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Who’s Afraid of Jimmy Carter?

The provocative former president shadows Obama as a walking McCain talking point. But having lived longer than he ever imagined possible, Carter has no interest in reining himself in.


Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio  

Jimmy Carter is walking through the corridors of the Carter Center in Atlanta accompanied by an adviser and two Secret Service officers. To get to the center’s conference room, he proceeds down a set of stairs that passes through the lobby, where a huge globe, as tall as a man and with every country inlaid with semiprecious stones, presides over the milling interns, visitors, and guests. Today, Carter’s first order of business is working to help Ecuador and Colombia negotiate their way toward restoring diplomatic ties. (They stopped talking on March 4, just after Colombian forces killed twenty farc rebels inside Ecuadoran territory. The air strike turned out to be a precursor to the offensive that led to the recent rescue of FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt and fourteen others.) Carter is calm. He’s always calm. Even when he’s angry or irritated, he’s calm. He walks with noticeable determination, though at 83, he stoops a little. He patrols the center’s corridors like a revered executive. His blue eyes roam everywhere.

The Carter Center, with its five circular buildings, is like a cross between a presidential memorial and the U.N., with a splash of White House thrown in. The grand entrance is marked by a row of flags flapping smartly in the wind, as they do at the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan. They flank a long, slender reflecting pool that recalls the one near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Inside, Carter has a huge but comfortable presidential office protected in shifts by his security detail.

The former president visits the center only a few days a month, when he’s not traveling or working in his carpentry studio in Plains, Georgia. When he’s in Atlanta, he spends much of his time facilitating conflict resolution, and in working to resolve the recent disagreement between Ecuador and Colombia, Carter has brought together powerful people from the two nations’ civil societies: journalists, businessmen, academics, heads of nongovernmental organizations. It’s the second time that the Binational Dialogue Group of Ecuador and Colombia, a Carter creation, has met under the center’s auspices; it meets semi-secretly, without publicity.

The conference room is designed around a circular table with microphones and simultaneous-interpretation headphones, and when Carter enters, the twenty South Americans stand, silent, as he takes his place. After a few introductory remarks, Carter tells them that “it’s not always the formal channels that are the useful ones, and you know that.” He gives them a giant grin, and bugs out his eyes in a characteristic grimace. It’s not always easy to know when Carter is joking, or what he’s joking about; he bugs out his eyes from time to time in emphasis, but his meaning is not always clear, even though the signal tends to mean that he believes you agree with him. And perhaps he is just adjusting his gaze. This time, though, the comment, as well as the smile and the widened eyes, seems to refer to his controversial meetings in the Middle East in April with the leadership of Hamas.

The world of Jimmy Carter is precision-tuned, filled with reports and meetings, notes and discussions, publications and schedules. Carter, it must be recalled, is not just a former president of the United States but a former Navy lieutenant and a former agribusiness executive (running the fabled family peanut farm in Plains). He is supremely self-confident, like a ship of the line cruising into harbor amid the locals’ rowboats. “One thing we have to count on,” he tells the Colombians and Ecuadorans, peering over his glasses, “is that I’ve never had to wait any time to get both presidents of your countries on the line. So if we have a question for them, it’s not going to take more than two hours to talk to them both.” Access is something he can usually promise, and he wants to be useful. Shortly after this second meeting of the bi-national group, Colombia and Ecuador do indeed agree to restore relations. Such successes are the norm for Carter; he expects them.

Given Carter’s devotion to peaceful agreement among parties, it is interesting how frequently conflict seeks him out. And while Carter is going about his habitual workweek at the center, outside this hermetic, self-created world, he and his political legacy have suddenly been pulled blinking onto center stage by John McCain’s presidential campaign.

By June 9, six days after Obama secured the nomination (and Carter’s endorsement), McCain had found his sound bite. In an interview on NBC Nightly News, apropos of nothing, McCain said, “Senator Obama says that I’m running for Bush’s third term. It seems to me he’s running for Jimmy Carter’s second.” Then again, nine days later, McCain told an audience at a Chicago fund-raiser that Obama’s policies made him “think if [Obama] would be elected, it’d be a second Jimmy Carter term.” That same week, in a speech on energy policy given in Houston, McCain, referring to Obama’s energy plans, said, “If the plan sounds familiar, it’s because that was President Jimmy Carter’s big idea, too—and a lot of good it did us.” A few days later, McCain told the Las Vegas Sun that “Carter was a lousy president … This is the same guy who kissed Brezhnev.”


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