Why you should visit presidential libraries: America's geekiest treasures

These days, Panama owning the Panama Canal seems pretty uncontroversial. In the late 1970s, though, there was quite the fuss over it. Twenty US senators who supported a treaty to hand the canal over lost their seats at the following election, and it didn't do President Jimmy Carter any favours either.

Presidential libraries, America's geekiest treasures, are fantastic for this sort of enlightenment. Ostensibly devoted to the men who held the Oval Office, they provide detailed snapshots of the eras they presided over. Long-forgotten issues that were hot potatoes at the time are honed in on, and you quickly get a good picture of what the world was like.

Visiting the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta is partly an exercise in sheepishness. Carter was president when I was born, but my knowledge of him can basically be summed up as "peanuts and, erm, a bit weak, maybe?" It is a dive into several things I knew virtually nothing about – the Iran hostage crisis that hampered Carter's 1980 re-election campaign, the OPEC energy crisis, the Israel-Egypt peace deal and so on.

Predictably, there's an emphasis on Carter's achievements – he set aside vast swaths of Alaskan wilderness as national monuments (protected areas) and signed treaties with the Soviet Union and China – but it's far more interesting when it looks at Carter's style.

There's an overwhelming feel of honest, earnest naivete. His presidential campaign saw the peanut farmer and his family staying in voters' houses to save money, and trying to win trust in person. There are also striking images of the televised fireside chat he broadcast from the White House, wearing a cardigan and urging Americans to turn their thermostats down to save energy.

The sections looking at Carter's earlier years go some way to showing how such a personality was forged. He grew up in racially segregated rural Georgia, playing mainly with the children of African-American tenant farmers. His family home had no running water or electricity until he was a teenager. But reading was encouraged at the supper table, and his mother – a nurse who later joined the Peace Corps – encouraged independence.

It was the sort of humility required after the Nixon years – remarkably, Carter won every state in the south except Virginia in 1976 – before being blown away by the bombast of Reagan.

At the age of 56, Carter became one of the youngest ever ex-presidents. And it's arguably the second, post-presidency half of the story that's more important. The presidential library is part of a larger complex, surrounded by leafy gardens, and the HQ of the Carter Centre, the NGO the deposed president threw himself into from 1982 onwards. The exhibits take on a subtle shift in tone, from dutifully recounting to enthusiastically sharing. Most of the organisation's money goes towards disease eradication and conflict resolution. The man who made building bridges a key part of his presidency has played a major part in peace talks with North Korea, Cuba, Haiti and more.

By the end of a few hours of worthiness intake, however, the impression is that Carter should be remembered not for the elections he fought, but those he monitored. The deeply unsexy work of making sure elections are free and fair has arguably become the most important string to the Carter Centre's bow. It has overseen votes in more than 30 countries, making a vital contribution to the spread of democracy.

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In some instances, phenomenal levels of logistical work are required. For example, Indonesia's election in 1999 saw 300,000 election monitors being trained from scratch. It's difficult to put a price on such achievements – but it's certainly not peanuts.

TRIP NOTES

David Whitley was a guest of Marriott Hotels and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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FLY

Virgin Australia and Delta codeshare on flights to Atlanta, via Los Angeles, from Sydney and Melbourne. See virginaustralia.com

STAY

In Midtown Atlanta the AC by Marriott has a rooftop bar and pool. Doubles cost from about $US256. See marriott.com

VISIT

Entry to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum costs $US12. See jimmycarterlibrary.gov

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