Feud between presidents past and current simmering down

Bush plays down criticism from Carter, who says remarks were `careless'

May 22, 2007|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN REPORTER

Jimmy Carter might have violated an unwritten code for former presidents when he dismissed President Bush's foreign policy as the "worst in history," but Bush is taking pains to tamp down a feud with a predecessor.

"I get criticized a lot from different quarters," Bush said yesterday, making his first public comment on Carter's remarks. "And that's just part of what happens when you're president."

In an interview published Saturday by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Carter faulted Bush's record in sweeping terms, denouncing the administration's handling of foreign affairs, the Middle East, nuclear proliferation and church-state separation.

"I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history," Carter said. "The overt reversal of America's basic values as expressed by previous administrations, including George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and others, has been the most disturbing to me."

The views were startling not so much for the message - any number of Democrats, including several running for president, have voiced similar sentiments - but because of the messenger.

Typically, former presidents refrain from such direct criticism of current White House occupants, respectful of the demands of the office.

Former presidents "know that the job is really tough," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who specializes in relations between presidents and the press, noting that only the most intractable issues get dealt with inside the Oval Office. "If problems could be solved, they wouldn't land on his desk."

But the 82-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whose international poll-watching forays and home-building efforts have redefined the role of a former president, has been known to cross the line.

"He always said he had to tell the truth," said former Carter communications chief Gerald Rafshoon. "Why is it news? It is belaboring the obvious. He didn't attack [Bush] personally. He has always felt that the war was wrong."

The White House hit back Sunday, reinforcing the unusual tenor of the comments by calling Carter "increasingly irrelevant."

For a moment, it appeared that the rules of engagement between current and former presidents had been altered.

But within hours of the rebuke, Carter was inching away.

He said yesterday that his statement was "maybe careless or misinterpreted" and that he meant only to contrast Bush's record with that of Nixon.

"What I was actually doing was responding to a question comparing this administration's foreign policy with that of Richard Nixon," Carter said on NBC's Today. "I wasn't comparing the overall administration and I was certainly not talking personally about any president."

Carter's comments cast fresh attention on the role of former presidents, many of whom shun political comments. Former President Bush, to be sure, has not criticized his son and is working with Bill Clinton on international initiatives. Clinton, too, is holding his tongue, lest he risk jeopardizing the presidential prospects of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Nixon had a reputation to rebuild before his political views would be respected, and Reagan retreated from public life after leaving office and slipping into the grip of Alzheimer's disease. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson also were in poor health after their presidencies ended.

After Carter lost his re-election bid to Reagan, he embarked on a unique post-presidential career that has included conflict mediation in Ethiopia, North Korea, Liberia, Haiti and Bosnia, and volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

In the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview, Carter blasted Bush policies in multiple areas.

"For the first time since Israel was founded, we've had zero peace talks to try to bring a resolution of differences in the Middle East," he said, calling it a "radical departure from the past."

Speaking of Bush's faith-based initiatives, Carter, a Baptist Sunday-school teacher, said: "I've always believed in separation of church and state, and honored that premise when I was president, and so have all other presidents, I might say, except this one."

Jody Powell, Carter's former press secretary, doubts the existence of an informal rule that prohibits former presidents from such comments, recalling that Gerald R. Ford - out of office for four years - criticized Carter during the 1980 campaign.

Carter, he said, has nothing to apologize for and "is not carrying water for anything or anyone"-including the Democratic Party.

"When I first heard the comment, I really stopped and have tried to think of another series of presidential misjudgments and blunders and mistakes," Powell said. "I'm still trying to find one."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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