Talks with North Korea bring out the awkwardness in Clinton-Carter ties

June 21, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The last Democratic president before Bill Clinton was Jimmy Carter, a fellow Southern governor and party moderate who staunchly supported Mr. Clinton for president.

Since then, however, their relationship has been complicated and awkward. Sometimes, they seem like two proud dance partners, paired off by chance, neither of whom wants to follow -- but who don't quite know how to lead either.

The past week's events, in which Mr. Carter seemed to make a breakthrough in North Korea only to have White House officials snipe at him for going beyond the current U.S. policy, underscored the long-standing tension between the two men.

The source of the unease is the Democrats' memory of 1980, when Mr. Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, a candidate voters considered more forceful and willing to lead. That election ushered in 12 years of Republican control of the White House.

Mr. Carter returned to Plains, Ga., memories of gasoline lines and Iranian-held hostages fading with him, intent on rehabilitating his name.

Mr. Carter's work has paid off. Through the auspices of the Carter Center in Atlanta, Mr. Carter has helped monitor elections around the globe, earning him an international reputation as a committed democrat with a small "d." Habitat for Humanity, his charity, has quietly built homes for poor people, earning him a reputation for caring.

The doctrine of emphasizing human rights, for which Mr. Carter was once ridiculed, has become a routine consideration in American foreign policy decisions. And as Mr. Carter's public approval ratings have improved, historians, too, have expressed kinder words. Presidential scholar Stephen Ambrose has publicly declared Mr. Carter "the most successful" ex-president in modern American history.

But within the confines of the Clinton White House, Mr. Carter's reputation has not been entirely redeemed. There, Mr. Carter has one gigantic mark against him. "He lost his re-election campaign," one Clintonite explained succinctly.

In this White House a second term is equated with success. Top Clinton administration aides consider it an insult to be compared to the Carter White House and a compliment to be compared to the Reagan operation -- even though Mr. Clinton and his aides are busily trying to undo the entire Reagan Revolution.

This attitude has a way of filtering down to the rest of the staff. Last year, when Mr. Carter paid his first visit to the new president, Mr. Clinton's press office refused to release a White House photograph of the two men together. Yet when former President Richard M. Nixon paid a visit a short time later, the press office did release a picture.

"Yeah, I remember that," one Carter loyalist said bitterly.

Over the weekend, when Mr. Carter returned from North Korea, Mr. Clinton sent aides to debrief him at the White House, $H speaking with him only by telephone, even though he was only a helicopter hop away at Camp David.

Despite Mr. Clinton's clear uneasiness over being seen as too close to Mr. Carter, the Georgian possesses attributes that could help the administration. He's always stood for personal integrity, and at the Democratic National Convention, he forcefully defended Mr. Clinton as a man of "honesty and integrity."

Also, Mr. Carter was valued for his ability at negotiation with obstinate world leaders, a talent that has seemed to elude the Clinton foreign policy team at crucial moments.

Before North Korea, there was Somalia, where Mr. Carter had warned against the U.N. policy of trying to arrest warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. Subsequently, when 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed trying apprehend General Aidid, Mr. Carter's unheeded warnings became official American policy.

The problem in North Korea is that this time Mr. Carter appeared to get out in front of the president in a way that caused confusion. In so doing, Mr. Carter himself helped realize the Clinton administration's worst fears: being seen as weak, like Mr. fTC Carter when he was president.

"Pretty ironic, isn't it?" said one angry White House official.

Mr. Carter, visiting North Korea to discuss that country's pursuit of nuclear weapons, announced that the United States would not continue to pursue sanctions against North Korea -- a policy its leader, Kim Il Sung, had said he would consider an act of war. Mr. Carter announced that the North Koreans had agreed to freeze their nuclear weapons program -- and dropped the news that North Korea wanted a summit with South Korea.

Problem was, the Clinton administration was still pursuing sanctions, a policy Mr. Carter characterized as a mistake. And though the administration insisted yesterday it was still rounding up support for sanctions, State Department officials concede that, because of Mr. Carter, that policy has taken a back seat to the impending summit.

Publicly, the Clinton team says it has no problem with this development.

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