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Carter Infuriates White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 21, 2007; 2:08 PM

After years of maintaining an exasperated silence in the face of uncommonly harsh scolding by the 39th president, the White House finally let loose over the weekend.

There was apparently something about being called the worst president of all time by Jimmy Carter that President Bush just couldn't abide.

Carter was quoted over the weekend as calling the Bush administration "the worst in history" when it comes to international relations. He also characterized British Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for Bush as "abominable, loyal, blind, apparently subservient."

Tradition calls for former presidents to avoid personal attacks on their successors -- and for the White House to treat previous presidents with great respect.

But with Carter's hyperbole apparently having violated the rules of the game, the White House responded with fire.

"I think it's sad that President Carter's reckless personal criticism is out there," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday in Crawford, where Bush was spending the weekend. "I think it's unfortunate. And I think he is proving to be increasingly irrelevant with these kinds of comments."

As it happens, Carter this morning backed down in a TV interview, saying his "worst" comment had been "careless." He said he is normally careful "not to criticize any president personally." As for the White House assertion that he was irrelevant, Carter replied disarmingly: "I don't claim to have any relevancy."

Nevertheless, another milestone in the polarization of political discourse had been achieved.

The Back and Forth

Frank Lockwood, the religion editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, started it all off with a blog post on Saturday based on an interview that was supposed to have been about the former president's new audio book series of Bible lessons.

Lockwood wrote: "In a stinging rebuke to President Bush, former President Carter on Friday called the current administration 'the worst in history' when it comes to international relations.

"During a telephone interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from the Carter Center in Atlanta, the ex-president also accused the current White House occupant of eliminating the line between church and state and of abandoning 'America's basic values.'

"'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,' Carter said....

"Tulane University presidential historian and Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley said the comments were unprecedented by the 39th president.

"'This is the most forceful denunciation President Carter has ever made about an American president,' Brinkley said. 'When you call somebody the worst president, that's volatile. Those are fighting words.'"

Here's an audio excerpt of the Carter interview.

Also on Saturday, the BBC reported, from a separate interview: "Former US President Jimmy Carter has criticised outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his 'blind' support of the war in Iraq.

"Mr Carter told the BBC Mr Blair's backing for US President George W Bush had been 'apparently subservient'.

"He said the UK's 'almost undeviating' support for 'the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq had been a major tragedy for the world'. "

Here's an audio excerpt of that interview.

James Gerstenzang writes in today's Los Angeles Times: "Perhaps not since Herbert Hoover took issue with the blame heaped on him for the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt have two presidents or their spokesmen feuded quite so publicly -- and angrily -- as former President Carter and President Bush. On Sunday, the White House fired a new salvo. . . .

"The exchange broke the unwritten code of the presidential fraternity -- that members treat each other gently."

And Gerstenzang notes that "the vehemence of the language was unusual . . . especially in contrast to the friendship that Bush's father has developed with former President Clinton, who tossed him out of office after one term in the bitter 1992 campaign."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "It is a relatively genteel club, with a membership that has dwindled to four in number: Those who know, firsthand, the pressures and challenges of being the leader of the free world.

"That shared knowledge has traditionally transcended politics to bring together such diverse political figures as President Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton; Mr. Clinton and the first President Bush; and Jimmy Carter and the late Gerald Ford."

AFP reports this morning that "Carter on Monday tempered his biting criticism . . ." Here's the video.

Here is the video of Carter's appearance this morning on NBC's Today Show, with Meredith Vieira.

"'My remarks were maybe careless or misinterpreted. But I wasn't comparing the overall administration and certainly not talking personally about any president,' Carter told NBC."

Vieira asked Carter: "Do you believe, sir, that as a former president, that it is appropriate to criticize the man sitting in the Oval Office, particularly during a time of war?"

Carter replied that during his publicity tour for a book last year that was scathing about Bush administration policies, "I was always very careful not to refer to President Bush or any other president personally, but just to the results of some of their administration's decisions. . . . I've been very careful, and still am, not to criticize any president personally."

Fratto, made aware of Carter's amended statement at this morning's gaggle, replied: "I don't think I have response -- a specific response to that. I think it just highlights the importance of being careful in choosing your words. I'll just leave it at that."

Opinion Watch

John Nichols blogs for the Nation: "It is difficult to argue with Carter, not just on the basis of his stature but on the basis of his astute read of the current circumstance. And that's what scares the Bush White House. When a well regarded former president gets specific about the current president's dramatic failures -- and about the damage that is done when foreign leaders align with Bush -- this embattled White House gets tense. . . .

"What is fascinating is that the White House is claiming that Carter is 'increasingly irrelevant' by going out of its way to attack him on one of the current president's many days of rest.

"It seems that, if Carter really was as 'irrelevant' as the Bush White House would have us believe, the president's aides would not be attacking the former president in such immediate and aggressive terms.

"The truth is that Carter is relevant, perhaps more so now than ever."

Carter's History

Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, has been highly and publicly critical of Bush for years.

Carter delivered a speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention that was bristling with fury and righteousness:

"In repudiating extremism, we need to recommit ourselves to a few common-sense principles that should transcend partisan differences.

"First, we cannot enhance our own security if we place in jeopardy what is most precious to us, namely the centrality of human rights in our daily lives and in global affairs.

"Second, we cannot maintain our historic self-confidence as a people if we generate public panic.

"Third, we cannot do our duty as citizens and patriots if we pursue an agenda that polarizes and divides our country.

"Next, we cannot be true to ourselves if we mistreat others.

"And finally, in the world at large, we cannot lead if our leaders mislead....

"Ultimately, the basic issue is whether America will provide global leadership that springs from the unity and the integrity of the American people, or whether extremist doctrines, the manipulation of the truth, will define America's role in the world. At stake is nothing less than our nation's soul."

On his publicity tour for his book "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis," Carter told CNN's Larry King in November 2005: "I tried to define in very accurate terms, the unprecedented, the profound, the traumatic changes that have taken place just in the last five years as compared to all the previous presidents who've ever served in this country.

"And how radical they are. And I would like for every American to understand these changes."

In his NBC interview, Carter described a visit to the Oval Office in early 2005 at which he told Bush about the trip to the Middle East he had just returned from, and discussed his views. But you won't see Carter making any public appearances with the president if the president can avoid it. Bush, who brooks no public dissent, has long been suspected of making it clear to his staff that Carter is not welcome anywhere near him. In fact, Carter's notable absence from the president-filled delegation to the April 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II has never been fully explained.

But as I wrote in my Feb. 8, 2006, column, Carter was one of several speakers who took advantage of Bush as a captive audience at the widely-watched funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. With Bush fidgeting in the background, Carter called attention to the "secret government wiretapping" of Rev. King, in what the cheering audience recognized as a reference to the current domestic spying controversy. And he added: "The struggle for equal rights is not over. We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, those who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

And Gore, Too

Jake Tapper writes for ABC News that former Vice President Al Gore's brand-new book, "The Assault On Reason" is "an assault on President Bush. . . .

"In the book, Gore is accusatory, passionate, and angry. He begins discussing the president by accusing him of sharing President Richard Nixon's unprincipled hunger for power -- and the book proceeds to get less complimentary from there. While Gore stops short of flatly calling for the impeachment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, he certainly gives the impression that in his view such a move would be well deserved. He calls the president a lawbreaker, a liar and a man with the blood of thousands of innocent lives on his hands.

"Most of Gore's ire stems from, not surprisingly, the war in Iraq, a war that Gore opposed from the beginning. Bush, he writes, '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.'

"'History will surely judge America's decision to invade and occupy (Iraq) as a decision that was not only tragic but absurd,' Gore writes. . . .

"He does not flatly state that Sept. 11 would not have occurred during a Gore administration. But, he writes, 'Whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable, it almost inevitably leads to mistakes and abuses. In the absence of rigorous accountability, incompetence flourishes.'"

Is That Plan B?

What happens if the surge doesn't work? Bush won't say. But Jim Hoagland writes in his Washington Post opinion column with one possibility: "[S]trong-arming the admittedly faltering government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of office and replacing Maliki with a U.S.-anointed Iraqi savior," while also "[u]sing Iraq as a springboard and rationale for an American military strike into Iran. . . .

"Arab allies are urging such a course on Bush and would not object to U.S. military action against Iran. There is growing concern in Baghdad that Washington is developing a 'Plan B' that involves both hitting Iran and ousting Maliki -- who ironically was brought to office by American pressure to force out Ibrahim al-Jafari, Maliki's predecessor. The concern is augmented by demands from both sides of the aisle in Congress that Maliki meet obviously unrealistic benchmarks quickly or face a cutoff of U.S. support."

Hoagland writes that such a move "would expand the current disaster, just as Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, nominally undertaken to show American strength, came to undermine the U.S. presence in Indochina."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As Iraq's government compiles a record of failure, the Bush administration is under growing pressure to intervene to rearrange Baghdad's dysfunctional political order, or even install a new leadership.

"Publicly, administration officials say they remain committed to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, even though after a year in office, his elected government has failed to complete any important steps toward political reconciliation -- the legislative 'benchmarks' sought by U.S. officials.

"But privately, some U.S. officials acknowledge that the congressional clamor to find another approach will increase sharply in coming months if no progress is made toward tamping down sectarian violence, bringing more minority Sunnis into the government and fairly dividing up the nation's oil resources.

"Intervention 'is the eternal temptation for the Americans,' said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations. 'As we get closer and closer to the fall, and the benchmarks are not met . . . there will be a growing appeal to the idea that if we can replace the top guy, we can get back on track.'"

And consider this astonishing anecdote: "In a recent conference call, a U.S. official in Baghdad shocked diplomats at the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters in Washington with a gloomy status report on the oil law. A Washington diplomat, taken aback, blurted, 'What do you mean? We've been claiming it as a success. The president's been lauding it,' recalled one person who was there."

Negotiatons Watch

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats and the White House dangled competing plans for shaping a final Iraq spending bill as Congress raced to beat a Memorial Day deadline, but each side rejected the other's compromise proposal in a sometimes acrimonious negotiating session yesterday.

"During a 90-minute meeting in the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) offered to strip all domestic spending from the legislation, leaving only the $95 billion that President Bush is seeking to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through September.

"The Democratic leaders also proposed reviving a troop withdrawal schedule included in a version of the spending bill that Bush vetoed earlier this month. To make the timeline more palatable, Democrats offered Bush a waiver option and said they would drop all fixed withdrawal dates, leaving only a March 31, 2008, goal for bringing home U.S. combat troops.

"White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten turned down the proposal and countered with his own plan. Bolten said Bush is prepared to accept benchmarks for the Iraqi government, with the results tied to U.S. reconstruction aid, and to meet tougher requirements for reporting to Congress on the war's progress."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In the last eight days alone, talks involving cabinet secretaries and other high-ranking White House officials have produced two surprises: a major compromise with Democrats on trade and Thursday's fragile bipartisan accord on immigration. The question now is whether the sudden burst of deal-making will extend from these easier targets to the most intractable issue in Washington: the war in Iraq.

"It is still far from clear whether the Bush administration and Congressional Democrats can be flexible enough to reach an accommodation on war spending -- and indeed, the Iraq talks stumbled on Friday. What is clear is that both Mr. Bush and his rivals are shying from the path of confrontation. Democrats, for the most part, are refraining from muscle-flexing, showers of subpoenas and other displays of new clout. And a White House hungry for legislative victories is working hard to negotiate a vastly changed political landscape. . . .

"The White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, who is the president's lead negotiator on the Iraq bill, conceded in an interview earlier this week that it had been difficult for the administration to get accustomed to not controlling the legislative agenda.

"Yet despite 'a fair amount of substantive tension' in the relationship with Democrats, Mr. Bolten said, the immigration and trade deals have left him feeling encouraged."

Iraq Study Group Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "After an initially tepid reception from policymakers, the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group are getting a second look from the White House and Congress, as officials continue to scour for bipartisan solutions to salvage the American engagement in Iraq."

Czar Watch

Mark Leibovich writes in the New York Times about Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute's appointment as war czar: "As a rule, czars are never thrown into situations that are going well. Otherwise you wouldn't need a czar. . . .

"General Lute's ascent -- or descent -- was also met with a discernible tone of pity around town, as if his new title might as well be 'sucker.'"

The Seattle Times editorial board writes: "Creation of the job reveals a sad truth and hearty measures of wishful thinking. For four bloody years of fighting in Iraq, key players in the top military and civilian tiers of the Bush administration would not or could not talk to one another. Lute is a desperate attempt to bridge those gaps. . . .

"Lute does bring superior skills in operations, coordinating and carrying out complicated assignments. He is the perfect choice to start lining up the C-130 transports for removing troops and equipment from Iraq.

"Maybe he was not hired to be Gen. Fix-it, but more as Gen. Exit."

Ashcroft, Revisited

Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt write in The Washington Post: "As attorney general, John D. Ashcroft was the public face of an administration pushing the boundaries of the Constitution to hunt down terrorists, but behind the scenes, according to former aides and White House officials, he at times resisted what he saw as radical overreaching.

"Testimony last week that a hospitalized Ashcroft rebuffed aides to President Bush intent on gaining Ashcroft's approval of a surveillance program he had deemed illegal provided a rare view of the inner workings of the early Bush presidency and the depth of internal disagreement over how far to go in responding to the threat of terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. . . .

"In addition to rejecting to the most expansive version of the warrantless eavesdropping program, the officials said, Ashcroft also opposed holding detainees indefinitely at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without some form of due process. He fought to guarantee some rights for those to be tried by newly created military commissions. And he insisted that Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, be prosecuted in a civilian court.

"These internal disputes often put Ashcroft at odds with Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said the officials, who recalled heated exchanges in front of the president. In the end, the officials said, the conflicts contributed to Ashcroft's departure at the conclusion of Bush's first term, when the president replaced him with a close friend from Texas, Alberto R. Gonzales, who presumably would be more deferential to the White House."

Comey Watch

Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, writing in Newsweek, review former deputy attorney general James Comey's riveting account last week of the hospital-room confrontation over Bush's warrantless-wiretapping program.

"After the incident, there were recriminations over what Comey portrayed as an attempt by Bush's top lawyer and chief of staff to 'take advantage' of a very ill man. Comey didn't tell the Senate panel that the bad feelings were stoked even more the next morning when White House officials explained the hospital visit by saying Gonzales and Card were unaware that Comey was acting A.G. (and therefore the only person authorized to sign off on the surveillance program), according to a former senior DOJ official who requested anonymity talking about internal matters. Top DOJ officials were furious, the source said. Just days earlier, Justice's chief spokesman had publicly said Comey would serve as 'head of the Justice Department' while Ashcroft was ill. Justice officials had also faxed over a document to the White House informing officials of this. When a Gonzales aide claimed the counsel's office could find no record of it, DOJ officials dug out a receipt showing the fax had been received. 'People were disgusted as much as livid,' said the DOJ official. 'It was just the dishonesty of it.' A Gonzales aide at the time (who asked not to be ID'd talking about internal matters) said there was a 'miscommunication' and 'genuine confusion' over who was in charge."

Chitra Ragavan writes that "congressional sources tell U.S. News that Democrats will ask the Texas Bar Association to determine whether Gonzales violated his code of professional responsibility or broke laws by bringing up the NSA program in the hospital in front of Ashcroft's wife, who lacks security clearances. 'I am not going to speculate on discussions that may or may not have taken place,' Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd responded, 'much less attempt to render a legal judgment on any such discussions.'"

Gonzales Watch

The New York Times reports: "Senator Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales might resign rather than face a potential no-confidence vote in the Senate."

Voter Fraud Watch

Greg Gordon writes for McClatchy Newspapers about Hans von Spakovsky, a former senior political appointee in the department's civil rights section. Former career department lawyers tell Gordon "that von Spakovsky steered the agency toward voting rights policies not seen before, pushing to curb minor instances of election fraud by imposing sweeping restrictions that would make it harder, not easier, for Democratic-leaning poor and minority voters to cast ballots."

Opinion Watch

Taking a cue from bloggers, who have turned repetition into a virtue, the New York Times editorial board weighs in on the attorney firings yet again today, insisting that "this scandal is too important for the public or Congress to move on. This story should not end until Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is gone, and the serious damage that has been done to the Justice Department is repaired."

The editorial also notes; "It is hard not to see the fingerprints of Karl Rove."


Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell writes in a Washington Post op-ed this morning that an overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is necessary because of how quickly technology has changed since the law was first established in 1978:

"If we are to improve our ability to protect the country by gathering foreign intelligence, this law must be updated to reflect changes in technology and the ways our adversaries communicate with one another....

"Because the law has not been changed to reflect technological advancements, we are missing potentially valuable intelligence needed to protect America."

But Glenn Greenwald, blogging for Salon, puts a lie to McConnell's assertion that the law has not been updated. And he does so by quoting President Bush.

Here, for instance, are Bush's remarks upon signing of the Patriot Act -- which included several major amendments to FISA: "Surveillance of communications is another essential tool to pursue and stop terrorists," Bush said. "The existing law was written in the era of rotary telephones. This new law that I sign today will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including e-mails, the Internet, and cell phones.

"As of today, we'll be able to better meet the technological challenges posed by this proliferation of communications technology."

You can also read about how the Patriot Act amended FISA in this 2005 Newark Star-Ledger story by John Farmer Jr.

So why would McConnell indulge in such blatant dishonesty?

Greenwald has a theory: "The administration is not, and never has been, interested in expanding the scope of FISA in order to enable them to obtain warrants more easily or accommodate 'new technology.' Their overriding goal has been, and plainly continues to be, the total elimination of meaningful oversight with regard to how the government eavesdrops on Americans. That goal of theirs was accomplished for many years by simply breaking the law which requires oversight, and now -- having been caught -- they seek to accomplish the same goal under the guise of wanting 'updates' to the 'rotary phone era' law."

Ranch Visit

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For foreign leaders doing business with President Bush, no invitation holds quite the cachet of a visit to his Prairie Chapel Ranch. And spending the night elevates the event even more.

"That the NATO secretary-general, a Dutch politician with a predilection for running long distances and singing short cabaret classics, arrived here Sunday for some sleepover diplomacy illustrates the extent to which Bush is putting the spotlight on trans-Atlantic relationships in general and NATO in particular."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post about "life on the 11-acre staff encampment set up to support the president when he is in Crawford."

No More Recess?

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a little trick up his sleeve that could spell an end to President Bush's devilish recess appointments of controversial figures like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton. We hear that over the long August vacation, when those types of summer hires are made, Reid will call the Senate into session just long enough to force the prez to send his nominees who need confirmation to the chamber."

Suffering Watch

DailyKos blogger BarbinMD marvels at all the sympathy Washington Post opinion columnist David S. Broder has for the "wounded warriors" -- Bush and Blair -- and their "agonizing half-hour news conference."

Tragedy Watch

Niall Ferguson writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column that "seldom has the world's political stage seemed more Shakespearean than it does today -- in 'The Tragedy of King George.' . . .

"As in 'Julius Caesar,' the fault is not in the central characters' stars but in themselves. . . .

"As in 'Macbeth,' King George was soon 'in blood, steeped in so far' that turning back seemed no more attractive than wading onward. . . .

"And, as in 'King Lear,' the whole catastrophe has stemmed from a fatal confusion at the outset between the true and the false, enemies and friends."

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