Almost always, when former President Jimmy Carter opens his big, smug mouth, he has already made the psychological mistake that is going to reduce his words to absurdity. When he told the press last week that the Bush administration had aroused antipathy around the world, he might have been uttering no more than a banality. But no, he had to try to invest it with a special signature flourish. So, he said instead:
I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history. The overt reversal of America’s basic values as expressed by previous administrations, including [those of] George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and others, has been the most disturbing to me.
Leave aside the sophomoric slackness that begins a broken-backed sentence with the words “as far as” and then cannot complete itself. “Worst in history,” as the great statesman from Georgia has to know, has been the title for which he has himself been actively contending since 1976. I once had quite an argument with the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who maintained adamantly that it had been right for him to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 for no other reason. “Mr. Carter,” he said, “quite simply abdicated the whole responsibility of the presidency while in office. He left the nation at the mercy of its enemies at home and abroad. He was the worst president we ever had.”
I still think Richard Nixon has to be the prime candidate here, but you will notice that Jimmy Carter evinces nostalgia for that period, too. Apparently, the Christmas bombing of Vietnam, the invasion of Cambodia, the subversion of democracy in Chile, the raising of illegal slush funds, and the attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee offices were assertions of America’s “basic values.” Leave aside Carter’s newfound admiration for Ronald Reagan, who is now undergoing a more general historical revision thanks to the work of professors Diggins and Brinkley, and just concentrate for a moment on what he says about George Bush Sr. What did he say at the time? Many people in retrospect think Bush did a good job in assembling a large multinational coalition, under U.N. auspices, for the emancipation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. But Jimmy Carter used his prestige, at that uneasy moment, to make an open appeal to all governments not to join that coalition. He went public to oppose the settled policy of Congress and the declared resolutions of the United Nations and to denounce his own country as the warmonger. And, after all, why not? It was he who had created the conditions for the Gulf crisis in the first place—initially by fawning on the shah of Iran and then, when that option collapsed, by encouraging Saddam Hussein to invade Iran and by “tilting” American policy to his side. If I had done such a thing, I would take very good care to be modest when discussions of Middle Eastern crises came up. But here’s the thing about self-righteous, born-again demagogues: Nothing they ever do, or did, can be attributed to anything but the very highest motives.
Here is a man who, in his latest book on the Israel-Palestine crisis, has found the elusive key to the problem. The mistake of Israel, he tells us (and tells us that he told the Israeli leadership) is to have moved away from God and the prophets and toward secularism. If you ever feel like a good laugh, just tell yourself that things would improve if only the Israeli government would be more Orthodox. Jimmy Carter will then turn his vacantly pious glare on you, as if to say that you just don’t understand what it is to have a personal savior.
In the Carter years, the United States was an international laughingstock. This was not just because of the prevalence of his ghastly kin: the beer-sodden brother Billy, doing deals with Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, and the grisly matriarch, Miz Lillian. It was not just because of the president’s dire lectures on morality and salvation and his weird encounters with lethal rabbits and UFOs. It was not just because of the risible White House “Bible study” sessions run by Bert Lance and his other open-palmed Elmer Gantry pals from Georgia. It was because, whether in Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq—still the source of so many of our woes—the Carter administration could not tell a friend from an enemy. His combination of naivete and cynicism—from open-mouthed shock at Leonid Brezhnev’s occupation of Afghanistan to underhanded support for Saddam in his unsleeping campaign of megalomania—had terrible consequences that are with us still. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that every administration since has had to deal with the chaotic legacy of Carter’s mind-boggling cowardice and incompetence.
The quotation with which I began comes from an interview that he gave last week to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He also went on the British Broadcasting Corporation to make spiteful and cheap remarks on the retirement of Prime Minister Tony Blair, calling him “loyal, blind, apparently subservient.” Yes, that’s right, Mr. Carter. Just the way to make friends and assert “America’s basic values.” Show us your peanut envy. Heap insults on a guest in Washington: a thrice-elected prime minister who was the first and strongest ally of the United States on the most awful day in its recent history. A man who was prepared to risk his own career to be counted as a friend. A man who was warning against the Taliban, against Slobodan Milosevic, and against Saddam Hussein when George Bush was only the governor of Texas. Leaders like that deserve a little respect even when they are wrong—but don’t expect any generosity or courtesy from the purse-mouthed preacher man from Plains, who just purely knows he was right all along, and who, when that fails, can always point to the numberless godly victories that he won over the forces of evil.