The Riddle of Jimmy Carter

He seemed like the most open and honest man ever elected president. So why does his true nature remain so elusive, even to those who know him best?

February 1, 2011 7:00 PM ET
The Riddle of Jimmy Carter
Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

On a cloudy morning at the airport in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, a long motorcade of white Land Cruisers is lined up on a battered runway, motors idling. Secret Service agents listening stoically to their earpieces, clusters of soldiers in camo fatigues, tall Sudanese dignitaries in dusty suits — we've all been waiting out on the tarmac since well before nine, checking the sky. Jimmy Carter likes to say, "I have a fetish about being late," and even here, halfway across the world, everyone knows that showing up early to see him arrive precisely on schedule is part of the experience, like watching Clinton eat a cheeseburger or Bush clear some brush.

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There is also something distinctly Carter about the choice of destination. Southern Sudan is seeking independence from the North, but after five decades of on-again, off-again civil war, the country has been so traumatized by killing, famine, slavery and disease that it can seem like a feral place — a failed state even before it has become a state. Though it is early in the morning and still cool, this is late winter, the dry season in northeast Africa, when temperatures rise through the day past 110 degrees. A faint scent of burning fills the air, and the distant echo of things either being constructed or torn apart; in Juba, a war-smashed city with gutted armored personnel carriers strewn along the White Nile, it's often difficult to tell what is a building site and what is rubble.

This article appeared in the February 3, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

A white plane banks out of the clouds, and everyone on the runway immediately stops speaking and watches while it lands and taxis to a halt. The cabin door is flung open and there they are, those iconic images from a thousand newscasts: First the smile, then the wave and the climb down to the tarmac, the dignitaries striding forward for formal greetings — the familiar ritual executed with such precision that it is easy to forget for a moment that Jimmy Carter is not still the American president.

The Case for Obama

I have come to Sudan to begin a period of months of thinking about Carter. The midterm elections are still nearly a year away, but there is already a public perception in the United States, faint but growing, that the Obama presidency is not going well. As observers assail the president for his scattered ambitions, his lack of a grand vision, his outsider's discomfort with the ways of Washington, his fumbling economic policies, how aloof and detached he seems, his undervaluing politics because substance is more important, his having written too many memoirs, and above all for his supposed lack of toughness, the man he is increasingly compared with is Carter. In Foreign Policy, the writer Walter Russell Mead has published an article called "The Carter Syndrome," in which he warns "the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart — and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter." Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times, comes to a similar conclusion. Obama, he observes, seems to be looking more and more to Clinton's presidency as a model, "because, in the end, it's better than being Jimmy Carter."

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Carter is the great national sinking feeling. Carter is where you end up when you lose your way. These days, the kindest thing most people have to say about Carter's presidency is that he is the best former president, a compliment that Carter tells me doesn't trouble him — "it does annoy my wife" — but which others in a position to know claim "galls him." What does it say about Carter that Obama kept clear of him during the midterm elections, even as he sent Bill Clinton out to stump for Democrats? Clinton! — who had said all those nasty things about Obama back when Hillary was running against him. Carter is where the danger lurks for Obama. Democrats who voted for change in 2008 thought they were getting FDR for the global age, or JFK with better morals. Now they are more like Democrats in 1978, discovering just how uninspiring an inspired man can be.

As for Republicans, Carter has the same effect on them that George W. Bush has on Democrats: He brings out a kind of sputtering, incoherent rage, infused with a deep tincture of fear. A recent poll of prominent conservative bloggers, who were asked to rank the 25 "worst" figures in American history, placed Carter first on the list, just ahead of Obama. How has it come to this? How has Obama's fragile moment become a reminder of the extent to which Jimmy Carter lost control of his legacy? And who really is Carter anyway?

Political and national news coverage from RS contributing editor Tim Dickinson

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