Beyond the White House (By Jimmy Carter)

Good Jimmy, Bad Jimmy

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope

By Jimmy Carter

Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $26

Two Jimmy Carters have long coexisted in the public mind. Good Jimmy brokered the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Bad Jimmy failed to free the American hostages seized by Iranian militants in 1979. Good Jimmy wore sweaters and lowered his thermostat to save energy. Bad Jimmy allowed rampant inflation and interest rates to kneecap the economy.

On election day, 1980, when voters roundly rejected Carter, leaving the Democratic party in its worst shape since the 1920s, Bad Jimmy seemed destined to prevail. But over the next 25 years, Good Jimmy mounted a comeback to make even Richard Nixon envious. Mediating foreign conflicts, monitoring elections and delivering medicine to Third World countries, Carter slowly hammered out a new, refurbished image as a humanitarian -- much the way he and his fellow volunteers at Habitat for Humanity doggedly built homes for the needy.

Then, last year, Bad Jimmy returned. He gathered the kindling of Good Jimmy's name, doused it with the gasoline of Middle East politics and ignited it all with the spark of his long-simmering animosity toward Israel. After the publication of Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, which compared the Mideast's sole liberal democracy (in which an Arab holds a Cabinet post) to racist South Africa, Good Jimmy's hard work lay in ashes.

Carter is trying to rebuild again. Beyond the White House, a slight and unremarkable book, is a plea to remember Good Jimmy. Hastily and cursorily, it reviews Carter's post-presidential selflessness. One section recounts the deals he cut among factions in foreign civil wars. Another ticks off his labors to fight diseases that needlessly kill millions. A third touts his oversight of elections in emerging democracies.

The selflessness showcased here, however, is of a self-serving kind. Carter reminds readers how he helped attain a cease-fire in the Balkan wars in 1994. But rather than admitting that he misjudged the malignity of Slobodan Milosevic, he blames the truce's collapse on the Clinton administration and its European counterparts. "It is interesting to conjecture about how many human rights atrocities, refugees, and deaths might have been avoided if our agreements and suggestions had been honored by the international community," he writes with scorn. The Butcher of Belgrade receives no explicit rebuke.

Indeed, for a man known for his piety, Carter is eerily silent here on matters of right and wrong. Behind conflicts he sees not real political differences but failures of negotiation. And he still won't condemn terrorism unequivocally, describing Hamas -- accurately but inadequately -- as "an Islamic militant group that opposed recognition of Israel, perpetrated acts of violence, and was increasingly competitive with [Yasir] Arafat's secular Fatah Party."

Good Jimmy once offered himself as an honest man guilty of sin, one who lusted after women besides his wife. But Carter's sins are more serious than a roving eye. An honest reckoning with them is needed if Good Jimmy is ever to win his struggle with the dark forces in his nature. *

-- David Greenberg is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company