Are elder statesmen our only true statesmen?“We need more statesmen,” Oscar Wilde proclaimed right after he said, “A statesman is a dead politician.” In a strange alignment, Harry S. Truman said: “A politician is a man who understands government. A statesman is a politician who’s been dead for 15 years.”

Can any politician be a statesman while still in office? The term “elder statesman” is often applied to a politician who once held high office and later worked unofficially in national or world affairs. Richard Nixon became known as an “elder statesman” in his later years. (It even says so on the White House web site.) Nixon was first elected to the presidency in 1968, defeating Hubert Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace. Yesterday, we talked about Americans’ increased interested in third parties, and whether this is where we might find true statesmen. I doubt, however, that we could achieve much consensus around the idea that Wallace was a statesman.

Nixon’s resignation in the wake of Watergate didn’t disqualify him from being called an elder statesman many years later. In part, that was due to the natural forgiveness of time. But that status mainly was due to his expertise in foreign affairs. The Nixon administration’s daring bid to re-establish relations with China was the subject of a lengthy NPR interview this week.

If I had to nominate a former president as a statesman, Jimmy Carter would be a good choice. While some retired presidents played golf, or took lucrative seats on corporate boards of directors, Carter devoted his post-presidency to human rights and the alleviation of suffering. In 1994, for example, an article in The New York Times said, “In undertaking a special mission to Haiti for President Clinton, Jimmy Carter is showing once again that a former president can be a unique diplomatic resource. … Mr. Carter has not flinched from risk-taking and has played a crucial role as an honest broker, most notably in spurring nuclear talks with North Korea but also in civil conflicts in Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Liberia.” In 2011 alone, Carter has been to Korea, Cuba, and the Sudan.

Do you agree that Jimmy Carter qualifies as a true statesman?

How about Nixon?

Who’s on your list among elder statesmen?

And remember, you can nominate someone for the The Lincoln Award for Statesmanship. This non-partisan award is given annually by The Statesman Group.

Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

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