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Carter is 'probably superior' to other former presidents, says Carter

No matter what he says, Jimmy Carter is not the best ex-president. And he says plenty! His remarks, from an interview with Brian Williams, are, well, a little startling:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The last photo of you with your -- fellow former presidents, you were well off to the side on the right. And I thought to myself, well, there's -- there's a possible metaphor. (LAUGHTER) What is it -- about you, you think, the way you've-- decided to conduct your life and post-presidency? Do you feel listened to? Do you feel -- that you receive your due? Or do you feel, in fact, apart from the crowd?

JIMMY CARTER: No. I -- I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents. Primarily because of the activism and the -- and the injection of working at the Carter Center and in international affairs, and to some degree, domestic affairs, on energy conservation, on -- on environment, and things of that kind. We're right in the midst of the -- of the constant daily debate.

And -- and -- and the Carter Center has decided, under my leadership, to fill vacuums in the world. When -- when the United States won't deal with troubled areas, we go there and we meet with leaders who can bring an end to a conflict, or an end to a human rights abuse, and so forth. So I -- I feel that have an advantage over many other former presidents in being involved in daily affairs that have shaped the policies of our nation and the world.

This raises a lot of questions. For instance, why has the Carter Center decided, under his leadership, to fill vacuums in the world? That's the opposite of what you're supposed to do with vacuums!

So if Jimmy Carter isn't the best ex-president, well, who is -- or was?

Probably not George Washington. He went home to Mount Vernon and died. He didn't start a presidential library or work at the Carter Center. Didn't he realize there were precedents to set?

Then again, if you think of this in terms of things he didn't do, you could argue that George Washington was actually the greatest ex-president. People kept worrying that he might not become an ex-president at all and would just sit there, hoarding his power and demanding that everyone dress up in Greco-Roman attire to reinforce the parallels to Caesar. But he didn't. He went home; he freed his slaves; he became a private citizen. That took nerve.

Then look at John Adams. Like Carter, he only served one term. Unlike Carter, he didn't start any libraries. He did get his own HBO miniseries, but even Jack Kevorkian can do that, so it's not saying all that much. Also, "I specifically sought out Paul Giamatti to portray you on film" is the nicest way of saying "You have all the physical attractiveness of a tuna sandwich."

But what about John Quincy Adams? He got elected to the House of Representatives, where he served for 18 years. That's got to count for something. The last time I checked, Carter wasn't tirelessly fighting the gag rule that prevented anti-slavery bills from coming to the floor, the way JQA did. He was telling us we needed to be nicer to North Korea to make certain we weren't hurting its feelings, or something.

Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs and died. But he also smoked a dozen cigars a day. That's what I call multi-tasking. And his memoirs were great! And before he was president, he won the U.S. Civil War. Carter definitely did not do that.

Still, my vote for the most superior former president probably goes to Taft -- and not just because he's standing over me as I write this, and I don't think I outweigh him. Pound for pound, he was several pounds heavier than any other former president. And he got on the Supreme Court. I know that getting on the Supreme Court is a big deal for a president, because every so often a pundit gets accidentally demagnetized and decides that Barack Obama should try to get on the Supreme Court himself.

Still, even if Carter had been the greatest former president of all time, didn't anyone ever tell him not to say so? It's like saying you're the humblest person you know -- it sort of defeats the point. Even if you add a "probably."

By Alexandra Petri  | September 20, 2010; 6:22 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  Jimmy Carter  
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