There Is Virtue, President Carter, in Self-doubt

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.