Why did Carter back down on Bush?

The Iraq war has damaged our international standing as much as any foreign policy debacle in history, so why did Carter soften his "worst in history" comments? Plus: I'm on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" tonight.

Published May 21, 2007 11:30PM (EDT)

I'm not mad at former President Jimmy Carter for the harsh things he said this weekend about President Bush; I'm mad that he backed down in an interview Monday on NBC's "Today" show.

On Saturday the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an interview with Carter in which he was asked, "Which president was worse, George W. Bush or Richard Nixon?" Carter answered, "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history. The overt reversal of America's basic values as expressed by previous administrations, including [those of] George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and others, has been the most disturbing to me." White House spokesman Tony Fratto shot back, calling Carter's criticism "sad" and "reckless," adding, "I think he is proving to be increasingly irrelevant with these kinds of comments." Today Carter insisted he only meant to compare Bush with former President Richard Nixon, and he called his own remarks "careless or misinterpreted."

That's an unfortunate reversal. Carter could have gotten away with arguing his original point -- that when it comes to damaging our international standing, the Bush administration "is the worst in history" -- and by calling his own remarks "careless," he risks confirming the White House criticism. It's true that Carter himself didn't have a stellar foreign policy record when he left office; he was a human rights advocate who could be proud of the 1978 Camp David accords, but he was overmatched by the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But no American president since has succeeded in defeating the Islamic radicalism that first challenged the Carter administration, and Bush has almost certainly made the problem worse with his unnecessary, unilateral, preemptive and disastrous war with Iraq. Far from beating back Islamic radicals, the Iraq war has turned that country into a recruiting ground for them.

Carter likely backed down because of the collective gasp from presidential historians like Douglas Brinkley, Carter's biographer, who called the former president's remarks "unprecedented" and "fighting words." Oh, please. In earlier, less prissy times, presidents were hard on one another -- Teddy Roosevelt bashed Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy, and Herbert Hoover bashed FDR's social policy. Even former President Gerald Ford, apparently one of history's nicest presidents if not the most effective, called Carter's presidency a "disaster" and said he "disagreed strongly" with Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq, which he called a "mistake." Sure, Ford's remarks to Bob Woodward were embargoed until after his death -- but not until after Bush's death, which is what Ford might have done if he wanted to obey the supposed commandment that presidents not speak ill of their successors. But I'm glad he didn't.

Carter's remarks about Bush have made it tee-off on Carter time. The morning crew at MSNBC had a lot of fun with the former president, according to Media Matters; Jim Cramer asked if Carter "played for another nation" or "his own fifth column." Carter seemed to back down a little bit more in remarks to reporters this afternoon in New Orleans, where he's working with his remarkable Habitat for Humanity to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. Asked if he breached the unwritten rule that presidents don't criticize their successors, Carter said humbly, "If I did breach it, I apologize."

That an elderly ex-president working to help Katrina victims is forced to apologize, again, for speaking the truth about Bush galls me. It comes the same day that the man who history will show defeated Bush in 2000, former Vice President Al Gore, came out swinging against Bush on ABC's "Good Morning America," saying the president "has exposed Americans abroad and Americans in every U.S. town and city to a greater danger of attack because of his arrogance and willfulness." The contrast between the ex-president and the should-have-been-president is painful. Keep swinging, Al Gore; stop apologizing, Jimmy Carter. I'll be discussing all of this tonight on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" at 9 ET, 6 PT.

By Joan Walsh

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