Some useful lessons from Jimmy Carter

He is respected around the world. He is the critic whose words may hurt Mr Blair the most
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The Independent Online

Of all the people of distinction who have denounced the decision by George Bush and Tony Blair to wage war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq without a United Nations mandate, the former US President Jimmy Carter - interviewed yesterday in these pages - is the critic whose words may hurt Mr Blair, if not Mr Bush, most.

Of all the people of distinction who have denounced the decision by George Bush and Tony Blair to wage war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq without a United Nations mandate, the former US President Jimmy Carter - interviewed yesterday in these pages - is the critic whose words may hurt Mr Blair, if not Mr Bush, most.

Mr Bush, at least, can shrug off an elderly Democrat's damning remarks, in election year, as party politics. Mr Blair has no such refuge. He knows that Mr Carter is respected around the world as a shrewd judge of international relations, as a peacemaker, as a devout Christian, as a good man wielding his influence in good ways.

The former peanut farmer bagged a Nobel Peace prize, too. He is the kind of statesman Mr Blair would doubtless like to be when he approaches 80 himself.

Those words, "I think that... Prime Minister Blair probably knew that many of the allegations were based on uncertain intelligence," will not have helped Prime Minister Blair digest his Frosties yesterday morning.

Still, it may console Mr Blair to reflect that Mr Carter's presidency, too, was notable for some foreign policy blunders.

He seemed clueless as to how to deal with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and when 53 Americans were taken hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran, a series of fruitless diplomatic initiatives were followed by a highly embarrassing abortive commando raid. With leading Republicans observing that Mr Carter was in effect the 54th hostage of the Iranians, election day 1980 coincided with the start of the hostages' second year in captivity. Unsurprisingly, his opponent Ronald Reagan won by a landslide.

And yet, as so often in politics, over here as well as over there, the level of ignominy on departure from office was matched by the level of subsequent lionisation. A similar process overtook Richard Nixon. He resigned a crook and a liar, yet died, in the estimation of many, a statesman.

Less momentously, Michael Portillo's defeat at the polls in 1997 was considered such an election-night landmark that it spawned a question that became a book: were you up for Portillo? But having been Public Enemy Number One, Portillo became a Thoroughly Good Egg. A popular choice now to be chairman of the BBC, he would once have been a popular choice for the ducking-stool. And that remarkable shift in public perception began at the precise moment of his electoral humiliation; we revelled in his discomfort but had to concede that he endured it with dignity.

So too Jimmy Carter. Privately he must have despaired at having to hand the reins of power, to say nothing of the nuclear button, to the ultra-conservative Reagan. But he was magnanimous in the extreme, and the rehabilitation of his image began right there.

Some four years after he left the White House, I arrived as a post-graduate scholarship student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr Carter was a visiting professor, and his lectures were attended with a zeal normally found only in the bars and bedrooms of college campuses. To be lectured to about modern history by a man who was so much a part of modern history was not only educational, but exhilarating. Moreover, he was a bloody good teacher. If he had a flaw it was that he would not be drawn into criticism of Reagan, citing his respect for the office of President. Which perhaps makes all the more meaningful his remarks reported here yesterday.

Another fascinating man I encountered in America, also in the news recently, was the broadcaster Alistair Cooke. He was one of my scholarship trustees, and I once spent a memorable afternoon in his New York apartment, talking to him about the Presidents he had met, stretching back to Franklin Roosevelt. I asked which of them had been most poorly-equipped to be chief executive.

"I think Carter," he said. "He was, without question, one of the most intelligent men to have ever been in the White House. And, I would think, probably the best informed. But he saw six sides to every question, and he could have told you all about them, but then he was unable to move.

"I must say that when he came in I thought, 'What a marvellous change after all the vulgarity of the Nixon court.' Here's a man who gets out of the car and walks down Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife holding his hand and so on.

"But you see, he overdid it. In his first television talk to the people he sat in the White House in an old shirt and a cardigan, and he thought that was being 'just folks'. Then he discovered that the folks didn't like the President being entirely like themselves."

And there, perhaps, is another tip for Mr Blair, next time he feels tempted to whip out his guitar or parade his credentials as a football fan. Take two lessons from Jimmy Carter: don't do what he did but for God's sake heed what he says.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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