Folk Hero

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Overrated

Bob Dylan. He’s written some great songs, sure, and in his youth he took a contagious dry pleasure in vandals-took-the-handles nonsense. But as bard and exemplar he got awfully stuffy, didn’t he? Doesn’t seem to have much taste for getting out and making music with his friends for the folks, so his mystique is too big for his entertainment value. As for social consciousness, that goes only so far when you’re opaque and antisocial. Unlike, say, Muhammad Ali, he’s a casualty of sixties self-importance.

 
Underrated

Jimmy Carter. He wasn’t presidential enough (to some extent a tribute to his integrity), but he’s managed to make a bullier pulpit of the ex-Presidency than anybody else since … who? John Quincy Adams? And he’s done it in ways that are populist yet not quaint. Neighborly house-raising carpentry for folks who need a boost into the free-enterprise community. International telling of democratic home truths. Old-fashioned hands-on personal writing, about growing up, staying married, and growing old. (He’s turned out to be a good writer, more worth reading, politics aside, than any President since Lincoln.) From time to time, he will take starchy issue with one of his successors, like a citizen instead of a member of the former Presidents’ club. If in office he had been a passably hearty and engaging old boy (the only thing George W. Bush seems to have going for him is what Jimmy Carter lacked), he might have spared us the Reagan era, but never mind. Old Jimmy has become a new crusty post-gallus-snapping Southern American figure, a distinct genus of knotty hardwood grown from tangled old roots. If Al Gore or my college friend Lamar Alexander—both of whom, Lamar especially, can write—had come along at the right juncture or against the right opponent, one of them might have gone with that unslick grain into the White House. (Bill Clinton is sui generis.) Some AfricanAmerican centrist son of the South—Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., of Tennessee?—may be the Carterian timber to watch. It strikes me just now that Carter, Gore, Alexander, and Ford are all juniors. But don’t get me started on that.

Prospective over- or under-

Robert Downey, Jr.