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Who’s Afraid of Jimmy Carter?

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Carter's 2006 book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.  

“Carter is someone who believes that when you have a problem with someone, you go talk to them,” says Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator who served under presidents Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both Bushes and is used to moving chess pieces carefully around the board. “He loves to put himself in the middle of the mix. If channeled and well thought out, that can be extremely effective. But if it’s not well thought out and is generated instead by a kind of intense morality and judgmental character and style, it comes off badly.” Miller acknowledges that the Camp David Accords were a diplomatic triumph. “But since then, in my view, he has wandered way off the highway.”

Mike Murphy is quick to agree. “The guy is anathema to the idea of quiet diplomacy. He carries the presidential seal with him wherever he goes in a worn-out bag, but there should only be one person who can carry that seal. He clogs up the machinery that he thinks he is serving. He screws up your back channel totally. Which is why he evokes such anger in the professionals. He’s a bit of a cheap-applause artist, which is appreciated neither in showbiz nor in international diplomacy.”

This is classic Carter criticism. A governor and a president, Carter was never a legislator who worked the corridors with his equals and lessers, arguing over fine print and sections and amendments and riders; he never glossed over the remaining problems with pork. Today, Carter is half-bemused and half-pleased with the continuing controversy over his role in the Middle East and over his book. He has no regrets about his talks with Hamas, nor about his provocative “apartheid” title. (It was not the work of a clever publicist trying to create controversy but of Carter himself, who insisted on it over the objections of some of his friends and advisers, saying he wanted to make sure that the book would create buzz.) “What is meant to be conveyed in the title is that I prefer peace,” he says. “Obviously, there are elements of apartheid inside Palestine, however you want to define it. But I have to say I don’t read Dershowitz. I do see him quoted here and there.”

“People who know me intimately say that I have become more like my mother in my older age,” Carter says. “If she thought she was doing right, she was impervious to criticism.”

During my visit to Georgia, Hamilton Jordan dies. Jordan was Carter’s former aide and the man who mapped out the strategy for his ascent from peanut farmer to president, and Carter emerges from his office to speak briefly with the press about this Georgia-grown powerhouse. There is a certain royal pomp to Carter’s every appearance, a subtle drama, a sense of drumroll, of a silent but understood “Hail to the Chief.” This time, the media are gathered in one of the center’s many big lobbies, and you can see Carter coming down a long hallway surrounded by aides and his Secret Service team, like a … president. A hush falls over the gathered reporters.

Watching him, it’s easy to imagine that Carter has never relinquished office. He stands before us, hands clasped in front of him like a preacher getting ready to speak. He talks first about the good old days with Jordan, on the campaign trail, and then goes on to more recent, more difficult times. “I talked to Hamilton just the day before yesterday,” Carter says. “He was in good spirits, lucid, reconciled.” Throughout his speech, Carter displays no emotion, except for one glinting smile of remembrance. As ever, presidential. Death is death; we all face it.

“I’m a fatalist,” Carter once told a reporter. Though he can preach about faith with the best of them, he has good reason for believing in fate: When Carter was 28, his father died at the age of 58 of pancreatic cancer. Carter left the White House at the age of 56, and in short succession in the years that followed, his three siblings died of the same disease. Carter, who has had himself checked regularly for pancreatic cancer, is the only member of his original family never to have been touched by it; though his mother, the redoubtable Miz Lillian, lived well into her eighties, it finally reached her too, and she died in 1983. In a way, every minute of Carter’s post-presidency has been a gift, all icing.

Carter has always had to confront his own mortality, but by now, the end fairly stares him in the face. Some of his high-wire, high-visibility behavior in the past year could be interpreted as the work of a man trying to leave his final mark on posterity—like a president who’s leaving office, only more so. Carter, though, won’t touch this subject. “You’re asking me questions I’ve never been asked before,” he says. “I can’t say that my advanced age is an instigation for me to go to the Middle East.” He’s never really been away from the region, so he can make this argument plausibly. Still, in some ways the last visit—executed as a loner in defiance of Israeli resistance (Kofi Annan and other statesmen dropped out at the last minute, after the Israeli government refused to meet with them)—was so dramatic that it felt like a last-ditch attempt, like Clinton’s trying desperately to knit together another Camp David at the end of his term.


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