When former President Carter visited the Oval Office last January, a few days after the Monica S. Lewinsky case broke, a deeply troubled President Clinton spent 90 minutes privately discussing his concern that “a right-wing conspiracy” was out to get him.
As Carter started to leave, Clinton “asked the former president to pray for him in his hour of darkness,” writes historian Douglas Brinkley in a new book, “The Unfinished Presidency: Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House.”
It was “the most intimate moment the two men ever shared,” Brinkley writes. Carter, a Baptist Sunday school teacher, reportedly promised to pray for Clinton.
The two presidents’ relationship dates back to 1974. Carter, Georgia’s 50-year-old governor, was plotting to run for president, and Clinton, a 28-year-old Arkansas congressional candidate, was already dreaming the same dream.
Clinton supported Carter for president in 1976. And Carter broke his own rule of not endorsing one Democrat over another and endorsed Clinton in the 1992 Georgia primary, helping him to a crucial victory at a time when Clinton was under attack for draft avoidance and an extramarital affair.
But they have had their ups and downs during Clinton’s presidency. Brinkley, who enjoyed unusually wide access to Carter’s records and had the full cooperation of Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, provides rare behind-the-scenes views of Carter’s relations with both Clinton and Warren Christopher, Clinton’s first secretary of State.
Clinton and Carter got off to a rocky start immediately after Clinton’s election in 1992. Carter telephoned Clinton several times in pursuit of his own foreign policy agenda, but the president-elect ignored most of the calls. Not only were Clinton and his aides uneasy about Carter’s aggressive foreign policy agenda, but they also apparently did not want to be closely identified with a presidency that had been widely viewed as a failure.
Clinton, finally returning one of Carter’s calls, asked the former president to deal directly with Christopher, his secretary of State-designate, who had served as Carter’s deputy secretary of State. Carter, who had once called Christopher “the greatest public servant I’ve ever known,” eagerly telephoned his old friend--but gave up after several calls went unanswered. Christopher could not be reached Friday for comment on the revelations in the book.
When Carter and his wife arrived at Clinton’s inauguration, they were “unaware of how unwelcome they had become,” writes Brinkley. The Clintons, treating them as if they were invisible, thanked many celebrities for coming to the inauguration, but never mentioned the Carters.
Rosalynn Carter called their icy reception “rude beyond belief” and said: “Not even [former President] Reagan would have done a thing like that.”
After the inauguration, Carter persisted, however, and sent a memo to the State Department asking to be officially involved in issues involving Liberia, Haiti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Cuba and the Middle East. Stressing he had no reservations about meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or other foreign leaders then shunned by the State Department, Carter said: “When there’s a closed door to you, let us help.”
But Christopher, according to Brinkley, “wanted no part of what was referred to as his former boss’s ‘ready-fire-aim’ approach, particularly the way he cultivates rogues and embraced leaders the State Department had branded outside the pale.”
During a White House visit later, Carter complained about Christopher’s ignoring his letters and telephone calls. Clinton expressed shock and reassured Carter he was an integral auxiliary of his administration, according to Brinkley. He quoted Carter as saying, “So whenever a problem arose, I went directly to Clinton for assistance, bypassing Christopher and those other State Department guys.”
Clinton’s reassurance notwithstanding, Brinkley writes, Clinton himself often resented Carter’s intervention in foreign affairs and “always exploded in rage when he heard Carter was meddling in Cuban policy.” Finally, at Clinton’s behest, Vice President Al Gore, one of Carter’s few champions in the administration, persuaded Carter to “lay off Cuba” in the interests of national security.
Despite all the problems in their relationship, Carter carved out an expansive role for himself as a special presidential envoy and played a crucial role in easing foreign policy crises in North Korea and Haiti.
And Carter’s relationship with Clinton was strengthened after Madeleine Albright, who had been a foreign policy advisor in the Carter White House, replaced Christopher as secretary of State. Unlike Christopher, Albright keeps Carter personally and regularly apprised of foreign developments, according to Brinkley.
And Clinton himself has reached out to Carter, praising both his religious book, “Living Faith,” and the Carter Center in Atlanta. Brinkley reports that the former president, using the Carter Center as his base of operations, has monitored elections in 17 countries, distributed medications for preventing river blindness to more than 11 million people in Africa and Latin America, and made personal appeals to world leaders that have resulted in freedom for thousands of political prisoners.
Clinton, who aides say will probably model his proposed library in Little Rock, Ark., after the Carter Center, last year praised Carter as “a great resource” and the Atlanta center as “not just a library but an active, vibrant place where he could promote agricultural development and fight disease and advance democracy and human rights and monitor elections. . . . There’s really almost no parallel for it in the history of the country.”