Even though he was a monumental failure as president of the United States, Jimmy Carter just can’t resist giving grades to his successors and critiquing U.S. policy, two areas in which he should be disqualified from commenting.
This weekend Carter let loose with yet another verbal attack on President Bush, when he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history.” Carter went on to claim that Bush and his administration had represented “an overt reversal of America’s basic values as expressed by previous administrations,” by which he meant Bush’s father, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, among others. Those familiar with Carter’s quarter-century out of the White House know that during the 1980s, Carter consistently criticized Reagan’s policies as out of line with American ideals. Carter never got over the bitterness of losing to Reagan in 1980, resenting that he had to turn over the White House to a man who lacked his profound moral wisdom and knew more about ponies than he did about peanuts.
Reagan’s polices culminated in the longest economic expansion in American history up to that time and the conclusion of the Cold War in America’s favor. He was a rebuke to Carterism on multiple fronts: that peace through strength was the right approach, as opposed to peace through accommodation; that American free enterprise system could be reborn if its energies were released instead of repressed; and that a laugh is often more effective than a lecture.
Douglas Brinkley, author of a book on Carter’s post-presidency, calls this latest outburst “unprecedented,” claiming that “This is the most forceful denunciation President Carter has ever made about an American president. “When you call somebody the worst president, that’s volatile. Those are fighting words.” Brinkley sounds barely able to contain his excitement — apparently being Carter’s biographer wasn’t excitement enough — but this is hardly the first time that the peanut president has lashed out at his successors. He has had it in for George W. Bush since the beginning, before he even took on Osama bin Laden, and his criticism has always had a nasty, distinctly un-presidential edge. Last year, for example, he accused “Bush Jr.” of conducting the Iraq war based on manipulated intelligence. And he wasn’t a whole lot kinder to Bill Clinton.
Not wishing to confine his nut cracking to American politics, Carter even opened up an offensive against British Prime Minister Tony Blair, describing Blair’s support of Bush as “Abominable. Loyal. Blind. Apparently subservient.” Interesting — that sounds an awful lot like Carter’s stance toward Moscow during his one-term presidency. When he gave the commencement address at Notre Dame in 1977, he infamously declared: “Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear. I’m glad that that’s being changed.”
So were the Soviets. In Peter Schweizer’s book, Reagan’s War, he cites many examples of how this attitude was appreciated in Moscow, from Carter’s heavy breathing for an arms control agreement to his desire not to interfere with Soviet incursions in Central America and Africa.
Carter has been known as America’s greatest ex-president for years, though voices on the Right have long chipped away at that mythology, culminating in Steven Hayward’s 2004 book, The Real Jimmy Carter. Carter’s disastrous presidency might have led lesser men to crawl into a hole and hide the rest of their lives. To Carter’s credit, he started over with Habitat for Humanity and attempted to do some good in the world. But he couldn’t stop there; he had to develop his Carter Center — a think tank for failed ideas — and he had to conduct his shadow presidency, shadowing, that is, each successive occupant of the Oval Office by playing the role of globetrotting, hectoring busybody and apologist for tyrants. To some extent all of his successors share in some of the blame, as they were under no obligation to be so nice to him (George W. Bush, in particular, has bent over backwards to be kind to Carter).
Carter’s self-righteousness, one of the fatal flaws that sank his presidency, seemed only to deepen after his fiasco in the White House. In the years since, it has often seemed that his very failure as president is the key to the moral authority he claims — as if, in other words, it was the world that failed him, and not the other way around. Those who see his post-presidency as a quest for redemption are half right — but Carter is not trying to redeem himself, only the rest of humanity.
Jimmy Carter couldn’t carry George W. Bush’s water bucket, let alone Tony Blair’s. It’s a special kind of egomania he possesses, one that seems to grow in inverse proportion to both his advancing years — when some men might speak in lower tones — and to his record as president, about which others might not speak at all.
Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal.
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