Former President Jimmy Carter has been in the news a lot lately. His most controversial book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has brought him a great deal of air-time and some rather angry criticism. I have watched this conflict with a measure of sadness. I liked Carter, at least for a time. I even voted for him in 1976, but not in 1980. (Some still remind me of my "wasted vote" in 1976.) Back then I bought into the argument, such as it was, that we needed change, especially after the dark Nixon era. Jimmy Carter was a fresh face, a real outsider, a successful businessman, an Annapolis grad with military experience, and a forthright Christian. I respected Gerald Ford but thought Jimmy Carter would be a fresh alternative, a way to help us put the Watergate mess behind us as a nation.
I am now of the mind that the Carter administration was not a total disaster, but it came pretty close. The highpoint was the Sadat-Begin Middle East peace accord. From there his leadership was a virtual disaster. The tone of the nation was one of deep doubt and defeat, following Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, and our loss of national self-respect was truly profound. Ronald Reagan turned this around from 1981-89. His self-effacing humor, combined with his basic principles about the role of government, brought new hope and a restored sense of our national destiny.
But Jimmy Carter has often been hailed, and rightly so I think, as our best former-president. One thinks of his charitable work with Habit for Humanity, the actions for peace taken by the famous Carter Center in Atlanta, and his work for free and fair elections the world over. Some of his memoirs are even quite worth reading, including his historical-fiction. And I even agree with some of his concern about the political direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, though once again his own views are quite out of the mainstream to say the least. But when he wrote his most recent book he seemed to take the last decade of his public life to a new low.
For me this all began during the Lewinsky scandal. Carter could have played a powerful, bi-partisan role in those days. He was seen as a moral leader and a peacemaker but he chose to support the Democrats in their struggle to retain power and, with only minor protest, stood by Bill Clinton. I did not expect him to argue for impeachment, which I too had serious doubts about, but he could have done so much better. At least the old warhorse Robert Byrd rose to strongly condemn Clinton’s impropriety and recklessness, along with Senators Joe Lieberman and Patrick Moynihan. But Carter seemed to take the lower road, disappointing me greatly at the time.
Then, during the recent controversial George W. Bush years (2001-2007), Carter has engaged in continual partisan attacks, sometimes in ways that are not in keeping with his peacemaker image at all. (Even Bill Clinton has taken a lesser role in attacking Bush during these past six-plus years. I will not speculate, at this point, what Bill Clinton might do when his wife’s candidacy gets nearer the actual primaries in 2008. Clinton’s relationship with former President George H. W. Bush does provide a model of how ex-partisans can seek higher good for worthy common causes after leaving office.)
So, what happened to Jimmy Carter? I have no idea but I do know this—he has changed his public approach over the past ten years. He has become more aggressive and more partisan then he ever was, even during his White House years. Perhaps this is a case where the people you hang out with do profoundly influence your actions and reactions. Carter has chosen, not inconsistently given his liberal populist views, to attack everything remotely conservative. The mainstream media has promoted this reaction. He now seems to use every occasion possible to attack this and that and then turn up the angry tone of our present national conversation, or lack thereof. Surely this man, who knows his Bible quite well, should see that he is not promoting the virtues of Christian faith in these actions.
Sadly, fourteen members of the Carter Center’s advisory board resigned when his recent book came out. Even some leading Democrats, and a number of prominent Jewish leaders, reacted strongly against him this time. On Thursday of this week Carter spoke at George Washington University and met public protests, something he hasn’t seen in years. Marchers carried signs saying, "Carter is a Liar." Rabbis were present in significant numbers. One said, "I believe Jimmy Carter is an anti-Semite and his intention is to hurt Jewish people." I do not believe that is true. Jimmy Carter is not an anti-Semite if you read his whole life and work. But this new book is unfortunately very bad. The use of the word "apartheid" should have cautioned Carter. Seemingly it would have done so many years ago. Something seems to have happened inside this decent man. He has become very angry, aggressive and incautious. I wish I understood this but I don’t. I find it very sad when a former leader, who has had a real measure of dignity in his latter years of life, goes aggressively partisan and sharp-edged. His non-partisan efforts bore so much real Christian fruit among so many around the world. For a man who has been so deeply respectful of the thought of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr I wonder how he got so far from the realism and prophetic insightfulness of his favorite theologian?