Denver — Former president Jimmy Carter’s controversial views on Israel cost him a place on the podium at the Democratic Party convention in late August, senior Democratic operatives acknowledged to the Forward.
Breaking with the tradition of giving speech time to living former presidents, convention organizers honored Carter with only a short video clip highlighting his work with Hurricane Katrina victims and a brief walk across the Pepsi Center stage.
The sidelining of Carter was driven by recognition in the Obama camp and among Democratic leaders that giving the former president a prominent convention spot might alienate Jewish voters.
“What more could we do to diss Jimmy Carter?” said a Democratic official who was involved in deliberations on how to handle the former president’s presence at the convention. The treatment Carter received, the official added, “reflects the bare minimum that could be done for a former president.”
Although Carter says limiting his presence at the convention was his idea, denying him a speaking opportunity ends a two-year struggle for the party over how to deal with the controversial former president. Since Carter published a book in November 2006 accusing Israel of practicing apartheid against the Palestinians, Democrats have been trying to distance themselves from the former president and to convince Jewish activists that he does not represent the party line.
Carter’s status at the convention was an issue for the Democratic leadership going back to the early preparation stages, a party official said. The solution to what one Democratic official referred to as “the Carter problem,” however, was not found until the final run-up to the Denver convention.
Carter, according to party insiders, was initially scheduled to speak at the event, though organizers insisted he focus only on issues relating to domestic policy and not touch on foreign affairs. During his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, Carter mentioned Israel, but he only touched in general terms on the need to bring peace to the region.
As the Denver convention drew near, organizers grew uneasy with the idea of having Carter speak even on domestic issues. In the end, the decision was made to have what the official convention schedule described as a “President Jimmy Carter segment,” which included a video presentation of the former president’s work in New Orleans. The video was followed by a brief appearance by Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who walked across the stage to the sound of Ray Charles’s “Georgia on My Mind.” The assembled delegates showered Carter with applause and a standing ovation.
Jewish Democrats approved of Carter’s limited presence at the convention, as they have argued that embracing the former president could tarnish the party in November.
“You can’t give him a podium, because people will draw the conclusion” that the Democratic Party supports Carter’s views on the Middle East, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York. “I wouldn’t let him within 100 miles of the convention center, because it would be used by an unscrupulous Republican Party that doesn’t care about the truth in character assassination against our candidate.”
While Carter did come to Denver, he downplayed suggestions that he had been silenced.
In an August 26 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Carter said that the idea not to speak at the convention was his own.
“Michelle spoke last night, Barack is going to speak Thursday night and the other two nights are for the Clintons,” Carter said. “So, I didn’t want to intrude…. I didn’t need to get on the stage and make a speech.”
Delegates from Carter’s home state of Georgia did not seem to take much offense at the former president not being among the conventions’ speakers.
“I didn’t think much of it at all,” delegate Freddie Mitchell said. “He has spoken at a number of these things in the past.”
Among some of Jewish delegates to the convention, however, denying Carter a speech but offering him a video tribute was not nearly sanction enough.
“He hasn’t shown respect to Israel and many of the Jewish constituencies here based on the things he has done,” said Nan Rich, a Florida state senator who left the hall in protest before Carter’s appearance onstage.
Although staunch critics of Carter may not have been won over by the Obama campaign’s sidelining of the former president, at least one one Jewish Democratic official says the episode reflects the degree to which the presidential hopeful is concerned about shoring up Jewish support before November.
“I think it’s hard to ask a political party to take a former president and say, ‘We’re not going to hear you at all,’” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “The party is very sensitive to the American Jewish community, and it’s very sensitive to ever conveying that this is anything but a pro-Israel party.”
And though Rich chose to protest Carter’s inclusion, she was among the critics who appreciated the decision to minimize his role.
“It shows the party gets it and Barack Obama’s campaign gets it,” she said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.