DENVER — Poof. Just like that, he was gone.
With all the focus on Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama’s speeches before a roused audience last night, little attention was given to Jimmy Carter, who also appeared on the stage at the Pepsi Center on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention. This was by design.
In the four years since the former Democratic president took the stage in Boston in 2004, 14 members of his Carter Center resigned in protest after he published a book comparing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the treatment of blacks in South Africa under apartheid, and he’s met with top leaders of the terrorist group Hamas.
With Barack Obama already under scrutiny for his limited foreign policy experience, his willingness to engage with the leaders of hostile regimes, and his associations with leading critics of Israel (including former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski), Obama could ill afford to give Carter free rein to express his controversial views.
As a result, Carter was honored on the first day of the convention (traditionally the lowest rated), at 6:30 p.m. local time, and he didn’t even speak. Instead, attendees were shown a short video of Carter’s humanitarian efforts in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, and then he was introduced to the crowd and took the stage for about a minute, before being ushered off.
But while the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign may have wanted to keep the focus off Carter, I decided to speak with delegates to the convention about their views on his legacy.
“I think Jimmy Carter is a great statesman, and I think he’s done a lot to further democracy around the world, and that really is his legacy,” said Jenny Greenleaf Portland, Oregon.
Obama has been likened to Carter as a result of the fact that both of them rose out of nowhere, with little experience, and caught fire by tapping into an electorate that was eager for change.
Carter is adored by many Democrats for the charity work he has done in his post-presidency, but several delegates I spoke with offered different analyses of his presidency itself.
“Most people felt that Jimmy Carter was an excellent president and wonderful ambassador since he has left,” said Joanne Schlaginhausan, a delegate from Greensboro, North Carolina. “But the downside was that he did not pick the best cabinet — and that was his downfall.”
Whiteville, Tennessee delegate Randall Rice argued that Carter assumed office under a difficult set of circumstances.
“In my view, when Carter was elected in ’76, he inherited a very bad situation that had been brewing for quite some time under the previous administration,” Rice said. “He had a lot of high interest rates. If you examine what was going on, it was already in the works before he took over. He happened to be there when it occurred, so I don’t blame him for that.”
Rice also thought Carter has gotten a bum rap in recent years, especially when it came to his controversial book.
“The criticism wasn’t necessarily just,” Rice said. “He compared some of the things that’s being done to the Palestinians to things that happened in South Africa under apartheid. I don’t necessarily disagree with that.”
Greenleaf also said, regarding Carter’s meetings with Hamas, that “I really don’t think it ever hurts to talk to somebody.”
Those who I spoke to who didn’t agree with all of Carter’s foreign policy views still thought he should be cut some slack.
“Even if there is a number of us who don’t go as far as he has with some of those meetings, it doesn’t negate the work he’s done elsewhere,” said Mark Demich, a Wheaton, Illinois delegate.
But if his role in this convention is any indication, like an old soldier, Carter is fading away.
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