In church or in print, former president Jimmy Carter still preaches policy

In diaries Jimmy Carter kept during his presidency and compiled in the new book "White House Diary," the ex-president lashes out at the politicians and reporters who bedeviled him.
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010

PLAINS, GA. -- On those scattered weekends when Jimmy Carter isn't out enforcing Middle East harmony or slaying Guinea worms or compensating for presidential malaise with ex-presidential vim, the 86-year-old can be found in Sunday school.

Carter wants to teach so much about the Lord and about himself these days, unraveling Scripture, repairing legacies, straining to convince others that it is he -- not his detractors, the ones who looked down on him -- who knows the path to a better world. The faithful and the curious flock to listen, pilgrims to a deep South shrine to all things Jimmy. They pass through peanut and cotton fields on their way to this town of 600, rolling by a museum that was once Billy Carter's old service station and down a two-lane country road where they come to a stop just beyond another gas station that boasts a giant peanut statue out front.

Carter will walk his would-be apostles through holy texts, but he also will coax them to absorb his worldview, an outlook that values human rights and good works, just as it gazes disapprovingly at so much of what is around him. On this particular Sunday at Maranatha Baptist Church, a lesson about emulating Christ meanders into a critique of anti-immigrant sentiment. "There are some people who make their career out of condemning Mexicans and South Americans," he observes in that soft, familiar Southern voice.

He frowns on the United States for locking up too many prisoners and not dedicating enough to foreign aid. "Wouldn't it be nice," he muses to his flock, if nations threatened by civil wars came to Washington for solutions because they thought of the United States as a nation "committed to peace"?

Then, like a prosecutor leading the witness, he suggests: "I would say now we're the nation probably most committed to -- what?"

"War!" the crowd calls back. Carter nods in agreement. It's just the answer he wants to hear. Later, in an interview, he calls the Iraq invasion "a horribly unnecessary war" and says the impression of the United States as a nation of war gives "something of a green light" to conflict-hungry leaders of other nations.

He says these leaders must think to themselves, "If the United States does it, the greatest nation, the most powerful nation in the world, why can't we?"

Days past his 86th birthday, Carter seems intent on making his displeasures abundantly known and arguing again with the men who bedeviled him, even though most are no longer on this Earth to fight back. His Sunday lesson delivers his message on an intimate scale, while his once private ruminations -- compiled in the recently released book "White House Diary" -- do so on a grand scale. In the book, which comprises excerpts from the daily diaries he kept while president, and speaking during the subsequent press tour, Carter has accused the late-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (widely credited as a driving force behind the landmark health reforms that passed last year) of being responsible for delaying reforms for three decades. He berates the media as "irresponsible." He rips world leaders (then-West German Chancellor Helmut Schmitt was a "paranoid child"), congressional icons (talking to Sen. Russell Long was "a waste of time" and Sen. Robert Byrd was "full of venom") and he declares that a host of other well-known figures behave like "asses" (Sens. Frank Church and Henry "Scoop" Jackson, then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Jewish reform leader Alexander Schindler, who by Carter's lights "always acts like an ass").

The supreme political being is Jimmy, Jimmy tells us on NBC one day: His ex-presidency "is superior" to all others. Therein lies the paradox of Jimmy Carter: a warm, toothy grin; a very sharp bite. For all his accomplishments -- the much-lauded Carter Center in Atlanta, championingHabitat for Humanity and his Nobel Peace Prize, among them -- Carter also can't resist suggesting how he who has seen it all still knows it all, and uses his wisdom not so much to transcend the petty but to punish and scold.

The drill

Before Carter appears at Sunday school, his "benevolent sergeant" explains the ritual. A church lady named Jan Williams, who was Amy Carter's fourth-grade teacher, proclaims that the president will ask where you're from, he will ask if there are any missionaries in the audience, he will pose for pictures. But mostly, she tells the audience what Carter doesn't want them to do. No "full-body hug," no "hand shakin'," no standing between him and Rosalynn. And no sneaking two pictures for one group. "He gets very impatient," she says. "He will correct you if you're not doing what he expected."

The congregation marvels at four offering plates carved by Carter, turning the wooden ovals in their hands and posing for pictures with them, as if they were sacred relics. "See, his initials are right here on the back," says Bill Stock, a used-car dealer from Asheville, N.C. Etched there are the letters JC -- Jesus Christ to some. Carter leaves out his middle initial, consciously -- or perhaps subconsciously -- emulating Christ?

In an interview, Carter's vice president, Walter "Fritz" Mondale, says his former boss harbored religious aspirations when they were in the White House. "We'd have long chats during those four years," says Mondale, who has just come out with his own memoirs, "The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics." "I remember one time he was thinking about becoming a missionary when his presidency ended. When you think about it, it's kind of what he's doing."

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