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Lunch of the POTUSes

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Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 7, 2009; 1:26 PM

Today's historic gathering of all the living presidents -- and one president-to-be -- was destined to be at least four-fifths love fest.

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President Bush and President-Elect Barack Obama have been playing nicey-nice ever since the election, even though Obama's victory was largely due to voters seeing him as Bush's antithesis. George H.W. Bush and the man who defeated him in 1992, Bill Clinton, famously became buddies doing tsunami relief.

The outlier was Jimmy Carter, who has made no secret of his profound contempt for his host.

Back in May of 2007, Carter called President Bush "the worst in history" when it comes to international relations, and the White House shot back that Carter was "increasingly irrelevant." (See my column at the time, Carter Infuriates White House.) Carter quickly apologized, saying he is normally careful "not to criticize any president personally."

Perhaps. But Carter's speech at the 2004 Democratic convention remains one of the most blistering critiques of Bush's international legacy -- even though it came more than four years ago.

"The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of pre-emptive war," Carter intoned.

"In the meantime, the Middle East peace process has come to a screeching halt for the first time since Israel became a nation. All former Presidents, Democratic and Republican, have attempted to secure a comprehensive peace for Israel with hope and justice for the Palestinians. The achievements of Camp David a quarter century ago and the more recent progress made by President Bill Clinton are now in peril. Instead, violence has gripped the holy land with the region increasingly swept by anti-American passions. . . .

"Elsewhere, North Korea's nuclear menace, a threat far more real and immediate than any posed by Saddam Hussein, has been allowed to advance unheeded with potentially ominous consequences for peace and stability in Northeast Asia. These are some of the prices our government has paid with its radical departure from basic American principles and values. . . .

"In repudiating extremism, we need to recommit ourselves to a few common-sense principles that should transcend partisan differences. First, we cannot enhance our own security if we place in jeopardy what is most precious to us, namely, the centrality of human rights in our daily lives and in global affairs. Second, we cannot maintain our historic self-confidence as a people if we generate public panic. Third, we cannot do our duty as citizens and patriots if we pursue an agenda that polarizes and divides our country. Next, we cannot be true to ourselves if we mistreat others. And finally, in the world at large, we cannot lead if our leaders mislead."

Until today, Bush has been at great pains to keep Carter at a distance. For instance, Carter's notable absence from the president-filled delegation to the April 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II has never been fully explained.

One of the rare occasions when the two have crossed paths was the nationally televised funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. As I wrote in my column at the time, with Bush fidgeting in the background, Carter declared: "The struggle for equal rights is not over. We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, those who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

And as I reported this past May, Bush lashed back at Carter in an interview with Mike Allen of Politico.

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