I recently got to observe Jimmy Carter in action. I attended a global conference on the public's right to information at the Carter Center in Atlanta at the end of February. I was there for the full three days, and saw Carter intimately participate in the conference. Looking much older than the President I remembered from my childhood, Carter still attended to the details, and was involved in a number of sessions. He even suggested a few amendments for the final declaration to emerge from the conference.
His work through the Carter Center has cemented his reputation for having perhaps the best post-Presidency ever in U.S. history. From conflict resolution and election monitoring to fighting disease and defending human rights, the Carter Center has done substantial work on a number of fronts in its twenty-five years of existence. Carter's latest book, Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope, is a chronicle of the various efforts that Carter has spearheaded since leaving office. And at the age of eighty-three, he still maintains a hectic schedule. Whether it's traveling to the Middle East as part of a peace mission with Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson or heading to Nepal to monitor elections in that country, he stays involved.
Such post-Presidential endeavors helped Carter get the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, even as the Nobel Committee acknowledged his Presidential accomplishments such as the Camp David Accords and the Panama Canal Treaty.
Carter has refused to observe the self-imposed code of silence that has prevented other ex-Presidents from criticizing the policies of the incumbent. He has been particularly critical of the Iraq War, opposing it from before its start and calling it "a war based on lies."
But Carter hasn't stopped there. On subjects ranging from North Korea and Cuba to Israel/Palestine and global warming, he has taken public positions that are very much at variance with Bush's, describing the Bush Administration's foreign policy as "the worst in history."
Carter has faced the most intense criticism in recent years for his penultimate book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Fourteen members of the Carter Center's advisory board resigned in protest. Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said Carter "was engaging in anti-Semitism." Democratic Party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, and John Conyers distanced themselves from the book.
But Carter's reputation remains intact. It has been helped along by director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), who shadowed Carter during his book tour to make Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains, released a few months ago and just out on DVD.
At the right to information conference, Carter was in fine form. The Bush Administration has classified more secrets than any other in U.S. history, Carter stated in his speech at the opening session, pointing out that even ex-Presidents are constrained by this regime of secrecy from declassifying papers pertaining to their own Presidencies. "I look forward to more freedom from January onward," Carter said. At the closing session, Carter remarked that "under the present Administration, the [penchant for secrecy] has gone to extremes. They're putting a secret stamp on almost every paper they can find." Carter then went on to mock Dick Cheney for the Vice President's assertion, in an attempt to keep his papers secret, that he belongs to both the legislative and the executive branch.
As soon as the conference ended, I was whisked into his office for an interview while the Secret Service waited outside. The office, tastefully stacked with knick-knacks and mementoes, overlooks a garden and a pond. Carter and I sat on adjacent sofas. He was pleasant and warm and exhibited flashes of his memorable smile during the interview. He answered questions precisely and genially in that famous soft Southern lilt of his. "I've heard good things about this periodical," he said when I gave him copies of The Progressive as we bade farewell. …