Politics & Policy

Jimmy of Mayberry

A brutal contrast.

As the mourning of Pope John Paul II gives way to the celebration of his life and times, the scattered members of an endangered species known as the Jimmy Carter Defender grapple with an emotion altogether familiar to their kind: impotent rage. The Carterites are hopping mad at Jimmy’s perceived snub because President Bush didn’t offer him a seat on Air Force One for the trip to Rome for his funeral.

Yes, what better way to remember the Holy Father’s life of selfless humility than to throw a hissy-fit like a starlet turned away by a nightclub bouncer.

On Standby

Not being an etiquette expert I’m not even sure what all the fuss was about. Air Force One was obviously overbooked, as so often happens since they added those extra-wide seats in business class, and Mr. Carter was undoubtedly at the top of the standby list the White House always maintains for people who call the current president a lying warmonger. Also, as I understand it, Carter may have been asked to be the U.S. government’s representative to Johnny Cochran’s funeral (also last week) instead, an opportunity he seems to have declined. But this wasn’t enough for the 39th president’s faithful who apparently go into full-attack mode whenever his name is mentioned in the Washington Post just out of sheer habit.

“I think it’s an outrage,” said Carter’s national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski–who, considering that the expression “Jimmy Carter’s national security” is oxymoronic, is a generally reasonable, amiable fellow. “It’s scandalous,” Brzezinski added. “He (Carter) should have been included in the official party.” Brzezinski offers no insights as to why President Carter passed on two opportunities to attend the funeral of a pope back in 1978. Perhaps negotiations to restore the White House tennis courts had reached a sensitive stage and he was unable to get away; some secrets are lost to history.

Even better, a liberal blogger wrote last week that Condoleezza Rice should have given her seat on Air Force One to Carter. The Democrats wisely passed on this chance to return to their original position on civil rights: that black women using mass transit be required to give up their seats to white men.

Worst Ex-President, Too

For some years after he left office the conventional take on Jimmy Carter was that, although one of America’s worst presidents, his work with Habitat For Humanity and other causes had made him one of our finest ex-presidents. There’s reason to suspect that a few years ago Carter decided to correct this imbalance. Today, with 2002’s Nobel Peace Prize in hand, Carter’s transformation is complete: In addition to being one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, Jimmy Carter is inarguably the very worst former president we have ever had.

As our commander in chief, Jimmy Carter consistently displayed three basic characteristics: hapless incompetence, (what a charitable person might describe as) a distaste for confrontation and danger, and–paradoxically, given the first two–an almost cartoonishly inflated ego. In short, Jimmy Carter was the deputy sheriff Barney Fife of American presidents: alternatively bumbling, then petrified, then egomaniacal, then back to bumbling, and so on for four long, surreal years. One of history’s true buffoons, Jimmy Carter was, at best, a post-Nixon electoral palate cleanser of a president whose sole contribution to America’s legacy was readying the way for Reagan by his own ineptitude. Or to put it another way, Carter was the transitional boyfriend we dated briefly just after Nixon broke our heart and just before Reagan swept us off our feet. I do wish someone would tell Carter that: He still thinks he’s the love of our life.

John Paul II, on the other hand, as a young seminarian risked death at the hands of the Nazis to complete his studies–then again later in life in defying not only the puppet government of his beloved Poland, but the Soviet monolith itself. The assassin’s bullet he survived was nothing compared to what the Soviets might have done to the world if not for brave men like himself. President Jimmy Carter’s naive, appeasement-based foreign-policy views only made that job harder and more necessary. Lucky for all of us the former Karol J. Wojtyla was up to the job.

Like Barney Fife in every good episode of Andy Griffith, Carter was led into his most inglorious moment by his own massive ego. After being tossed from the White House by voters who wanted to live in America again Jimmy sensed that a presidential legacy makeover might be called for, so he embarked on a desperate, headlong quest for the Nobel Peace Prize.

He embarked on this his last campaign with all the grace and dignity of an aging “B”-lister angling for a comeback by smoozing with Regis and buying a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Still, he wasn’t getting much traction until he hit upon the formula that has since served Michael Moore so well: the road to international approval lies in denouncing the land of your birth, its people, and especially its leadership as often as possible. With all the moral authority of a prison snitch scamming extra rations by ratting out his fellow convicts, Jimmy set out on his legacy-rebuilding project.

Soon the Man from Plains was breaking bread with the mass murderers like Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro, certifying sham elections of freedom’s enemies in Venezuela and elsewhere, and keeping up his trademark torrent of anti-Israeli rhetoric. Eventually the Nobel committee pretty much had to give him a statue, if only to stop his infernal yapping, already–heck, Arafat and Gorbachev already had theirs, and without Carter they’d have to go to Plan “B”: Phil Donahue.

So in 2002 the humbled, slightly disbelieving (“Who, me?”) Nobel laureate with the still-toothy grin accepted his statue and prize money. Then he gallantly stepped aside as the Nobel chairman rattled off a speech so weighed down with anti-Bush Doctrine demagoguery it read more like Air America Radio’s mission statement than the commendation for a world-renowned peace prize.

To those born with any sense of shame, the fact that Jimmy Carter regularly shows his face in this country in public is an infinite, multifaceted source of wonderment. The fact that Jimmy Carter sees himself as a sage elder statesman and regularly holds forth on subjects such as Middle East peace (!) and what current U.S. presidents should and shouldn’t do is a thing of pure, unadulterated astonishment. And the fact that Jimmy Carter (or any of his proxies) genuinely believes that his attendance was required (or even appropriate) at the funeral of the priest who stood up to Gorbachev–a priest who was, in so many ways, the professionally devout Carter’s exact opposite–is not only bizarre on its face, it’s disgraceful.

Then again, all John Paul II ever did was lead the world’s one billion Catholics for 25 years, travel millions of miles bringing hope to near every corner of the world, and help bring down the mightiest empire in the world armed only with a rosary. Unlike Jimmy Carter, Pope John Paul II never won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Ned Rice is a staff writer on the new and improved CBS talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.


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