Jimmy Carter is perhaps the most disdained president of recent history. Thinking about the late 1970s, the American public generally remembers the energy crisis, the hostages in Iran whom Carter couldn’t free, his “national malaise” and that’s about it.
Which is unfair. At first he was very popular, for common man moves like walking with his family during the inaugural parade. Carter offered welcome relief from the Greek tragedy of Richard Nixon and the Roman farce of Gerald Ford.
His being a peanut farmer was celebrated, and companies offered products trying to capitalize on Carter’s grinning likeness. The government quickly moved to make it stop.
On May 3, 1977, Assistant Attorney General John M. Harmon prepared a memo suggesting the Federal Trade Commission might prevent the president’s likeness from being used commercially.
“The commission could probably prohibit the use of advertisements, labels, or trade names which implied that the president endorsed, profited from, or was connected with the sale of a particular product,” he wrote. “The prestige of the presidency and President Carter’s well-known background would probably allow the commission to eliminate most of the attempts to attach the president’s name to peanuts and peanut products.”
Why didn’t Carter want his name on bags of peanuts? Why not just make sure he got his cut of the profits? Which returns us to the phrase, “prestige of the presidency.” Tradition dictated that the president not hawk products. Once upon a time, our chief executive was not supposed to turn himself into a brand. He was respected, esteemed, devoted to the people’s business not his own.
Which leads us to Donald Trump pausing Wednesday from his astounding campaign, less than two weeks before Election Day, to preside over the opening of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Trump continuously flogging his interests during the campaign, from the moment he announced it at Trump Tower, to his jaunt to Scotland, to this past week is perhaps the least significant demerit in a campaign that has seen him maligning immigrants and Muslims, women and the handicapped. It isn’t even as worrisome as his funneling campaign cash to his own companies.
Which is why I want to draw attention to it. A small detail can sometimes drive the horror home — the wholesale slaughter in Syria eludes us, but we can grasp one child in the surf.
Yes, the desire to capitalize on presidents is time-honored, as anybody who drives a Lincoln or clutches a teddy bear knows. (Or maybe doesn’t know. The Lincoln Motor Co. was named for the 16th president; Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear cub that had been tethered by his hosts for that purpose, leading to a craze in toy bears.)
But what about Hillary Clinton? The Clintons were “dead broke,” in her words, when they left the White House. The Washington Post estimated that, in the next dozen years, Bill Clinton made a jaw-dropping $104.9 million making speeches, and tens of millions more from books and investments.
In that light, we could argue that everything is for sale, and the only question is how and when it is put on the block. There is nothing intrinsically more vile about Trump licensing his name to a hotel or golf course and reaping the profits than there is about Hillary Clinton taking $200,000 from Goldman Sachs.
World politics has been defined this past year by regular people asking, “Who is looking after us?” They question, with good reason, when large sums of money trade hands, how much influence goes with it. I would never argue that Trump and Clinton are the same, because they are not. He is a fraud and a buffoon and a bigot trying to bluff his way to the highest office in the land; she is a dedicated public servant trying to do good while enriching herself in the process.
But both are coining cash, and whoever wins, the money issue will — or should — be front and center. Government protects us from big business, which left unfettered would put our children to work in thread factories. It has in the past, and would do so again.
Carter redeemed himself out of office, his Carter Center doing amazing work fighting disease in Africa and addressing other woes.
Maybe we can redeem ourselves too. The real work starts after Nov. 8.Tweets by @sneedlings