Correction to This Article
The column incorrectly described Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Jimmy Carter on Energy Security

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Calling Jimmy Carter to testify about energy security, it might seem, is a bit like calling Michael Vick to testify about pet care.

But John Kerry is a gambler, and the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee invited the 39th president to talk to his panel about his cardigan-wearing days in the White House -- and why the nation, 30 years later, still hasn't solved its energy problems.

For a resurgent Democratic Party, the move risked all kinds of unpleasant imagery: gas lines, fuel shortages, the Iran hostage crisis, malaise. Even members of the committee staff joked about whether the former president would show up wearing a sweater, as he did when he appeared on television to urge Americans to lower their thermostats.

But the 84-year-old elder statesman showed up in a pinstriped business suit, and even the Republicans were deferential as a former president sat before a congressional committee for the first time in 15 years. In case the lawmakers weren't aware of the honor, Carter reminded them that he was "the fifth president ever to testify before a Senate committee and the first one since Harry Truman."

Carter's reputation has soared since his star-crossed presidency, and yesterday he tried to settle some (very) old scores. "I dedicated solar collectors on the White House roof in 1979," he said, "but the 32 panels were soon removed almost instantaneously after my successor moved into the White House."

The I-told-you-so theme recurred during his nearly 90 minutes with the panel. "When I became president, the average gas mileage on a car was 12 miles per gallon, and we had mandated, by the time I went out of office, 27.5 miles per gallon," he said, as his wife, Rosalynn, and daughter, Amy, listened from the first row. "But President Reagan and others didn't think that was important, and so it was frittered away."

As her father opened the old wounds, Amy Carter, now 41, sat with her legs crossed, rotating her ankle.

"What a wonderful recitation of history," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a Prius-driving lawmaker who took office the same year as Carter.

"When you get to my age, and almost your age, you have to look back on history more than the future," Carter replied.

The chairman was eager to see Carter get historical credit for the energy policies that earned him laughs and derision decades ago. "President Carter had the courage, as president of the United States, to tell the truth to Americans about energy," Kerry said. "Regrettably, the ensuing years saw those efforts unfunded, stripped away."

After making that point, however, Kerry had an energy crisis of his own as the former president read his statement. Carter spoke of how high energy prices hurt the poor. Kerry yawned. Carter spoke of China's need for more oil. The chairman yawned again. Carter spoke of high-tech coal plants. Kerry yawned. Carter mentioned Brazil's banking system. Kerry yawned. Carter talked of biofuels. Kerry yawned once more.

The energy shortage spread through the room, as spectators yawned back at Kerry and one member of the press corps closed her eyes.

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