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

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; C01

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."

Carter slips quietly into the church through a door to the left of the pulpit patrolled by his ever-present Secret Service detail. He enters a spare chamber with a peaked roof, sea-foam green carpet and bare walls. Light trickles through simple stained-glass windows. The man who tried to take the imperial out of the presidency -- walking on inauguration day, selling the presidential yacht, sometimes carrying his own bag -- worships in a church that takes the imperial out of faith.

The church was born of controversy. It was formed, while Carter was still president, by a small group that defected from Carter's former place of worship, Plains Baptist Church, which refused to admit black members. In his book, Carter writes that he'd attended Plains Baptist since childhood and tried unsuccessfully to integrate the church when he was a deacon in the 1960s -- the congregation voted 50-6 against his proposal, he writes. While he was president, protesters demonstrated outside the church, but it remained segregated. Carter joined the integrated Maranatha church after leaving the presidency. More recently, Carter has sought to forge a new national coalition of Baptist churches as a counterweight to the behemoth Southern Baptist Convention, which is often associated with conservative causes and Republican Party ideals.

There is no applause when he enters Maranatha. The crowd of several hundred has been warned against that, too: "He is not here to entertain you," Sergeant Williams has declared. On this day, Carter teaches from Ecclesiastes, focusing in great part on the graceful lines that Pete Seeger spun into the enduring musical classic "Turn! Turn! Turn!": "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven/A time to be born, and a time to die."

Williams has already told the crowd that Carter will be buried in Plains, "next to the pond" at his farm. Some in the audience whisper and wonder about the former president's well-being. When she asks the audience if they know what Carter's been up to, a boy raises his hand and offers up a one-word answer: "Hospital?"

In his opening remarks, Carter describes his two-day hospital stay -- after becoming ill from a possible viral infection on a flight to Cleveland -- as an "adventure." He wears a bolo tie, and a blue blazer hangs loosely from his shoulders. He looks remarkably vigorous as he paces before the audience. "Threw up twice" in the plane bathroom, he says. Then, he says, he went back to his seat and "filled up two of the barf bags, whatever you call them." (This TMI tendency has been with him a long time -- in his diaries, he dutifully records his battles with hemorrhoids.)

Carter's brush with his own mortality evokes one of the most poignant episodes in his book. He gets a call from former president Gerald Ford, the incumbent Republican he defeated for the presidency in 1976. The two later formed a bond so close that Ford asked Carter to deliver his eulogy in one of their last phone conversations: "Startled, I responded that I would do so if he would make me the same promise."

At home with Jimmy

The day after Carter's Sunday school lesson, he agrees to chat for a few minutes at his home in Plains, a modest brick rancher set back from the road and reachable only by passing through a heavy metal gate monitored by the Secret Service.

Carter settles into an armchair in a snug front room with a fading blue couch. Above him hangs a framed photograph of the Alaskan wilderness given to him by Ansel Adams. Nothing about the home decrees "a former president lives here!" It has the look and feel of a suburban grandparent's place: comfortable and dated. There's a pool nearby, and Carter says he still likes to skinny dip there, especially in the winter when it's covered by a protective dome and "completely private, even from the Secret Service cameras."

I ask Carter whether he's made a call like the one that Ford made to him.

"No," he says. But he has asked that his funeral music be performed by David Osborne, a frequent White House presence whose Web site touts him as "Pianist to the Presidents." Andrew Young, the civil rights icon whom Carter appointed ambassador to the U.N., will be among the eulogists, he says.

The hereafter comes up periodically in Carter's Sunday school lessons -- he's delivered hundreds over the years, including occasional appearances at the First Baptist Church in Washington when he was president. (Carter, who has written 26 books, says two more will come out next year: One will include summaries of 365 of his Sunday school lessons and the second will be a Bible that features 225 of his comments on Scripture passages.)

"I don't really know," he says when I ask what happens after we die. "Saint Paul said that it would be a transformation in our basic character, like the difference between a planted peanut seed and a plant that produces peanuts or corn or wheat."

It's all in the details

In his 1996 book, "Living Faith," Carter wrote about the difficulties he encountered when teaching Sunday school lessons about forgiveness. "Almost invariably, a feeling of hypocrisy gnaws at me as I remember people against whom I still hold a grudge. Most of my lingering resentments relate to our time in Washington. In some cases I have said, 'I can't forgive that jerk!' But when I forced myself to consider the original altercations more thoroughly, they usually came to seem somewhat silly."

Washington didn't necessarily embrace Carter. "There was some tendency on the part of some people to think that he didn't fit there," Mondale says. The Carters' ways were Southern, and to some that translated to "unsophisticated." In his diary, Carter writes that when the new first family was preparing to move into the White House, staffers asked the cooks whether they could prepare Southern dishes. "Yes, ma'am," a cook said, "we've been fixing that kind of food for the servants for a long time."

By his eighth month in office, he's already lamenting the slow pace of legislation and foreign initiatives. "It would be easier if I was a dictator and didn't have to worry about the Congress or other foreign leaders who don't agree with us," he writes.

Carter would frequently be lampooned as overly concerned with minutiae, most notably in a 1979 Atlantic article that said he busied himself with matters as trivial as classical music play lists and reservations for the White House tennis court. His diaries do little to reverse this impression. Why, there he is on Monday, July 18, 1977, noting that "I discovered that Prime Minister Begin wants a fully kosher meal in the White House Tuesday night, and I authorized it to be prepared." One wonders if some White House waiter or protocol flunkie felt like the boss was trampling on their territory.

In an extraordinary entry from April 1978, Carter writes that his adviser Jim Schlesinger tells him that he spends "more time on detail than any president in our history. Suggest [sic] spend less time on detail, use time wisely."

Another adviser, Bob Strauss, tells him that "there is no one for the Carter administration now. [Not] business, labor, Hispanics, Jews."

He is bedeviled by bad relations with the media, despite efforts to court prominent editors. Piqued, he refuses to appear at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner because he considers the White House press corps "irresponsible and unnecessarily abusive." He scolds the Washington Post for being "childish and irresponsible," Newsweek is "the most inaccurate publication I read," CBS is "quite often a spokesman for Israel" and one of its star reporters, future anchor Dan Rather, is guilty of "frivolous questioning." The Washington Star is a "completely irresponsible rag" and the media in general are full of "deliberately false reports."

There are victories: He wins a hard-fought battle with Congress to approve treaties handing over control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians and negotiates the historic Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. Still, he manages to alienate American Jews -- and Israeli leaders manage to perturb him. "As I've said many times," Carter notes in a March 1979 entry, " 'I have never been pleasantly surprised by the Israelis.' " Now, Carter says in a note accompanying his diaries, he has "deep regrets about the fact that I alienated many American Jews."

The nemesis

Three decades on from his national defeat, Carter perseveres through endurance and adherence to the gospel of not backing down. He preaches to new generations and tries to shape history's view of him.

Reagan, his vanquisher, and Kennedy, his tormentor, have left the stage. So, the dueling takes place in memoirs. Kennedy pokes Carter in "True Compass." Carter pokes back in "White House Diary," with his ever-loyal second, Mondale, writing history, too. Reagan got icon status; Kennedy got forgiveness for personal foibles and a posthumous health-care triumph, an almost too perfect coda to a dramatic life. But it is Carter, the man who struggled to match intentions with impact, who is still holding on, still fighting to dispel the received wisdom that he flopped in office and soared once he left. At times he still seems baffled at the whys, just as he was in 1979, when he scoffed to his diary that the privileged son from Massachusetts had been kicked out of college and "was my age but unsuccessful," yet the papers were "practically anointing Kennedy as the president."

Carter was tipped to Kennedy's presidential plans as far back as 1978 by a young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden, who 30 years later would become vice president of the United States. Soon thereafter, Carter begins to suspect Kennedy of trying to undermine him by obstructing his agenda. In January 1979, Carter complains that Kennedy's criticism of his budget "is getting tiresome." The next month, when referencing Democratic attacks against him, Carter calls Kennedy "the worst violator." In a note looking back on that time, Carter says Kennedy's opposition to his health care plan "proved fatal. . . . We lost a good chance to provide comprehensive national health care, and another thirty years would pass before such an opportunity came again."

Doubts are rife that summer. Less than a year after the Camp David triumph, his political troubles are so pronounced that a group of "wise men and one woman" questions whether "I can govern the country." He listens and takes note while sitting on the floor.

Kennedy is making matters worse by talking up his own health care proposal. Mondale says in an interview that the Carter administration opposed it because they thought it was too expensive, opting instead for a more limited blueprint that covered children and provided major medical benefits. Kennedy placed a courtesy call to Mondale the day before announcing his candidacy, the former vice president recalls. "I told him, 'If we get into a primary fight, it will undermine our chance of getting reelected and your chance of getting elected.' " In his diaries, Carter remembers Mondale's assessment in even stronger terms: Mondale "thinks that Kennedy has as a major goal the defeat of the Democratic ticket in November, and I think he's probably right. It's hard to explain Kennedy's actions any other way."

To be sure, Kennedy wasn't the biggest fan of Carter's either. In "True Compass," published posthumously, Kennedy accuses Carter of "paying lip service to 'universal' and 'mandatory' coverage." "President Carter was a difficult man to convince -- of anything. One reason for this was that he did not really listen. He loved to give the appearance of listening."

Kennedy sneered that during White House visits "the first thing you would be reminded of, in case you needed reminding, was that he and Rosalynn had removed all the liquor in the White House. He wanted no luxuries nor any sign of worldly living." In his diaries, Carter frets about his brother Billy's drinking and dispatches his sister, Ruth, to speak to the poet James Dickey about overindulging. In a hilarious episode with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, the Russians produce a tiny shot glass for Carter when he fails to drain a larger one during the first of many toasts.

Though he defeated Kennedy, Mondale says Carter erred by refraining from campaigning during the Iran hostage crisis. Carter's worries about Kennedy's impact on the election aside, he still posits that he might have won if a botched mission to rescue the hostages had succeeded. He writes that he wishes he "would have sent one more helicopter to ensure the rescue effort. . . . I truly believe that if I had done so, I would have been reelected."

Six days after being trounced by Ronald Reagan, Carter writes in his diary that his adviser Lloyd Cutler told him he "will enjoy being an ex-president a lot more than being president."

Now Carter looks at it this way: "Lloyd was right."

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