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Who’s Afraid of Jimmy Carter?

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President Jimmy Carter, 27 years apart: in the Oval Office in 1979 and at the Carter Center in 2006.  

Although Carter and George W. Bush are both born-again Christians, Carter is less showy about his faith in nonchurch arenas. In eulogizing Jordan, for example, Carter never once mentions God, although he has ample opportunity in these final words about his close confidant’s repeated battles with devastating disease. He does not end meetings or conferences with a “God bless you.” When I try to compare his born-again Christianity to Bush’s, he hesitates.

“I can’t say I know how the current president looks on the rest of the world,” Carter says. “I am determined and sometimes stubborn, and he is, too, but I don’t look on the rest of the world as he does, despite our shared Christian faith. For instance, I worry about our endangered values. I worry about nuclear-weapons proliferation. I worry about our torture of prisoners and how that affects our commitment to human rights. I believe in waging war only when our security is in danger. I believe in taking care of and preserving the environment. On these issues, he and I are almost diametrically opposed. Certainly, I do not profess to understand his motivations. As Christians, yes, we worship the same savior, Jesus Christ, and I think we worship Christ in the same way. I look on some aspect of Jesus Christ perhaps differently from him: I worship the Prince of Peace.”

It’s been almost three decades since Jimmy Carter was the most powerful man in the world, and there are questions, too, about just how powerful he was even when he was the most powerful man in the world. And yet Carter has been as active on the international scene as almost any subsequent president. He’d like to be viewed as a decent, upstanding Christian militating for good in the world—that’s how he sees himself, even if he would not say so—but if that cannot be the case, then he is willing to go on doing what he believes in, and to be seen as a rogue, an outlaw, conducting what his recent New York Times op-ed called “pariah diplomacy.”

Carter desires to be, above all things, a world player. And no matter what attacks are made against him here in the U.S., no matter who takes him seriously and who doesn’t, at any given point or on any particular issue, Carter—through the authority of his former office and sheer force of character—always attracts the global lens.

What’s most interesting about Carter at the age of 83 is not that he’s an eccentric, or that he’s outspoken, or that he continues to be a part of the debate, but that his mind-set and his policies seem to jibe so well with the attitudes of young people, students, and the blogosphere. In many ways, Carter seems more relevant than George W. Bush, his ideas more contemporary, his interests more outward-looking. He builds houses in New Orleans and elsewhere with his Habitat for Humanity project; he jets around the world, funding projects to deal with global health crises; he makes sure elections are free and fair. Carter is more like Bono than he is like Bush.

In the news-grabbing drama of Carter’s single term in office, his longer-lasting achievements were obscured, but they look today like a blueprint for the future: the creation of a Superfund for environmental cleanup, the passage of the Alaska Lands Conservation Act, the signing of the Camp David Accords, the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty, support for alternative-energy sources, the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and the establishment of the departments of both Energy and Education. To say nothing of his emphasis on human rights, which empowered democracy movements in Latin America.

Most characteristic of all was—and is—Carter’s fundamental belief that parties who disagree must talk to each other, and that the higher the stakes the more important such negotiations become. “One of the most counterproductive things this administration has done,” Carter says, “is abandon the U.S. commitment to have full-fledged discussions with people who are crucial to the conversation if they won’t submit in advance to our policies. This leads to isolation and makes it impossible to reach agreements.” It is an argument the Obama campaign has taken up and defended repeatedly.

Again and again, the actions Carter takes that are most controversial are the ones that place him at the vanguard of today’s politics. “Let’s face it,” say M. J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum. “Carter’s book, whether you like it or not—and I don’t particularly—was successful: A lot of young people were really persuaded by it. Now it makes sense that people like Dershowitz are concerned about what Carter says. But of course, Carter’s thinking, ‘Just keep attacking me, this is good.’ You can’t bury a U.S. president by criticizing his ideas.”


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