Monday, May 21, 2007

Carter Shouldn't Back Off Statements Critical of Bush

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.
- Jimmy Carter, on President George W. Bush, to the
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, according to a Yahoo!/Reuters article

Former President Jimmy Carter's track record may be lacking in many areas, but history has showed that he is not scared to express his beliefs. So, why is he retreating from his statements on President George W. Bush's presidency faster than a cash-strapped consumer from a gas pump?

Over the weekend, the story broke that in an interview with the
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Carter called the Bush administration, among other things, "the worst in history," according to a Yahoo!/Reuters article. The White House shot back quickly, calling Carter "irrelevant."

Carter, especially in his role as an ex-President, has never shied away from expressing his beliefs, no matter how controversial they were. Late last year he released a book called, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," and he immediately took heat from multiple points on the political spectrum for his critical words for Israel. (Washington Post Article on the Backlash) Despite the heat, Carter stood firm.

Personally, I found Carter's argument (essentially equating Israel's handling of the Palestinians with South Africa's apartheid government) irresponsible, unenlightened and way off base. But, I did admire his guts in taking such an unpopular position, as well as his conviction in standing firm and taking the heat that came with it. I wrote off the incident as one misstep in an otherwise distinguished post-Presidential career.

So I found it shocking how quickly and completely Carter retreated from his assessment of the Bush White House. According to a Yahoo!/AP article, today Carter said he was
"careless or misinterpreted," and that he was only responding to a question asking him to compare Bush's foreign policy with the one employed by the Nixon administration. Carter said, "I wasn't comparing the overall administration and I was certainly not talking personally about any president."

First of all, Carter's latest claim is, to use the scholarly term, a load of revisionist dog crap. The statement "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history" on its face compares Bush's policies to those of every other presidency. That's what "worst in history" means. If, for whatever reason, Carter felt a need to backtrack, why not at least be honest and say he spoke too quickly? To try and twist his statement, after the fact, into something it wasn't is dishonest and below someone of Carter's stature.

Second, why not? That is, what would be so bad about saying what a ton of Carter's fellow Americans believe? That this administration has been marked by arrogance, deception and incompetence, and has led the country to the edge of an abyss. Why is Carter suddenly timid now?

Outlining the entire list of offenses of the Bush administration could be a post in itself. More of a research paper, really. Maybe even a PhD thesis. But, to kind of shorthand it, SportsCenter style, even if you put aside the litany of Bush administration scandals (Valerie Plame and leaning on a severely ill John Ashcroft to sign off on warantless wiretaps, to name just two), Bush's completely disastrous decision to invade Iraq and his incompetency in running the war, all while dropping the ball on the real war on terror in Afghanistan, certainly puts him in the discussion for the worst President ever.

In 1976, Carter articulated a "Misery Index," representing the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates, on his way to winning his election against President Gerald Ford. Four years later, with the economy in worse shape, Ronald Reagan used the statistic in his campaign against Carter, pointing out that it had grown from 12.5% to more than 20% (1980 Presidential Debate Transcript).

The Misery Index seems quaint today. Maybe the 2008 Democratic nominee for President should come up with the World Image Index or the Body Count Index to articulate the damage that Bush has done to the United States and its place in the world. But, destroying America as a place with the moral high ground on issues like justice, rule of law and defending the Constitution is not something you can easily reduce to a memorable statistic.

Even in the absence of a catchy sound bite, Bush has put the United States in a horrendous position. Carter's quote, cited at the top of this piece, nails the issue right on the head. Bush has taken the most precious, core American values and discarded them in his egomaniacal, religion-fueled mania to pursue his vision of a foreign policy, one that has alienated all but the most loyal (or blind, depending how you look at it) allies. ("Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient," is how Carter described Blair, according to the Yahoo!/Reuters article.)

I'm sure Carter does not want to be perceived as violating the civility Presidents traditionally show each other. (Don't believe me? Based on how much time they spend together, I think George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are one natural disaster away from sneaking off to Massachusetts to get married.) But by stating something that is both factually supportable and popularly believed, and then backing off of it so quickly, Carter is sending a message that there was something wrong with his original statement. Such a consequence is far worse than the violation of some outdated notion of not criticizing a fellow President.

I do not stand behind the White House claim that Carter is irrelevant, but I hope on the issue of Bush's performance, his change of heart is not perceived as being important. Irrelevancy for Carter in this one area is fine with me.