So maybe Barack Obama doesn’t think Jimmy Carter has cooties after all. The soon-to-be-president broke bread and shared the Oval Office stage with Carter on Wednesday. Granted, two other former presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were also present, but it nonetheless marked the first time in the nearly two years since Obama launched his presidential campaign that he was willing to be so closely associated with the 39th president.
And, almost certainly, it will be the last time for the foreseeable future that the two are seen together.
Carter’s isolation from Obama is no accident. It used to be that just about any Democrat thinking of running for president would make an obligatory pilgrimage to Plains to pick the brain of the man who achieved what virtually no other Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson could: victory. As recently as 2004, when Howard Dean showed up in Plains two days before the crucial Iowa caucuses, a simple photo op with the former president was an unquestionable asset for a Democratic candidate.
But that all began to change just over two years ago, when Carter wrote a book—Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid—that touched on the third rail of American, and Democratic Party, politics: Israel. Instead of ignoring the topic, as most public figures do, or spouting the safe, pro-Israel bromides of his party’s mainstream, Carter chose to challenge assumptions that have long prevailed in America about Israel and its relationship with the Palestinians.
The book’s title was certainly provocative, but Carter didn’t exactly come to the subject without credentials. He was, after all, the same man who had brokered the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978, and he’d dedicated much of his post-presidency to mediating a host of seemingly intractable ethnic conflicts around the world, work that culminated in a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
But asking tough questions about Israel is not in the Democratic establishment’s playbook, so prominent Democrats—from Dean (by then promoted to the party chairmanship) to Nancy Pelosi (the incoming House speaker at the time) and scores of Congressional backbenchers in between—rushed to distance themselves from Carter.
“With all due respect to former President Carter, he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel,” Pelosi declared.
“On this issue President Carter speaks for himself, the opinions in his book are his own, they are not the views or position of the Democratic Party,” Dean opined.
That was at the end of 2006. But Carter’s ostracism from the Democratic establishment was just beginning. As he was branded anti-Israel (and even anti-Semitic) by Israel’s most vocal supporters in the United States, linkage with Carter became poisonous for Dean and Pelosi, both from a public-relations standpoint and from a financial standpoint. (A substantial chunk of donations to the Democratic Party and to Democratic congressional candidates comes from Jewish donors, many of whom would presumably think twice about giving if major pro-Israel organizations urged them not to.)
Thus, Carter became persona non grata within his own party establishment. This, not surprisingly, extended to Obama, who launched his campaign around the same time Carter’s book came out. To his credit as a political candidate, Obama continually distinguished himself with his skill in avoiding unneeded public controversy—which is what Carter, by that point, represented.
With his army of small dollar donors, Obama may not have had to worry much about a financial backlash, but—especially for a candidate fighting an underground effort to portray him as a secret Muslim with sympathies for terrorists—the public-relations damage from associating himself with Carter, and the inevitable debate over Israel and Palestine that such association would prompt, was just as dangerous. So Obama joined just about every other establishment Democrat and ignored Carter (even as Carter, sensing that Obama’s background might make him more sensitive to the points Carter had raised, spoke glowingly about him in public—and ultimately endorsed him).
The final insult to Carter came at the Democratic convention in Denver. Peace Not Apartheid was, by then, nearly two years old, but he was as loathed as ever by Israel’s defenders. It put Obama in a bind. As a former president, Carter was entitled to some kind of salute at the convention. But an adoring celebration of the former president would invite just the outcry that Obama had successfully stifled for more than a year. Plus, if given a speech, there was no telling what Carter would say—would he use the forum to speak out on Palestine, creating a distracting media drama and forcing Obama to step into the fray on a divisive subject?
In the end, Carter was given the bare-bones treatment. Early in the evening, long before prime time and while most Americans were driving home from the office, a five-minute video tribute to Carter was played in the hall, after which Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, were called to the stage. Humiliatingly, the podium was lowered into the stage just as the Carters appeared, as if organizers didn’t trust the former president to control himself. As “Georgia on my Mind” played, the former first couple waved and smiled, then exited on cue.
Later, after the election, Alan Dershowitz, a hawkish defender of Israel and vitriolic critic of Carter with considerable influence in the pro-Israel community, bragged to an Israeli news outlet that he had pushed Obama “very hard” to give Carter the shaft.
“Barack Obama had to make a choice between his Jewish supporters and his anti-Israel supporters like Jimmy Carter, and he did not choose Jimmy Carter,” Dershowitz said. “And that was an embarrassment for Jimmy Carter and a show of disrespect.”
He added: “It was a good decision, a wise decision, a moral decision.”
The election is now over, but the realities that have guided Obama’s posture toward Carter remain in place. In the wake of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the same Democratic establishment figures have expressed the same unquestioning support of Israel that they always do.
This, despite the fact that a poll last week found that, by a 55 to 31 percent margin, Democrats oppose the assault on Gaza.
Dean himself, for that matter, may, in his heart, have some sympathy for Carter’s position. As a presidential candidate in 2003, he talked about the need for an “even-handed” approach to Israel and Palestine and said that “it’s not our place to take sides.” The backlash from pro-Israel forces was fierce and immediate—and disavowals and “clarifications” from Dean followed quickly thereafter.
His experience, no doubt, is what Obama—and plenty of other Democrats—have in mind when the matter of Jimmy Carter comes up. Their conclusion is almost always the same: He’s just not worth the trouble.