From 1984 | My Hour with Jimmy Carter

By | Mar 02, 2023

The following was a postscript to Leonard Fein’s interview with Jimmy Carter that was published in the March 1984 issue of Moment. Read the original print version here.

There are always questions you don’t get to. Time’s limited, and if you follow up the interesting answer you’ll never get to some of what you’ve come prepared to ask. So the tension of a time-bound interview is predictable. In other respects, however, the quality of my hour with Jimmy Carter was unexpected, and therein lies a brief tale.

I went to Plains, in short, fully expecting a testy conversation. Well, the Jimmy Carter I met on January 6 in that unlikely place called Plains was—to understate the matter considerably—entirely disarming.

Plains is a three-hour drive from Atlanta, and my guess is that if Jimmy Carter hadn’t been president, the 50 or so miles through red-clay scrub country once you leave I-85 would be a narrow and rutted two-laner at best. As it is, the road’s not bad, but Plains isn’t enough of a town to be listed on the infrequent road signs until you get to Richland, some 18 miles away. And then, a desultory house or two marking your approach, you’re in Plains (pop. 651), and it’s what you’ve read about—cousin Hugh Carter’s sundries store, the gas station (a sign leaning wearily against the outside wall, “formerly Billy Carter’s station”), a block of stores (including the “Peanut Museum”), most closed (it’s eleven in the morning), and a large road sign pointing towards Americus, the closest city.

The Carter office itself is a good-sized room in an oldish house. It has the appearance of waiting for more boxes to arrive. Or the fancier souvenirs of the heady years as governor then as president are in other offices, or in storage. Here, there’s just the Silver Seal of the President hanging on the wall, a garishly ornate chair with diverse inscriptions from the citizens of West Texas, a bound collection of the “Public Papers of President Jimmy Carter,: a few odd books, some comfortable chairs and a couch, and a desk; the desk doesn’t look worked on, the room doesn’t look lived in. Most likely, this is where Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, meets those people—exchange students, a journalist or two, erstwhile colleagues—who have reason to seek him out.

My reason for so doing derived principally from a consultation on the Middle East that the new Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta had convened in November, co-chaired by Carter and Gerald Ford. I’d gone to Emory because the roster of participants was unusual, including not only the Carter administration “heavies”—Vance, Brzezinski, Sisco, Saunders, Quandt, Linowitz—but also Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan (King Hussein’s brother), Prince Bandar, the new and much-touted Saudi ambassador to the United States, and senior officials from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt as well. The Israelis declined to send an official delegation, but Gidon Rafael, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Meron Benvenisti, director of the notable West Bank Data Project, and several serious Israeli scholars were to be there. An auspicious conference, it seemed to me; when two former American presidents assemble this kind of group, it’s worth checking out.

And it was—although less for the political wisdom than for the psychological insight it offered. It is now many weeks since the conference, and I wonder, were I to read today a transcript of the proceedings, whether I would find it nearly so threatening, so one-sided, so irritating, as I found it at the time of its happening. Looking back, I can recall only a few isolated examples of outright hostility to Israel. (Of these, the most vituperative was surely the speech of Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. But because we have come to expect such things from the Syrians, al-Sharaa succeeded only in embarrassing and even angering his fellow Arabs. More notable, and infinitely more subtle, was the speech of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar, to whom extraordinary deference was shown by the chairmen and the panelists alike. “American attitudes and policy toward the Middle East,” Bandar asserted, “often seem to have little sense of what is deeply rooted, proven and abiding in our part of the world—which peoples and institutions have verified themselves there over the course of many centuries and which have their own broad-based staying power in the region. And what, in contrast, is a passing transplant, dependent on permanent and even-increasing artificial respiration from outside—yet unwilling or unable to become a part of the area and to respect the longer-term realities there. In a much earlier period, the European Crusades were able to maintain a costly, bloody and precarious existence of sorts on and off for about a century at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. But that is hardly any time at all in history and as the abiding patterns of our part of the world must be measured.”)

By and large, however, the presentations were far more “even-handed, and the source of my acute discomfort was not easy to pin down. Yet it was reassuring in a way to learn, within hours of the opening session, that I was not alone in my unease. In fact, every Jewish participant in the meeting with whom I spoke—American scholars and journalists, Israelis from the center and the left of the political spectrum—experienced roughly the same reaction. Soon, we were huddling together between sessions. Why had Bandar not been called to account for his smug extremism? Why was it the fourth or fifth session before any speaker had the temerity to suggest that continuing Arab non-recognition of Israel was at least as central to the problem as alleged Israeli intransigence? (It was Sol Linowitz who finally made that observation.) Above all, why did those of us who have taken dovish positions on the Arab-Israel conflict and its resolution feel ourselves becoming hawkified by the minute?

A small part of the answer has to do with the one presentation that elicited a genuine ovation from the audience. It was a talk by Nafik Nazzal, a Palestinian from Bir Zeit University, and its subject was Palestinian Arab life in the West Bank. Nazzal’s bitter critique of the Israeli occupation was hardly new to most of us. But this was a public session, with well over a thousand people in attendance—and the sources Nazzal cited were Israeli leaders. It is one thing to hear a Palestinian describe the ugliness of occupation out of his own experience. But it is quite another to hear him quote the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces as his principal witness. Each new quote, each accusation, becomes a body-blow. And you shrivel when he concludes his string of quotes from your sources with, “Of all people, the Jewish people is historically best qualified to understand the demands of the Palestinian people.” 

And you are a Jew, and wonder what all those others in the audience are hearing and thinking. And then you hear the ovation, and you know. You want to get up and shout, “Wait, it’s not that way, hear the rest of it!” But a very large chunk of it is that way, and much as you’d like for it to stay a secret, a private knowledge shared by the Israelis and the Palestinians, it won’t, it hasn’t.

But that was only a small part of the whole and it did not happen until midway through the proceedings, long after the first feelings of Jewish disquiet had become apparent. Whence the early, nearly-instant reaction?

Looking back now, I think much of it had to do with Jimmy Carter himself.

It has never been quite clear to me why Carter arouses such an antipathetic response among American Jews, unless the explanation is that his promise was so much brighter than his performance. Still, he was the engineer of Camp David, and every one of the participants in that historic negotiation acknowledges that it was Carter’s own force that finally pushed through the agreement.

Of course, one might say that Camp David, too, promised considerably more than it delivered. Still, from the Israeli standpoint, it delivered one invaluable prize: It removed Egypt as a military adversary, insured that Israel would not again—so long as the treaty remains in force, as it has—have to fight a two-front war.

And it is Jimmy Carter who made that happen, the same Jimmy Carter who stood so resolutely for other things—human rights, arms control, equality for women—that Jews, too, usually care about.

Watching Carter’s performance at Emory, I came to a closer understanding of the negative response he so often provokes. It has to do, I thought, with a kind of rigidity for which the famous smile seems an inadequate mask, an underlying tautness that makes the cardigan sweater a costume. I don’t mean, not at all, that there’s hypocrisy there; I mean simply that there seemed, during those years, and again at Emory, an utter lack of spontaneity, too many layers of self-control to ever get an honest reading of the nature of the man, or, for that matter, of his real convictions. No man has ever invited—explicitly invited—more careful scrutiny, more resolutely insisted on his credibility—“I don’t lie,” and all that. But he turned out not to be so very different from the rest of us. He was, and I suppose still is, flawed and fallible and evasive—as all of us are, much of the time. The difference is that the public Carter confessed to no such failings, insisted (except for the sometime lust in his heart) on his own near-perfect virtue.

Carter’s strategy for winning the presidency was to play that claim for all it was worth—and, after the Nixon debacle, it was worth a great deal, indeed. He could not, however, seek to keep the presidency in the same way. The second time around, there was a record against which to measure the spectacular claim to personal virtue of that first campaign. No reality could have come close.

Well, that’s all history now, more or less. I bother to evoke the memory because my experience in Plains was so very different. I’d gone to Plains thinking that Carter was angry with Israel at a level beyond policy, that he was angry because “his” Camp David, the one undoubted achievement of his presidency, was being subverted. I knew, of course, of his continuing disagreement with former Prime Minister Begin regarding the matter of the settlements, of his repeated assertion that Begin had promised an end to Israeli settlement activity for the duration of the negotiations, and of his anger that Begin has broken that promise. But I knew as well that Carter was the only participant in the meeting where the promise was allegedly made who remembers it that way. I knew tht the most likely explanation was a genuine misunderstanding, with Begin meaning by “for the duration of the negotiations” the three-month period specified at Camp David for the drafting of the peace treaty and Carter meaning the five-year period between the beginning of autonomy and the final disposition of the territories—and knowing that, I could not understand or accept Carter’s evident sense of personal pique.

I went to Plains, in short, fully expecting a testy conversation.

Well, the Jimmy Carter I met on January 6 in that unlikely place called Plains was—to understate the matter considerably—entirely disarming. There was none of the tautness, none of the control, none of the anger. There was, instead, an entirely engaging and intelligent and gracious man, as comfortable with himself as any person I’ve met in a long while.

I’ve sat with politicians before, and I am used to the affectation of charm, the skilled seduction that comes out of years of working at being liked. Nor, in truth, can I claim to be entirely immune to such efforts. (Ralph Nader, years back, declined an invitation for cocktails from the chairman of the board of General Motors. Asked why, he replied, “Because I’d like him—and I can’t afford to.”) But down home, it’s not just the charm and the likeability that comes across; it’s the quiet dignity that has replaced the apparent drivenness.

Perhaps, as some who have written of Carter have suggested, he never lost his nervousness with public speaking, and it was that nervousness that caused him to appear—in precise contradiction of his insistent claim to honesty—untrustworthy. Or perhaps it’s the difference between Washington (and even Emory) and Plains, or between the years of ambition and the years of reflection. I cannot say.

I merely report that I find the post-presidential Carter of Plains dramatically more attractive and impressive than the presidential Carter or, for that matter, than the Emory Carter. And he is, after all, the Carter of Camp David, too, engineer and construction supervisor of the Israel-Egypt peace, may it live and be well. L.F.

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