Love 'em or hate 'em we can't get enough of our presidents. This goes for a president who held office for more than 12 years, one who held the office for less than a month
, one who was never elected at all, or, in today's case, one who is a much better former president.
The latter accolade belongs to James Earl Carter, or Jimmy Carter as he prefers to be known, who arrived at Politics and Prose, Washington's famed independent bookstore, shortly before noon Tuesday to sign copies of his latest book, "White House Diary
The crowd was smaller than expected. Fewer than 100 people waited in line for an event that the bookstore warned would see crowds starting to line up at 9 a.m. But the small number overflowed with enthusiasm for the former president. Most of those in the crowd, the vast majority of whom appeared to have been more than old enough to have voted for the former Georgia governor in 1976, were there for simple reasons.
Carol Belt of Severna Park, Md., tells a typical story. When asked why she let her two granddaughters skip school for the book signing, Belt said "regardless of your political persuasion, it's a gift to your grandchildren" to allow them to be so close to a U.S. president. Beth Huber and her husband, George, shared similar feelings, even though their eight-week-old son, Henry, who was sleeping soundly, is not likely to remember his contact with the former president ("Don't forget that he's also a Nobel Peace Prize winner," Henry's dad stressed.)
There was a bit of the small-town feeling at Politics and Prose
, almost as if everyone there felt a connection with one another. In many ways, the co-founders of the bookstore, Barbara Meade and the late Carla Cohen, nurture this by making it feel quite ordinary that a former president of the United States would "stop by" to sign books for the locals. The lack of a metal detector at the front door only reinforced this feeling that the bookstore was from another era.
Carter's small-town origins and mannerisms -- he was born in Plains, Ga., population 637 (in 2000) on October 1, 1924 -- seem to attract a loyal following.
"I came here because my dad grew up with him in a small Georgia county," said Lawson Gullette, who now lives in the D.C. metropolitan area. Gullette added with pride that because their community was so small, "my dad must have played basketball with the future president."
A woman standing with two copies of Carter's 25th book firmly in hand reminisced that at age 13 she wrote to the president and was so impressed when he "wrote back and even sent me an autographed picture."
Others came because they appreciate what the president has done since leaving office after a single term. By 1980, when he was running for re-election, his presidency was largely seen as a failure, with the nadir being the taking of 52 hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran. To rub in the humiliation, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini released those hostages only after Ronald Reagan had been inaugurated as the 40th U.S. president in January 1981.
These setbacks seemed far from the minds of many. Suzanne Fanteux said that she appreciated Carter's "refreshing honesty" adding that "I just heard him speak on the Diane Rehm show
where he said that the Supreme Court 'gave' the election to George W. Bush. That's the truth! But, it's so hard to get any politician to say it."
Showing his knowledge of pre-Internet gaffes that have become etched in our memory, Steve Kulberg defended Carter's comment that he [Carter] was 'lusting in his heart' saying that "it makes sense to me." (In 1976, Carter gave an interview to Playboy magazine
where he made the rather unfortunate remark that "anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times.")
I first attended one of Carter's book signings in 1993 at the Cheshire Cat, an independent children's bookstore in Washington, that Politics and Prose bought in 1999 and moved down the street. I thought that my then one-year-old son might learn something from Carter's book "Talking Peace: A Vision for the Next Generation."
Seventeen years later, I was back for another Carter book signing. Though he did not have time for small talk, nor even to personalize the books that he signed, he still had time to be gracious. As he passed through the coffee house on his way out of the bookstore, he stopped to shake hands. And, as he shook my hand, I queried, "Mr. President, how do you do it?"
"How do I do what ... write books?" he replied, as if that was the best way to summarize how he transformed his failed presidency into perhaps America's most successful former presidency.