By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006
It's not your run-of-the-mill author event, this post-Thanksgiving gathering at Bailey's Crossroads.
Top PR honchos from Simon & Schuster and Borders don't fly in from New York and Ann Arbor, Mich., for the average book signing, but here they are, standing by their man.
Ordinary authors don't get Secret Service protection, but as this one approaches the lectern, the dark-suit-and-earpiece boys take up positions on either side.
And what about that scruffy-looking guy with the hand-held video camera? Humble wordsmiths rarely draw Hollywood royalty. Yet here's Jonathan Demme -- the director of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Stop Making Sense" -- marshaling a team of documentarians while doing a little shooting himself.
Then again, James Earl Carter has never been run-of-the-mill, average or ordinary. Or especially humble, truth be told.
Carter is here to talk about his 21st book, the latest effort from the most out-there former president of modern times. As the introduction he gets makes clear -- "Nobel peace laureate, the heart and soul of Habitat for Humanity, tireless advocate for peace and fairness in the world" -- he's set a daunting standard for post-Oval Office marathoners.
Bill Clinton may catch him yet, but he'd better lay off the Big Macs and stay on task -- because Carter, at 82, is still running hard.
Take the book he's here to sell tonight. He gave it a title -- "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid" -- that was, he tells his audience, "provocative" by design.
This is an understatement.
Before the book was even published, angry supporters of Israel denounced his use of the word "apartheid" and Democratic politicians, among them soon-to-be House speaker Nancy Pelosi, scrambled to distance themselves from Carter's views. A week after Carter's Borders appearance, Emory University scholar Kenneth Stein resigned his position as a Carter Center Fellow, charging that the book is biased and replete with errors and omissions.
At his bookstore talk, however, Carter sounds unconcerned by negative reactions -- as long as attention to his basic point gets paid.
"I don't consider the word provocative to be a negative description," he says, "because it's designed to provoke discussion and analysis and debate in a country where debate and discussion is almost completely absent if it involves any criticism at all of the policies of Israel."
His goal for the book, as he'll later tell a scrum of camera-wielding press, was simple and jaw-droppingly ambitious: "just to rejuvenate the peace process, which has been completely absent for the last six years."
Six lost years: It's a theme he comes back to over and over. "I consider that this administration in Washington now," he says to a Borders questioner, "has really failed or defaulted on its obligation" to orchestrate negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And this isn't just a problem for those two peoples. The absence of effort by the United States to resolve the conflict, Carter says, has been "the most serious cause" of the moderate Arab world's turn against us.
"Failed," of course, is the harsh judgment often applied to Carter's one-term presidency by Republicans and Democrats alike. They see him as the man who gave us President Ronald Reagan, though their attitudes toward that outcome naturally differ.
But that was a quarter century ago.
Right now, Jimmy Carter is a man being interrupted by sustained applause.Plenty of Work to Do
Fourteen hours later, he's a man talking to a reporter at 8 a.m. He's in his Ritz-Carlton suite. It's not his first interview of the day.
He's shorter than you might remember, white-haired now, but with the same toothy smile displayed in four years of White House photos, beginning in 1977, not to mention souvenir mugs and Jimmy Carter "Happy Mouth" bottle openers.
The smile tightens when he's asked if the 1980 election results still hurt. That and a short burst of laughter -- hah hah hah -- signal that they do. Then he explains, appearing entirely sincere, why he thinks his life has been "much more full and gratifying" than it would have been had he won a second term.
At 56, involuntarily retired, he felt "somewhat frustrated." Statistics suggested that he had 25 more years to live, "and what was I going to do with those 25 years?" Absent that frustration, he believes, "I would not have formed the Carter Center" -- the activist, Atlanta-based institution that he and his wife, Rosalynn, determined to build instead of the usual presidential library/shrine.
The center's success, and Carter's with it, makes it hard to remember what damaged goods he was in January 1981.
He'd had his share of accomplishments, most notably the brokering of the Camp David accords, an unprecedented peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. But during the Carter presidency, inflation rose sharply and the nation was introduced to the concept of gas lines. Contemptuous of Washington insiders and more conservative on defense and spending than many Democrats, he alienated his party's establishment and drew a damaging primary challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Asked if the senator -- given the 12 years of Republican ascendancy that followed -- has ever expressed regret about splitting the party, Carter's answer is prompt: "Not really." He mentions that Kennedy, onstage at the Democratic convention, refused to shake his hand.
What sealed his fate, however, was the taking of dozens of American hostages by Iranian radicals in the fall of 1979 -- and Carter's prolonged inability, punctuated by a bungled rescue mission, to negotiate their freedom.
The crisis "crippled his presidency," says Mark K. Updegrove, author of "Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House." And as Updegrove makes clear, Carter departed Washington in rough personal shape as well.
Attending Reagan's inauguration, he hadn't slept in 50 hours. He'd been working on the hostages' release, which finally came later that day. Returning home to Plains, Ga., he and Rosalynn moved into a badly neglected house, empty for a decade. Their 13-year-old daughter couldn't stand small-town life, so they had to ship her off to boarding school.
Rosalynn was angry and depressed. Jimmy's forced cheeriness didn't help. Nor did the fact that they were millions of dollars in debt, both from the campaign and because a blind trust had mismanaged their farm.
Book deals were their financial salvation.
Both Carters wrote memoirs. Jimmy's was called "Keeping Faith," and according to Steven Hochman, a historian hired to help with research, the rejected candidate found writing about his last year in Washington "tough."
Still: "Jimmy Carter is a man who always wants to have a goal," Hochman says. "That's how he became president. And he was not going to change."
The Carter Center became the primary channel for his post-presidential ambitions. Conceived and launched in the early '80s, the center mediates international disputes, monitors elections and tries to strengthen democratic institutions. It also works to destigmatize mental illness and campaigns against scourges such as Guinea worm disease, which, thanks largely to its efforts, has been nearly eradicated.
Nothing to argue with there, you might think. Yet Carter's extreme international assertiveness has at times angered his successors.
The first President Bush was "furious," as Updegrove points out, when Carter sent letters to members of the U.N. Security Council before the Persian Gulf War "urging them to vote against the use of force." President Clinton was equally enraged by what he considered Carter's off-the-reservation behavior during a successful negotiation in Haiti.
It would seem that Carter had plenty to keep him busy without a whole other career writing books. But he's never stopped turning them out, from politically oriented volumes like 1985's "The Blood of Abraham" (an earlier, less controversial tour of the Middle East) to memoirs, poetry, a children's book, a book about staying engaged while getting older ("The Virtues of Aging") and even a historical novel, which he says was the hardest to write.
Last year he published "Our Endangered Values," a sustained attack on the politics of rigid fundamentalism and on virtually everything the second Bush's administration has done; it rode the bestseller lists for months. Carter wrote with particular anger about the administration's record on human rights, which he called an "embarrassing tragedy."
He ticks off three reasons for his constant typing.
He needs the money, in part because he's chosen not to go on the lecture circuit or sit on corporate boards. He enjoys the discipline of writing. And books get him attention when he has something to say.
"I could make a speech," he says, "or I could write an article." But "this way, I've been on 'The Diane Rehm Show' yesterday and the Chris Matthews show and Larry King and 'Good Morning America' and 'The Early Show' and 15 others."What's in a Name?
Indeed he has. And he spends a lot of time talking about his choice of words.
"Mr. President, that title alone is going to create some controversy," Tim Russert says on NBC.
" . . . the very title has many people incensed," Harry Smith says on CBS.
"Did you mean to be provocative, because this immediately calls to mind South Africa, the repression of blacks by whites?" Judy Woodruff says on PBS.
At the Ritz-Carlton, Carter is asked: Was the choice of words his alone?
The publisher didn't quarrel with it?
"Quarrel, no. Question, yes."
He had "probably five or six versions of that same title," he says, "and then later, with different punctuation." In the end, he went with a stripped-down version, which he parses for audiences and interviewers again and again.
He's not talking about Israel itself, where Arabs have the same citizenship rights as anyone else. He's talking about what's happening in the occupied territories: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
It's what he hopes for; it's why he wrote the book.
But there can be no peace, in Carter's view, when Palestinians are "deprived of basic human rights," their land "occupied and then confiscated and then colonized by the Israeli settlers." A system of required passes for Palestinians; a network of roads they mostly can't use and often can't even cross; security barriers being constructed, on Palestinian land, to segregate the peoples -- are all part of Carter's apartheid charge.
Summing up, he writes that there are "two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace": the belief of some Israelis that they have the right to land in the occupied territories and the belief of some Palestinians that suicide bombing is a proper counterargument.
Carter's own solution is hardly new: He favors an independent Palestinian state, which involves Israel withdrawing to its 1967 border and all neighboring Arab states accepting its right to exist in peace.
So far so good, if your politics lean in Carter's direction. But even for those who don't instantly reject the comparison to South Africa, there's still an obvious flaw in his analogy that he continually must address. The word "apartheid" implies racism as a motivation -- yet Carter insists he's not talking about race.
One hundred eighty-nine pages into a 264-page book, he writes that the "driving purpose for the forced separation" of Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied territories is "not racism, but the acquisition of land." What he calls "apartheid," he explained to Russert, "is not based on racism, it's based on the desire by a minority of Israelis for Palestinian land."
This rhetorical move infuriates those unsympathetic to Carter's argument.
"This is a cynical book, its cynicism embedded in its bait-and-switch title," writes New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, in a review that appears in The Post's Book World section today. Goldberg goes on to criticize Carter for, among other things, writing about Israel's security fence as part of a land grab without underlining its more obvious purpose: "to prevent the murder of Jews."
Even some close to Carter have questioned his word choice. "I certainly raised it with him," historian Hochman says. "I think with a less provocative title, people would have come to the book more open to the arguments he made."
It can seem hard to argue with this point. To take just one example: If you Google "Jimmy Carter, go back to your peanut farm" you'll pull up an angry Jerusalem Post rebuttal of the apartheid charge. It's written by precisely the kind of Israeli -- human rights activist David Forman, who opposes the occupation -- you'd think might be sympathetic to Carter's views.
And yet . . . In a blog entry otherwise quite critical of Carter, Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writes: "There is enough material evidence to prove that apartheid exists in the occupied territories in one form or another. If you argue about the use of this word, you lose. If you argue that Israel is blameless you also lose."
This reinforces a point Carter often makes: It's far more common to hear the behavior of the Israeli government debated in Israel than it is here.
He makes another point, when asked, about America's own apartheid years.
The term has often been applied to the segregated South in which Carter was raised. In his mind, "there's an interrelationship between what's happening to the Palestinians and what happened to black people under segregation," and that connection has long influenced his thinking.
To listen to Carter talk about the Middle East, however, is also to hear repeated echoes of the climactic moment in 1978 that has shaped his views more than anything else.
That would be the signing of the Camp David accords -- the peak experience of his public life -- which few would argue could have happened without his forceful engagement. Camp David resolved the differences between Israel and its most powerful Arab foe, which had come close enough to military victory five years earlier to underscore Israel's continued vulnerability.
"When I went out of office, I felt that I had accomplished a major goal of my life, which was to guarantee Israel peace," Carter says.
But he also thought the region could be headed for a broader peace. Part of the Camp David deal -- a part Carter had pushed hard for -- was that the Israelis agreed to a "withdrawal from the occupied territories." It didn't happen.
Conflicting explanations fill volumes, but Carter is strongly inclined to blame the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, whose arm he'd twisted hard at Camp David, but who, in Carter's view, "didn't keep his promises."
And here comes the shadow of 1980, one more time.
Granted, Begin may never have wanted to withdraw in the first place. Granted, it was never going to be easy to get the Palestinian situation resolved. But surely Carter had been assuming that he could keep the pressure on -- that he could build on Camp David during his second term.
"Of course. I could have," Jimmy Carter says.