Who’s Afraid of Jimmy Carter?

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.”

Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal at a press conference in Damascus on April 21, three days after his meeting with Carter. Photo: Bassem Tellawi/AP

When I ask President Carter about this blitz, he’s taken aback. “Well. Whatever they say in those kinds of attacks on political figures in a campaign, it’s not unexpected. But I am surprised that John McCain would say such things; he and I have had a personal relationship in the past.” He pauses, the mind click-click-clicking. Then he resumes with his almost Victorian diction. “Such pronouncements in the middle of a campaign are legitimately looked on by voters with a degree of skepticism. And I have to say that I am a little immune.”

It’s always been Carter’s nature to avoid the political fray. He likes to engage in intelligent conversation with powerful parties, he likes to resolve things in a mannerly, civilized way—but he doesn’t do politics, he doesn’t do down-dirty, he doesn’t do low-level horse-trading: no my-bowlegged-nag-for-your-glue-factory-gelding. Carter deals only in thoroughbreds. He insists on taking the high road, and he’s not about to change his plans—say, to cancel his visit to see Hamas—because it might somehow hurt the Democrats in 2008.

But whatever he may say, Carter—as an ingredient in a presidential campaign, as a political symbol—provides a blend of issues that’s almost irresistible for a Republican candidate to exploit, especially one trying to shore up his conservative base. “Conservative Republicans see Carter as an icon of weakness,” says political consultant Mike Murphy, who has hovered around the McCain campaign in a sometimes-advisory capacity. McCain is no doubt hoping that the American people will remember this about the Carter presidency: 52 American hostages held by students in Tehran for more than a year, a late-date rescue mission that devolved into a fiasco in which eight American soldiers died, that shared kiss with Brezhnev, a period of stagflation paired with an energy crisis, and a cardigan-wearing president who advised Americans to “sacrifice.”

Indeed, one bright spot in McCain’s otherwise hardscrabble political landscape is how Obama’s vulnerabilities can, at least superficially, be mapped onto this interpretation of Carter’s administration. “There are certain Obama-Carter similarities that make it a relevant analogy,” says Murphy. “Carter was a relatively inexperienced one-term governor who came out of nowhere. He was elected on a thematic platform that fit the times but that was short on practical points. His foreign policy was based on rhetoric not Realpolitik, and it turned mostly into a disaster. Carter is what happens when you buy without looking.”

On the other hand, given the current energy and economic crises, you might look back and think that Carter was enormously prescient. Last week, presidential historian Joseph Wheelan wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asking, in regard to Carter’s promotion of alternative fuels, “Can we now acknowledge that Jimmy Carter was right all those years ago?” Carter also negotiated the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, a 30-year truce that has never once been violated (something one cannot say of any other negotiated peace in the region, and an achievement that seems even more impressive in retrospect). “The last time I looked,” says Jody Powell, Carter’s former press secretary, “President Carter’s favorability rating was a good bit higher than McCain’s or Obama’s or George Bush’s.”

Obama has not argued for a foreign policy based strictly on human rights (indeed, the phrase doesn’t even appear in the foreign-policy section of his Website), and as Eli Lake argued in The New Republic earlier this month, the track record of his foreign-policy advisers suggests an Obama doctrine will likely look “more like Ronald Reagan than Jimmy Carter.” Still, McCain’s Carter analogy has caused a degree of irritation and perhaps some confusion in the Obama campaign about how to handle the former president. “Look, the McCain people are just trying to use Carter’s name to scare people,” says campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro. But he distances his boss from a potential liability: “McCain will carry the Bush legacy into the future, but Senator Obama has no connection to President Carter.”

Perhaps most worrisome to the Obama campaign is the mistrust the former president engenders among some Jewish voters, especially older ones, whose support can be crucial in key states like Florida and Ohio. Carter was the first American president to express support for—indeed, the first to mention—the idea of a Palestinian homeland. This was before the Oslo peace negotiations; before it became the conventional, bi-partisan position; back when the idea was radical and unacceptable to most of the Jewish community. Carter has since monitored three Palestinian elections—Yasser Arafat won the first, Mahmoud Abbas the second, and Hamas the majority in the third—and in 2006, he published a controversial book titled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. While Carter has strong support among younger, liberal Jews, his work in the Middle East offends many for whom support of Israel is a central issue.

Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and Carter in Damascus on April 18, 2008.Photo: Xinhua/Landov

“I think it’s fairly obvious what they’re trying to do,” says Powell. “There’s a pretty narrow appeal here. If you look at those people who are unfavorably inclined toward President Carter, they are the Republican base that McCain is trying desperately to win over. I assume that they’re also hoping that they will be able to use this to leverage increased Republican support in the American Jewish community.”

The “Carter effect” on the Jewish vote has proved politically useful in the past. In the Democratic primary leading up to the 1980 presidential election, Carter, who had trounced his opponent Ted Kennedy in almost every other primary, lost New York in a landslide after Kennedy began attacking Carter for supporting a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements.

The most important fact about the Jewish vote in America, according to Jeffrey S. Helmreich of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “lies in the fact that it is a uniquely swayable bloc.” In an article written after the contested 2000 Florida election, he wrote, “The issue of support for Israel [by a candidate] has proven capable of spurring a sizable portion of Jews to switch parties—in large enough numbers to tip the scales in national or statewide elections.” At a get-together of Jewish supporters in Beverly Hills earlier this summer, a flyer was passed out that distanced Obama from the idea of direct talks with Hamas and refuted the assertion that he supported Carter’s recent diplomatic initiative. “Our campaign does not call [Carter] an adviser,” the document read, “nor does he call himself one.”

Since I was 18 years old, I have taught the Bible,” Carter says as we discuss his work in the Middle East. “For the last fifteen or twenty years, I have taught every Sunday when I was home or near my own house, so that would be 35 or 40 times per year. Half of those Sundays, the text comes from the Hebrew Bible. I have had a deep personal interest in the Holy Land and in the teachings of the Hebrew people. God has a special position for the Jewish people, the Hebrews, or whatever. I know the difference between ancient Israel and Judaea, and I know the history. I don’t have any problem with the Jewish people.”

But by publishing his Palestine book and then meeting back-to-back with Hamas and Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, Carter has further angered his Jewish detractors. This September, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz will come out with his 29th book—The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace. Like many others in the Jewish community, Dershowitz cannot stomach Carter’s comparison of South African apartheid to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“If a guy writes a book and calls you a name in the title and then publicly meets with people who think your existence is a blot on humanity, you start to get the feeling that he might not be on your side,” says Zev Chafets, who headed Israel’s government press office under the late prime minister Menachem Begin. Like Dershowitz, Chafets believes that Carter’s humanitarian empathy is drastically one-sided. “People like Carter, liberal Christians, they really identify virtue with weakness, and they think they have an obligation to do justice by being on the side of the weak. They never entertain the notion that the weak can be, say, Fascists.”

In many ways, Carter can be surprisingly tone-deaf to Jewish sensitivities in a geopolitical arena where he knows perfectly well the vulnerabilities of all parties concerned. He often appears to lack the skepticism of the seasoned diplomat and can seem complacent when he talks about former or current supporters of suicide bombings, car bombings, and assassinations. I ask the former president how he liked Khaled Mashal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas.

“Oh, he was very nice,” Carter says. “He has a Ph.D. in physics; his deputy is a cardiologist.”

Of Mahmoud al-Zahar, another top Hamas official, Carter had this to say: “Very polite and grateful that I was able to talk to him.”

Several of the various promises that the Hamas leaders gave Carter in April were retracted publicly almost immediately, but Carter betrays no dismay. “Yes, a spokesman for Hamas denied a couple of things Mashal had told me,” Carter says. “And I went back to Mashal, and he said that there were multiple people that talked to TV stations and so forth, and that his commitment to me was fine. Well, there are multiple voices that speak for Israel, multiple voices that speak for our country as well.”

For Dershowitz and others, Carter seems at best a naïve meddling do-gooder who’s sticking his nose into a mess he doesn’t understand. To them, it looked like Hamas was having it both ways: chatting up Carter (and through him the international community) about the possibilities for peace while telling its Palestinian constituency that the substantive elements of the talks were meaningless.

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.

President Jimmy Carter, 27 years apart: in the Oval Office in 1979 and at the Carter Center in 2006.Photo: (L-R) Corbis; Charles W. Plant/Courtesy of the Carter Center

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.”

After a long ceremony in honor of the Carter Center’s volunteers, Carter and I walk to his office through the building’s burgundy corridors, past Warhol silkscreens of the president and of his mother. “I feel more sure of myself today than ever,” he says. “Which is a kind of egotistic thing to say. But I’ve sorted through a lot of possibilities and I’ve decided on a lot of things that I feel quite certain are right and proper.”

In his bright, sunny office, Rosalynn, his wife and co-founder of the Carter Center, is standing behind the desk, looking through some papers. Her dark hair frames her heart-shaped face, as in memory. At the ceremony, Carter said, “I’ll let Rosalynn fill in the gaps and correct my mistakes,” but now she leaves the room as we begin to talk. After a while, the conversation turns to Lillian, another outspoken, stubborn, independent-minded, non-cuddly Carter and the subject of his latest book, A Remarkable Mother.

“People who know me intimately say that I have become more like my mother in my older age,” he says, leaning forward on the double-wide, slatted rocking chair that sits at a coffee table in front of his desk. “Mama never was reluctant to take a stance on things that would be unpopular among her peer group. If she thought she was doing right, she was impervious to criticism.

“I’m more willing to take a chance now, more willing to be outspoken, more willing to be confrontational in my attitude,” he says. He bugs out his eyes at me. It’s so brief that one barely notices the tic. “In my earlier years, I was more inclined to be searching for accommodation with people who had views contrary to my own. Now I’m not nearly so cognizant of that or nearly so accommodating.”

In part, he says, this is because “I’m never going to run for anything again, and I’ve got Secret Service protection around the clock for the rest of my life: So I feel pretty much immune to contrary criticism.” An octogenarian former U.S. president is, in other words, a dangerously free political agent.

Who’s Afraid of Jimmy Carter?