AN AMERICAN VIEW

The trouble with Jimmy the Generous

Carter’s absurd allegiance to morality is taken as sedition in many quarters, and, as much as anything, cost him the White House

FRED BRUNING October 17 1994
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The trouble with Jimmy the Generous

Carter’s absurd allegiance to morality is taken as sedition in many quarters, and, as much as anything, cost him the White House

FRED BRUNING October 17 1994

The trouble with Jimmy the Generous

Carter’s absurd allegiance to morality is taken as sedition in many quarters, and, as much as anything, cost him the White House

FRED BRUNING

AN AMERICAN VIEW

A recent New Yorker cartoon shows two angry galoots at a gin mill ready to flatten each other while the bartender tries frantically to keep the peace. “Butt out, Buster!” says one of the antagonists. “Who the hell do you think you are—Jimmy Carter?”

On the preceding page, the publication ran an item about Yannick Cédras, the glamorous wife of the newly retired Haitian dictator. Again, the former U.S. president rated mention because Carter, who met Mrs. Cédras during an emergency trip to Haiti last month, felt called upon to describe her as “slim” and “very attractive.” Suddenly, Jimmy Carter was making like a correspondent for People magazine.

This is the same Carter who told an interviewer during the 1976 presidential campaign that he “committed adultery in my heart many times”—a remark that gave latenight TV hosts enough material for a lifetime. Big deal, Jimmy, you had a few X-rated daydreams, but why discuss it? And with a reporter?

The answer: because when it comes to the pursuit of practical politics, Jimmy Carter does not hail from planet Earth. He has this terrible addiction to candor and no instinct for artful ducking when a tough question wings his way. The slipperiness and doubletalk mastered so easily by public servants at every level of government seem beyond the poor man’s scope.

It is as though Carter, 70, suffers some sort of queer learning disability that if diagnosed early might have been corrected. Or perhaps his mother, the now-deceased Miss Lillian, stunted her child with incessant sermons about goodness and mercy. Also possible is that young Jimmy took seriously the outrageous George Washington jive American kids learn in first grade. Cannot tell a lie? Must have sounded good to Jimmy Carter. Talk about getting off on the wrong track.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

An elegant rube from Plains, Ga., Carter could no more perjure himself before the citizenry than fill a peanut sack with empty shells. Such absurd allegiance to morality is taken as sedition in many quarters, and, as much as anything, explains why Carter lost the White House after one term. Washington simply cannot afford to have the top man running around as though addicted to sodium pentothal. If the president starts levelling with the country, senators and congressmen and agency chiefs might be expected to do the same—an intolerable prospect. Members of both parties turned on Jimmy Carter like he had proposed a ban on limousines. The chief executive was a menace, no doubt.

There were other reasons for Carter’s demise, of course. He had that goofy, thinlipped smile, and his voice was strictly unpresidential—too much Mr. Rogers, not enough James Earl Jones—and there was the matter of his accent. Bill Clinton gets away with the corn-pone cadences because he reminds people of Elvis Presley and emits a certain sexiness in his delivery. But Jimmy Carter sounded like a cousin of Minnie Pearl. On the other hand, his opponent in ’80, Ronald Reagan, recited lines beautifully and had nary a trace of regionalism. The Gipper had nary a trace of an idea, either, but who cared? Exit please, Jimmy Carter.

Carter refused. He headed home to Georgia, pulled himself together and set out to make a difference. With his wife, Rosalynn, the resuscitated Carter did extensive volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity, a group that builds housing for low-income families. Then he set up the Carter Center in Atlanta as an institution dedicated to global conflict resolution. The project had grandiose aspects, but Carter pressed ahead. At this point, he was accountable only to himself.

Most remarkably, Carter began functioning as a freelance diplomat—a kind of shadow secretary of state who appeared in trouble spots when disaster was nigh—and earlier this month won the prestigious J. William Fulbright Prize for promoting international understanding.

During the Persian Gulf crisis, Carter tried to avert hostilities by lobbying Bush administration officials and leaders at the United Nations. (No luck: George Bush would not be denied his lovely little war.) He mediated the Eritrean-Ethiopian civil conflict, helped avert a major incident in North Korea over nuclear proliferation, held high-level talks in Cuba and, most recently, convinced Haitian junta leader Gen. Raoul Cédras to resign and allow the return of exiled President JeanBertrand Aristide. The arrangement may not be perfect but this is sure: if Carter had not succeeded, the U.S. military would have hit the beaches, and plenty of Haitians—and likely some American Gis—would have died.

So it turns out that Carter is half saint, half genius? Not quite. Carter is said to be headstrong and self-righteous, and clearly has the robust ego of all who think they rate public attention. He was a klutzy president—someone who “knew all of the words and none of the music,” as a Carter intimate told The New York Times. He made a lunatic mistake by trying to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran—an embarrassing caper that ended in disaster. Even if American rescuers had reached Teheran, lives almost certainly would have been lost. It was Carter’s most uncharacteristic interlude, and he paid for his errant judgment dearly.

As a diplomat, Carter has angered some Washington professionals who say he improvises too much and has a penchant for coddling despots. Carter gave assurances to junta members in Haiti that they could remain in the country though Clinton had demanded otherwise, and, at one point, Jimmy the Generous said it was just “plain wrong” to view Cédras as a bad guy—a view that must have surprised Haitians who lived in fear of the general and his goons.

Whatever Carter’s shortcomings, he has been a revelation since leaving office. Other former presidents play golf and work the bigbucks lecture circuit. Carter gets his kicks keeping the world in one piece. The guy just has a peculiar set of priorities, lucky for us.