Some presidents or vice presidents have a lot of time after their departure to shape their legacy, and those with a literary bent are particularly prone to the temptation. While most have adhered to a type of gentlemen's agreement not to harshly criticize their successors, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore are finally fed up and speaking out.
Carter left office at 56 and has never stopped producing books as well as humanitarian accomplishments; he is certainly the model of a former president. But in his 80s, his impatience and finally his anger and disgust at the administration of George W. Bush have spilled over, the latest in an interview in which he stated, "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history." Carter later made a partial apology, but the gist of his remarks was clear.
When he campaigned for office in 1976, Carter promised he would never lie to the American people. Certainly, this comment is no lie. America's importance in international affairs began as the 20th century began, and without doubt the Bush presidency has done more to damage our relations abroad than any other. No other president even comes close.
A spokesman for the White House reckoned that Carter was "becoming increasingly irrelevant." They wish. Carter is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his work with Habitat for Humanity, fighting disease in Africa and campaigning for honest elections and human rights is beyond reproach. George W. Bush is none of the above.
Carter had his own foreign-policy blunder, of course: He continued the policy of his predecessors and blindly supported the shah of Iran, which continues to plague us in our relations with Iran. But his historic role in the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord was the best thing America did for Israel since President Harry S. Truman helped launch the Jewish state.
His accomplishments give him license to speak out, and he has not been timid. His 2005 book, "Our Endangered Values," lends his moral standing to the American political debate, particularly in regard to separation of church and state. A year later, in "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid," Carter boldly criticized Israelis and Americans as well as Palestinians for their roles in allowing the Middle East to drift in desperation, taking stands no American politician dares to take.
For using the term "apartheid," Carter was pilloried by Zionists, the fate of any commentator who dares to criticize Israel. But media and peace groups within Israel itself have used the term for at least 25 years, to describe their fear of drifting into a state with two separate classes of citizenship. Carter was right in suggesting that Bush has done nothing to advance his "road map," and in fact stood aside while Israel pushed additional settlements into the West Bank.
Jimmy Carter is now 82 and, like many seniors who care about the country their grandchildren will inherit, he is increasingly frustrated by a White House locked down in stubborn mode, at home and abroad. I've been fortunate to spend time with Carter on several occasions over the years, and nothing impressed me more than the steely intensity of his eyes and his impatience with foolish people and foolish policies. This Southerner is no good old boy.
Neither is Al Gore, who would have been president in 2000 if everyone's vote counted the same as Supreme Court justices'. His new book, "The Assault on Reason," goes beyond foreign policy and a searing criticism of the Iraq invasion, and into domestic policy on several fronts. These include climate change, as expected, but also the current president's willful disdain for science, his domestic eavesdropping plan and the Katrina failures. Gore is also searing in his view of the media in general and television in particular, for failing their responsibilities in democratic government.
Carter and Gore were good soldiers in the wake of their defeats, which was particularly hard in Gore's case, but their patience has expired. Gore, unlike Carter, is still young enough for another campaign if Democrats deadlock in those early primaries.
If America under a new president in 2009 begins the long road to reversing global warming, Al Gore, the almost-president, will have a lasting legacy in his favor. Jimmy Carter already has such a legacy in the Camp David peace agreement and in his post-presidential endeavors.
The contrast with George W. Bush — on whose watch an entire nation was dismantled and tens of thousands killed or maimed, while at home the gap widened between the rich and American workers — could not be clearer.
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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