There Is Virtue, President Carter, in Self-doubt

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
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By now, many people have surely grown weary of the controversy over Jimmy Carter’s new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” And why not?

At age 82, Carter remains a remarkably indefatigable salesman; his book tour included 101 news media events and the signing of more than 100,000 copies of his book. And as it winds down, the blogosphere heats up; there, there is no end in prospect.

Type in “blogs on Jimmy Carter’s book,” and Google comes up with 766,000 entries. Among these are very many that rapturously endorse the book and many, but not very many, that screechingly condemn it, It is, all in all, a depressing experience.

But it is not nearly as depressing as the book itself. The critical reviews — most notably Jeffrey Goldberg’s in The Washington Post — have by now been widely circulated. I want to deal here less with the book than with the curious character of its author, as reflected in the book and even more in a sampling of his interviews during his book tour.

Recall that several weeks before the recent elections, the Republican National Committee took out an ad that featured a large image of Carter and quoted the former president as saying, “I don’t think Israel has any legal or moral justification for their massive bombing of the entire nation of Lebanon.” The ad was plainly an effort to tar the Democrats with the Carter brush. It was natural, quite to be expected, that the Democrats would do their best to separate themselves from Carter’s indictment of Israel.

How does Carter himself describe that effort? “Two members of Congress have been publicly critical [of my book]. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, issued a statement (before the book was published) saying that ‘he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel.’”

The implication of the parenthetical “before the book was published” is that Pelosi was guilty of a reckless rush to judgment. There’s no reference to the Republican ad to which Pelosi’s statement was a response. What Carter gives us, then, is the truth — but scarcely the whole truth.

And sometimes not even the truth. In a December 8 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Carter says that “Alan Dershowitz called the book’s title ‘indecent.’” But that’s simply not so. In fact, Dershowitz called the book’s title “outrageous.” He saves “indecent” for a larger target: “It troubles me so that such a decent man has written such an indecent book.” The book, not just its title.

Small things, even niggling. And some bigger ones, too. Thus Carter, in a November 28 talk in Virginia, setting forth the choices before Israel, described one option in the following words: “[O]ne [that] has been discussed quite extensively and most persistently by the present prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, who presented this thesis quite early in his career as a young member of the Israeli Parliament — he’s now the prime minister — [is] a forceful annexation of Palestine and its legal absorption into Israel.” But Carter must know that Olmert has long since abandoned any such notion, has been crystal clear that Israel cannot indefinitely continue the occupation of the West Bank. One does not have to hold Olmert in high regard in order to know that this “option” is not on the Israeli government’s table, that it has been explicitly and repeatedly rejected by Olmert.

But so it goes, neglect of context, misstatements, sly innuendos. What all these suggest is what always has been the least attractive element of the Carter persona, a kind of moral arrogance that was famously evident when he ran for president in 1976 and told us, again and again, that “I don’t lie.” Running, as he did, in Nixon’s wake, the emphasis on personal virtue seemed, and was, a winning tactic. But it turned out to be much more than a tactic. It was and remains Carter’s controlling conceit.

Jimmy Carter is a virtuous man, no doubt about it. But he is not — no one is — full-time virtuous. His virtue would be more compelling if he confessed, now and then, to self-doubt. It would not surprise me at all to learn that behind his fixed smile, he seethes with anger.

I would not think less of him for that, though I might wish for his sake that he didn’t feel constrained to wear his smile so unyieldingly. Perhaps then he would not find it necessary to misquote his critics, minimizing their outrage, their hurt. (It is not a long trip from “I don’t lie” to “I don’t hurt,” and what he really seems to be saying: “I am incapable of lying,” “I am incapable of hurting.” “I am virtue.”)

I always will be grateful to Carter for his stout defense of human rights in general and of the Soviet dissidents in particular. In my view, the support that Carter gave to Helsinki Watch from the time of its founding in 1978 (it morphed into Human Rights Watch in 1988) was not only the true beginning of an effective modern human rights movement, but also the beginning of the end of Soviet tyranny and of the Cold War.

I will be grateful to Carter for the Camp David Accords on peace between Israel and Egypt, which, albeit chilly, have been of immense benefit to Israel. And I will be awed, as well, by his devotion to good works in his 26 years as an ex-president.

But: Though he writes, he says, “to provoke,” he stays to irritate. Much of his indictment of Israel is based on fact, but almost all of it either lacks or distorts context, rendering it less than true. Facts are, by definition, true — but they are not the truth. His revered Holy Land deserves better; so do his reputation and his virtue.

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