At the 2008 Convention, Carter Wanes, Again

jimmycarter At the 2008 Convention, Carter Wanes, AgainSome nominees treat Jimmy Carter better than others. This marks the seventh Democratic convention of Carter’s decorated post-presidency, but he wasn’t exactly shown a great deal of respect by Barack Obama and this year’s planners.

Carter addressed the convention in a pre-taped video message that aired well before primetime, after a speech by a New Orleans jazz singer and before remarks by Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. The video featured clips of Carter describing his personal observations of the devastation in New Orleans and footage of Carter surveying the damage and meeting with victims. Several times he praised Obama, saying that the Illinoisan would never fail disaster victims the way the Bush administration had.

When it was over, Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, walked onto the stage and waved to crowd as "Georgia On My Mind" played. They also greeted Nancy Pelosi, who was standing at the edge of the stage (and who very publicly threw Carter under the bus two years ago), and then exited. The whole appearance lasted no more than 90 seconds–an awkward acknowledgment for one of only two Democrats to win a presidential election since 1964.

The 83-year-old Carter seems genuinely fond of Obama, but the former president’s outspoken support for Palestinian aspirations has allowed the right (and even some on the left) to caricature Carter as an extremist and terrorist-coddler. This hardly seems fair given Carter’s history, but fair doesn’t matter here: Obama, who delivered his first speech after securing the Democratic nomination at the annual AIPAC convention, is particularly sensitive to being compared to Carter. So while Carter’s old foe, Ted Kennedy (who refused, in defeat, to shake Carter’s hand at the 1980 Democratic convention) will be saluted in the peak viewing hour tonight, few Americans will even know that Carter was in Denver.

In a way, this marks a regression for the 39th president, whose humanitarian work radically improved his public image in the ’80s and early ’90s. After being drummed out of office in ’80, he was offered little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment at both the ’84 and ’88 conventions (even though the ’88 gathering was in Atlanta). But by ’92, Carter’s standing seemed sufficiently restored and Bill Clinton, the first Southerner since Carter to claim the Democratic nomination, invited him to speak in primetime in New York (although at the same time as the Major League Baseball All-Star Game–won by the American League, 13-6).

"In 1984, I was very unpopular with the Democratic Party," Carter reflected just prior to his ’92 speech. "I had committed the unforgivable sin of losing. In 1988, there was a little more warmth. And this year, I’ve been more or less reconstituted as a positive figure."

At the time, Carter seemed to have a strong kinship with Clinton, praising the Arkansan for steering the party away from the left and back toward the middle. But the relationship soured during Clinton’s presidency, as Carter aggressively pursued freelance diplomatic missions in Haiti and North Korea. In ’96, Carter stayed away from the Chicago convention completely, spending the week instead at Ted Turner’s ranch in Montana. Publicly, Carter tried to downplay the significance of his absence.

"I have participated in the last three conventions when we did not have an incumbent President to re-elect," he said, "but will now follow the custom established during the past 40 years by other Democratic Presidents, including Harry Truman, who only attended the first convention after he left office."

But he showed up in Los Angeles in 2000, clearly more enamored of Al Gore than he had been of Clinton. While Carter was only offered (and rejected) a brief five-minute video tribute, he did address the Georgia delegation and sat for numerous interviews, making headlines in his blunt efforts to separate Gore from Clinton’s scandals.

"Anyone who believes he is responsible for what Bill Clinton did in secret at night, with a young intern, is absolutely stupid and ridiculous,” Carter told Georgia’s delegates. "He can’t stand up as frankly as I did and explain [it] to you, but somehow in the American people’s minds, he has to convince them of that absolute truth."

After Clinton departed from office, and Carter earned Nobel prize in 2002, the path was clear for another Carter comeback in 2004, when he was given a plum speaking assignment on the convention’s opening night, which also featured addresses by Clinton and Gore. Carter used his speech to offer perhaps the most blistering criticism of George W. Bush heard during the entire convention. At the time, some grumbled that he was undermining the Democrats’ message, but in hindsight – especially after the G.O.P. used its four-day convention a month later to shred John Kerry – he probably had the right idea.