Carter conference: Carter will look better in the future

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... Six presidential and Carter scholars [at a conference at the Carter Center] decided that Carter probably was a better president than conventional wisdom suggests, and will continue to be viewed more positively in the future.

"I don't think the Carter administration was a failure," Vanderbilt University political scientist Erwin Hargrove said. "I don't think it was a successful administration, either."

Panelists called Carter a transitional figure who moved the Democratic Party to the right in the wake of liberal George McGovern's disastrous 1972 presidential bid and paved the way for the conservatism of Ronald Reagan and the centrist New Democrat politics of Bill Clinton.

"You can argue he was Clinton without too much sex appeal," said Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University.

Academics cited the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt as Carter's crowning success, and said he also courageously tackled other tough issues like control of the Panama Canal, energy, urban renewal and environmental protection. They also said he brought a sense of morality and fairness toward Third World countries to U.S. foreign policy for the first time, though they disagreed on whether that was a good thing.

But Carter's ambition was his undoing. He set lofty goals, but lacked the long-term political strategy to carry them out, and he had a poor relationship with Congress, scholars said.

Mondale explained Carter's penchant for taking on unpopular and hard-to-solve issues like Middle East peace and nuclear nonproliferation treaties with the Soviet Union as a desire to get the difficult tasks out of the way, rather than take the typical political route - the path of least resistance.

"Carter liked to front-load pain and back-load pleasure," Mondale said.

Though Carter faced many problems, not all of them could be laid at his feet. Rapid inflation, perhaps the biggest domestic issue during Carter's administration, was more an after-effect of the Vietnam War than the result of his economic policies, panelists said.

One historian said Carter's biggest mistake was hiring Jody Powell as press secretary.

"Jody had one drink too many in a Washington tavern and told the killer rabbit story," said Stanly Godbold, a Mississippi State University history professor emeritus....

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