For the last two and a half years my mind and my efforts have been consumed by former President George H.W. Bush. As the Content Director on the team dedicated to redesigning his Presidential Library and Museum, I have read, written, and digested everything humanly possible about his life, his values, his personality, his accomplishments. I’ve grown to admire and even love the man, and the work has been a blessing in every respect. But in two months, our job will be completed, and it will be left to others to determine whether or not we’ve done our job well. We must move on.
Last week I was with my team in Atlanta, interviewing for the redesign of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. That’s the nature of this business; we go where the work is. And, because we made the final cut of three firms (out of an initial field of thirty-eight) we have a pretty good chance of getting the job; it’s in God’s hands now and we’ll go where He leads us. As usual, though, God has revealed His sense of humor.
Because of course, there couldn’t be two more diametrically different situations in which to find ourselves, from the superficial to the deeply complex. On a purely superficial level, one can start with location. Coming to College Station from California was an epiphany; we left the over-crowded freeways, inflated home prices, and burgeoning anti-American sentiment to enter a more tranquil place, where homes were affordable, traffic light, and patriotism high. We liked the Aggie spirit so much that two of us moved here! Going to Atlanta from College Station was the exact opposite: we were hurled into the midst of a huge, teeming and dauntingly confusing city. Just traveling around by car in Atlanta required a GPS and extreme fortitude; talk about culture shock!
George Bush was a Washington “insider.” Believing that politics was a “noble calling, he’d served his government as a Congressman, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, the Chief Liaison to China, the Director of the C.I.A, and of course, as Vice President for eight years under Reagan before running for the presidency in 1988. Jimmy Carter was the consummate Washington “outsider,” his only political offices having been as a state senator and governor of Georgia. While Bush, at least in retrospect, seemed always destined for the presidency, Carter’s rise to the highest office in the land was an astounding long shot, a daring gamble that shattered precedent and made history.
The governing styles of the two men could not have been more different either. Because of his outgoing nature and the wealth of relationships he’d formed while “on the inside,” George Bush governed firmly but modestly; he surrounded himself with loyal but supremely knowledgeable advisors and staff and sought their counsel and advice on a consistent basis. Jimmy Carter knew no one in Washington. He was a loner, an outsider entering an alien land. Aside from his cadre of devoted aids from Georgia, he had no one. His style of governing has been called the spokes in the wheel approach. Carter was in the center, and his top staff formed the spokes in the wheel around him. All spokes led to
Carter and there was practically no cross-pollination of ideas; the buck stopped in the center of the wheel. It’s not that the final decision didn’t rest with each of these presidents, because it most certainly did. It’s just that Carter seemed to make his from a position of isolation, while Bush seemed to make his after building a consensus.
Each man had a defining moment during his presidency. Bush dealt with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in a style consistent with his character. He and his national security advisors weighed every option, proceeded with caution, built a coalition, let diplomacy run its course, and ultimately waged a highly successful war. They never exceeded their mission, and most importantly, never considered getting bogged down in Baghdad. (note to son). Bush’s popularity after the Gulf War was at an incredible high.
Carter had his own defining moment, one that rendered him powerless. When militant Iranians grabbed fifty-two American hostages, there were very few options for
Carter. Consistent with his character, he refused to consider any action that would jeopardize the lives of the hostages. Although he and his advisors were consumed by the crisis, attempting everything possible to negotiate their release (including many strategies unknown by the general public) it was a no-win situation. While the Gulf War made Bush look strong and decisive, the Iranian hostage crisis labeled Carter impotent, an unfair but indelible impression. Needless to say, Carter’s approval rating hit an all-time low.
I could continue to list the differences between the two men forever, but there are some fascinating similarities too. Both served in the Navy. Both are men of strong intellect and deep faith. Yet neither the pro-life Episcopalian from Connecticut nor the pro-life “born again” Baptist from Plains sought to impose their religious views on the nation; they understood well the meaning of the Establishment Clause as they swore to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution.
Both men are 82 years of age and remain strongly committed to public service; it was part of their upbringing and inherent with their moral values. George Bush felt so deeply about service to others that he was the first president to create an office of Volunteer Community Service on a national level; he instituted the Points of Light Foundation to promote and reward volunteerism, and continues to serve in numerous ways since leaving office. His efforts on behalf of tsunami and Katrina victims have been widely publicized. George Bush still spends most of his time spearheading relief campaigns, serving on boards for a wide variety of worthy causes including cancer and AIDs, staying totally involved.
Jimmy Carter serves in the trenches. He sweats, swats flies, gets dirty. With little public attention he spends the majority of his time in places like Ghana, Sudan, Niger and Mali fighting against neglected but epidemic diseases like guinea worm , elephantiasis and trachoma. On behalf of The Carter Center, he and Rosalynn travel constantly—to Africa, Latin America, China, wherever they’re called— in their efforts to wage peace, fight disease, alleviate suffering, and build hope. In 2002, Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace prize for his extraordinary dedication to the cause of human rights. For the past twenty-five years he has been walking the walk.
Both men were one term presidents, with the then current state of the economy being the deciding issue, and both were beaten by men of gigantic charisma: Reagan and Clinton. Neither man felt he had finished the job the country had elected him to do. Yet they have each continued to serve.
And so will we. If we are chosen to redesign the Carter Library, we will consider it our call to service. Our mission will be to do everything in our power to help visitors get to know this man, to respect what he stood for, to shed light on the values that were at the core of his being, his presidency, and in the work he continues to do each day. We’ll create dynamic and engaging exhibits that will draw the visitors and the volunteers back in, filling the almost empty museum with renewed excitement and enthusiasm; some might call it a revival. We’ll help Jimmy Carter get the homage he deserves as a president and private citizen fully devoted to human rights. It’s the least we can do.
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