Wisdom of former presidents


By Steven T. Jones
Jimmy Carter said something truly remarkable on National Public Radio last night. The segment was about how the former U.S. president and his Carter Center are monitoring the elections in Nicaragua, just as they have in 67 other elections around the world over the last two decades.
For her final question, NPR’s Debbie Elliott asked about repeated voting irregularities here in the U.S. and whether maybe we should have international monitors to ensure our elections are free and fair. Carter agreed that “the United States electoral system is severely troubled and has many faults in it. It would not qualify at all for instance for participation by the Carter Center in observing.”
Among other things, the Carter Center requires uniform voting procedures through the country, roughly equal access to the media by major candidates, some kind of federal agency to ensure sound democratic standards, and the poor having equal access to polling places as the rich – none of which exists in the United States.
Think about this for a second: just as our current president is starting wars in the name of spreading democracy, a former president who is widely recognized as the premier international expert on democratic standards says that our system is worse that most others in place around the world. And that statement doesn’t even warrant a headline in the major newspapers on the day before a national election.

Fear, hubris, and deceit have created a sort of national stupor, in which we’ve forgotten our past and have a delusional view of the present. So it’s important that we listen to past leaders, those who we once trusted to lead the country, who have been seasoned by their experience, grown wise with age, and who are now freed from the bounds of politics to speak their minds.
Bill Clinton has been actively campaigning for Prop. 87 and against the dangerous trajectory set by the Bush Administration. Al Gore, who many believe was elected president in 2000, has been the most prescient advocate for addressing global warming. Another man who maybe should have been president, George McGovern, recently wrote a Harper’s Magazine cover story that offered a detailed and compelling blueprint for exactly how to extricate ourselves from Iraq, allowing us to spend generously and win over the region and still spend far less money than the current “stay the course” strategy.
We don’t hear much critical analysis from the first President Bush about how his son is doing or where we might improve, for understandable reasons. But it’s noteworthy that he had the sense not to occupy Iraq when he had the chance – after U.S. forces expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait -- wisely listening to advisors who said that it’s easy to get into Baghdad, but not easy to get out.
And you can keep on going, from our failure to heed Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex to FDR’s lessons on the need for a social safety net all the way back to Washington and Jefferson warning us to guard against factions and the tyranny of the majority, which is what seems to have taken root among the angry, fearful populace. When will we heed the wisdom of our elders?