It could have been a moment of celebration for Jimmy Carter. He could have stood before the Democratic delegates and proudly noted that he is on the eve of making history. For in only three days, on Friday, Carter will pass Herbert Hoover for the longest ex-presidency ever. It will be 31 years and 240 days since he left office, three decades of overseas diplomatic missions, fighting for global peace, launching health initiatives, monitoring elections, and building houses for the poor.
But no one in the party he once led to victory really wanted that. So Carter did not come to Charlotte. He was here only in a video. Shown hours before prime time. Mostly ignored by television. Sandwiched between a tribute to women in the House and the secretary of Interior.
The skittishness of Democrats to celebrate the president who lost 44 states in 1980 is understandable politically. Even all these years later — and even though almost 60 percent of this year’s voters are too young to have ever seen Carter’s name on a ballot — he remains a favorite target of Republicans. To them, he is synonymous with presidential failure. As recently as Sunday, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan summoned memories of Carter to dramatize just how bad he thinks President Obama has been. “Simply put,” he said in North Carolina, “the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now.”
The Romney campaign even lashed out at the 87-year-old Carter immediately after his four-minute video aired, with spokesman Ryan Williams, calling him “a fitting surrogate” for “stagnant unemployment to a broken deficit pledge.”
Carter spoke little of himself in the video, using it to strongly endorse President Obama. “In just four short years he has worked to avert economic calamity, brought a dignified end to the ill-conceived war in Iraq and signed into law historic health care reform,” said Carter, adding he has done that “in the face of bitter, unyielding, in fact, unprecedented partisan opposition.”
At the video’s conclusion, the delegates warmly applauded the party’s elder statesmen – though certainly not with the rock star enthusiasm they will summon when that other Democratic former president, Bill Clinton, addresses the convention on Wednesday.
Carter has been philosophical about his often-shoddy treatment at Democratic conventions, explaining it once by stating, “I had committed the unpardonable sin of losing.” He was all but shunned at the conventions in 1984, 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008. Twice — 1992 and 2004 — he was back in public favor and was rewarded with prime-time slots. But his general treatment stands in great contrast to that of the man whose record he surpasses this week. Despite presiding over the Depression and ushering in a long era of Democratic rule, Hoover was welcomed back to every GOP convention between 1936 and 1960, often serving as a power broker and even receiving some votes to be the Republican candidate. Even Hoover seemed surprised by the party love directed at him. “In each of your last three conventions, I bade you an affectionate good-bye,” he said at the 1952 convention. “Apparently my good-byes did not take. And I have been bombarded with requests to do it again for the fourth time.”
Not much risk of that for Carter. Even as he sets a new record for longevity, his good-byes seem to have taken.