and viticultural demands, and all his other activities, such as monitoring elections, teaching Sunday School, building habitats for humanity and delivering babies. As we speak I assume he is performing a heart transplant. That sound in your basement: It's Jimmy Carter fixing your plumbing!

   George Will recently called Carter "an even worse ex-president than he was a president," a snippety remark that probably reflects Will's jealousy that Carter has more hobbies.

   Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were crucial figures in the making of the Imperial Presidency, but Carter has almost single-handedly invented the modern Ex-Presidency. Before Carter, presidents tended to disappear when they left the White House. Truman was so rarely seen it wasn't always clear if he was still alive. Ike golfed. LBJ quickly died. Nixon skulked around in darkness, writing books and sleeping upside down in a cave. Ford golfed. But Carter had a special problem: When he left the White House at age 56 he didn't have the option of simply becoming an old man.

   An entire generation of Americans has been born and grown to adulthood since the Carter ex-presidency began 25 years ago. Some may not realize that in 1981, Jimmy Carter epitomized failure, having presided over a grim four years in American history. Inflation was something like 195 percent; interest rates were 340 percent. Banks would offer home mortgage loans and then foreclose upon them the very same day. Iranian fundamentalists took Americans hostage in Iran. Carter in his cardigan somehow never looked reassuring: He had the strange gift of making people feel worse. Looking older by the hour, Carter collapsed while jogging, and the photo of our drooping president seemed to symbolize an exhausted superpower.

   Liberal Democrats, demonstrating characteristic loyalty, tried to oust Carter in favor of Teddy Kennedy. Carter survived, but fell in the fall election to a sunny, twinkly-eyed former movie star. Carter hadn't just lost the presidency; in effect he'd been fired.

   But critics always underestimated Carter. The first thing he told himself after he left office was that someday he'd run again and return to the White House. The concept was absurd on its face, but revealing of a certain kind of personality. To become president in the first place you have to be a dreamer par excellence. You have to be a Walter Mitty sort of person, only with an ability to make improbable fantasies come true.

   Carter was a virtual unknown on the national level when he ran for president. He was a one-term governor. A peanut farmer. Wasn't terribly impressive of stature, seemed a bit like a hayseed. But he had a big ol' grin, and he liked to say, "My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for president." And somehow people bought into that fantasy.

   Years later, in his dark hour of defeat, Carter came up with a new fantasy: He would be a global diplomat of peace and democracy. He made it happen. He was born again, again. His novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and Our Endangered Values has camped near the top of the bestseller lists.

   Islamic radicals and a long conflict in the Mideast are frustrating America -- the president speaks and makes people feel worse. History insists on being cyclical rather than linear.

   Answering a call, here comes the most indefatigable man in America: Jimmy Carter, ex-president-for-life.

   [This is the Rough Draft column from the Sunday magazine.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 25, 2006; 8:05 PM ET
 
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