As I watched the Obamadrama I was impressed by the number of connections Barack made to past presidents. President Clinton spoke at his nomination. Support from Ted and Caroline Kennedy promoted favorable comparisons to RFK and JFK. Many remarked on his similarities to FDR and Lincoln. And the Bushes showed the Obamas around the White House and gave them tips on living there.
Through it all, though, I saw almost nothing about Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, who held office from 1977 to 1981. Although Carter, a Democrat, indicated early on that he (and his family) supported Obama, I saw almost no coverage of him campaigning for Obama, no shots of Carter and the candidate conferring or even shaking hands. And President Carter did not speak at the Democratic Convention. There was only a short video of his work in post Katrina New Orleans followed by a quick walk by he and his wife, Rosalynn, across the stage. They didn’t say a word.
Carter has also been absent from Obama’s post-election world. The Obamas have not met with the Carters or sought their advice even when it would be logical to do so. The Carters’ daughter Amy, for instance, was 9 when they moved into the White House (she attended public school and had a cat.) More relevant, perhaps, is that Carter was elected during an energy crisis. While in office he established a Department of Energy and coordinated a national energy policy that attempted to reduce our reliance on oil, develop alternative energy sources and get Americans to practice conservation in their daily lives. And he practiced what he preached. He lowered the thermostat in the White House, wore sweaters and installed solar panels on the roof. During his presidency foreign oil imports were reduced by 50 percent. Many believe we would not have the magnitude of the problem we do today if his policies had been continued by subsequent administrations.
While Carter may not have been a great president, given the quality of our nation’s recent leaders, he wasn’t bad. He was never accused of conspiracy, burglary, money laundering, election fraud, lying to congress, accepting bribes, circumventing U.S. embargoes, illegally surveilling political opponents or committing sexual indiscretions with a person not his spouse.
And many of Carter’s policies during his administration were downright progressive by today’s standards. He established the Department of Education. In order for us to move swiftly in times of natural disasters, he made FEMA a free-standing and professionally run agency directly answerable to the President. He favored diplomacy in resolving international conflicts. He stood firmly for human rights and pressured dictators we supported to end abuses as well as those we opposed. He forged a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel and gave Panama back the canal. He was in favor of racial desegregation and expanding African-Americans’ rights. His was the first administration to meet with a group of gay rights activists. And even though he is an evangelical Christian, he understood the need for the separation of church and state.
After leaving office 27 years ago Carter has continued working for humanitarian concerns and is the closest we have to an elder statesman. In 1981 he and Rosalynn founded The Carter Center, a not-for-profit NGO that works to advance human rights, promote democracy and alleviate unnecessary human suffering. He has traveled to over 130 countries to observe elections, conduct peace negotiations and improve global health. He is also a key figure in Habitat for Humanity. In 2002 President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work “to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” He is one of The Elders, a group of former world leaders and prominent rights activists that was launched last year to celebrate Mandela’s 89th birthday and which has mediated in a number of international crises.
I had been looking forward to hearing Carter speak at the convention and was puzzled when a “scheduling change” left him speechless and the video was played instead. Since not having a former president, particularly a healthy, active one, speak at a convention is a rather major slight I began watching the news and blogs to find out what was going on.
I discovered the media to be quite silent on this topic, however. Not even rumors from unnamed sources made their way into the mainstream or even alternative media. The only place I saw it discussed at length was in the Israeli and U.S. Jewish news. From these I learned that according to a variety of sources Carter’s marginalization was brought about by pressure from pro-Israeli Jews who have been unhappy with his 2006 book accusing Israel of practicing apartheid against the Palestinians as well as with his continuing criticism of Israel’s 40-plus year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
If this is true, if his criticism of Israel was the reason for sidelining Carter, I can’t help but feel that the Obamaites made a serious mistake. Carter was and is an honest and principled man who has accomplished much during his lifetime. He deserves some honor from his party.
I am also uneasy about the Democrats lack of openness on their reasons for marginalizing Carter. This suggests they fear that if the truth were known it would alienate a significant portion of their base—perhaps not only the left leaning pro-Palestinian faction and the more moderate pro-Carter Democrats but also many of those Midwest America Firsters who believe that none of our country’s policies should be dictated by a foreign power.
The silencing of Carter (as well as the silence about him) also plays into the Republican strategy. The right is already pushing the perception of Obama as the new Carter. It is in their interest to do so as Carter was a one-term president who came into office as an honest outsider after the debacle of Nixon at a time when the Republican party was in disarray. Four years later (brought together by their opposition to Carter) they successfully swept Reagan into office and heralded in their Golden Years. By making a Carter-Obama connection the Republicans keep alive the hope of doing this once again. And by pushing Carter far into the closet the Democrats send the message they have something to hide. This makes any misinformation the Republicans put out about Carter difficult to counter and ensures that any connection (real or allegorical) they can make between Carter and Obama will be to the detriment of the President Elect.
By disrespecting President Carter the Democrats also miss a great opportunity. Carter, who still lives in a small town in Georgia, is an evangelical Christian who teaches Sunday School at his church. As a white, rural, faith based Southern populist he represents a kind of voter the Democrats have for so long failed to attract. Except for Carter’s 1976 election when he carried all the South but Virginia, the Democrats have not carried the region since the days of Lyndon Johnson. (Obama won only Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.) Using bridges like Carter could be key to turning this around.
This past week Georgia Republican Senator Chambliss won the runoff election depriving the Democrats of a filibuster proof Senate. Gov. Palin campaigned vigorously for him. The 2012 campaign has already begun.