October 11, 2007
Jimmy Carter the Book Tour (Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture)
By PATRICIA COHEN
People started waiting at the Union Square Barnes & Noble at 1:30 p.m.
on Monday, five hours before former President Jimmy Carter was
scheduled to begin signing his latest book. By 5, the event was filled
to capacity. In the line that snaked through the fourth floor was a
couple who had dressed their toddler in a T-shirt that declared, "I'm
nuts about Jimmy Carter," and a man who had bought 50 copies of Mr.
Carter's "Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease and
Building Hope" (Simon & Schuster), to be autographed and saved for
Not Harry Potter, but not bad.
Once he arrived, Mr. Carter, 83, cheerfully whipped through the books
1,600 in about 90 minutes with the machinelike efficiency of a
subject in a time-and-motion study. A book tour, he said, is "like
being on the campaign trail." There are back-to-back interviews,
frequent airplane flights, long lines of eager people to meet. And at
the end of the day, whether from too many handshakes or too many
signatures, you've got a sore hand.
If it seems as if Mr. Carter was just on a book tour, it's because he
was, less than a year ago. That volume, "Palestine: Peace Not
Apartheid," received both plaudits and bitter condemnations
including charges of bigotry, anti-Semitism and bad faith mostly
because its title suggested that conditions in the Israeli-occupied
territories were comparable to those that existed for blacks in
white-ruled South Africa.
Mr. Carter's new book, his 24th, is something of a valentine to
himself; his wife, Rosalynn; and his colleagues at the Carter Center
in Atlanta, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. In it he
surveys the dozens of projects, from monitoring elections to treating
Guinea worm disease in Africa to defusing a nuclear crisis with North
Korea, that contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002
and changed the job description of ex-president from has-been to hero.
It is a reputation that some critics felt he had tarnished with
"To my consternation, many people just concentrated on the word
apartheid" and ignored everything else, Mr. Carter said in an
interview. "The furor probably sold a couple of hundred thousand more
copies," he said, but drowned out more nuanced discussions about the
troubled region. The intense emotions were captured in a documentary
shot during that book tour by the director Jonathan Demme. "Jimmy
Carter Man From Plains" is scheduled for release later this month.
At the moment, the book signing was still a few hours off, and Mr.
Carter was seated by a window in his suite in a Manhattan hotel. An
occasional blaring horn or rhythmic drumbeat floated up from the
Columbus Day marchers on Fifth Avenue.
Although he maintains that the Palestine book's overall effect was
beneficial, Mr. Carter conceded that the controversy "did hurt my
nonexistent ability to be a mediator in the Middle East"
nonexistent, he explained, because he would not undertake the role
without White House approval, and no president, Republican or
Democrat, has ever asked him. Now, he said, he would be seen as
favoring the Palestinians.
Since his brokering of the Camp David peace accord between Egypt and
Israel in 1978, the Middle East has devoured more of his time, effort
and heart than any other single issue, he said, yet the situation is
much worse today. "We've had seven years now without a single day of
good faith, substantive talks," he said, calling President Bush's
failure to pursue a resolution aggressively "unconscionable."
Given the influence of the Israel lobby the most powerful in the
country, Mr. Carter said he is not convinced that another president
would be willing to do what he considers necessary.
"Can the next president say that Palestinian rights need to be
protected?" he asked. "Can the next president say that Resolution 242
needs to be implemented?," he said, referring to the United Nations
directive calling on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories.
"Can the next president say that settlements in the West Bank are an
obstacle to peace? I don't know."
Aside from the Middle East, Mr. Carter has focused largely on parts of
the globe that don't usually get sustained attention from a sitting
president. Last week Mr. Carter, who is not one serenely to accept
"no" for an answer, got into an angry exchange with a security
official in Darfur about visiting the chief of a village that had
taken in thousands of refugees. Despite losing his temper, Mr. Carter
said he realized the guard was just doing his job.
Yesterday, in an interview scheduled to be broadcast by the BBC, Mr.
Carter again criticized the Bush administration, calling Vice
President Dick Cheney a "disaster" and a "militant," with undue
influence on foreign policy, according to Reuters. Despite the
successes of his après-presidency, Mr. Carter still believes that
government can accomplish more than a planeload of well-intentioned
philanthropists, volunteers and, particularly, private contractors.
"We depend upon intermediaries, American contractors," Mr. Carter
said, but, he added, they cannot necessarily be trusted to deliver the
goods where they're needed, efficiently and honestly.
Recently attention has focused on Blackwater USA, the private firm
handling security in Iraq that has been accused of recklessly killing
civilians and operating without proper oversight. When it comes to
corruption, incompetence and waste among private contractors, Mr.
Carter said that "exactly the same thing" went on in the relief and
aid industry. "It may even be more wasteful," he added.
Efficiency would be significantly increased, he said, "if the
government did it more directly."
Mr. Carter credits his mother, "Miss Lillian," a registered nurse who
died in 1983, for his ethic of public service, recalling how she
treated their poor and black neighbors when he was a boy in Plains.
Ga. His next book, already finished and scheduled for release next
Mother's Day, is about her.
Rosalynn Carter shares those instincts for public service, he noted.
When Mr. Carter was president, the First Lady startled some
traditionalists by attending Cabinet meetings. If he had been in the
White House in the 1990s, might his wife have tried to follow him into
office, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is doing?
"If we were 20 years younger, it's a possibility," Mr. Carter said.
Though a presidential bid seems somewhat remote, he said, he could
envision her returning to Georgia and then running for senator.
"Rosalynn is really more of a political person than I am," he said.
When he lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he
recalled, "Rosalynn was much more grieved and despondent than I was."
Reflecting on the Democratic campaigns of Senator Clinton, of New
York, and Senator Barack Obama, of Illinois, Mr. Carter said he
believed that the nation was not only willing to put a woman in the
Oval Office but also an African-American, despite persistent racism.
"I really do think so," he said.
As for the current president, what would Mr. Carter advise Mr. Bush to
do once his term ends in 2009? "Just to do his own thing."