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Carol Felsenthal

Carol Felsenthal

Posted: April 3, 2008 10:38 PM

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton: They Genuinely Dislike Each Other


For the last two years I've been writing a book, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, about Bill Clinton's post-presidency. It will be out in May and I certainly do not want to step on my material. That material was too hard to gather because for most of the period in which I was actively interviewing people, Hillary was the inevitable nominee; she had no doubt that she would win, and much of the public and the press seconded that certainty. People who hoped for a job or a state dinner invitation or a diplomatic posting often did not want to talk to a writer whom the Clintons did not select and could not control.

Two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush, are major characters in this story, which opens with the scandal-scarred Clinton unhappily leaving the White House on January 20, 2001 -- his wife off to Washington as the new Senator from New York, his own future hazy -- and ends on March 4, 2008, with Hillary and Bill salvaging, for the time being at least, Hillary's candidacy with wins in Ohio and Texas.

CNN reported on its website that Jimmy Carter, a superdelegate, seems to be readying himself to endorse Barack Obama. It came as no surprise to me. Handing out awards for Guinea Worm eradication in Abuja, Nigeria, Carter mentioned, as he had last January in an interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon, that everyone in his extended family, with the exception of one, was supporting Obama, and that members of his family found Obama "titillating." (It was an odd word choice, but of a kind with Carter's confession in a 1976 Playboy interview that that he lusted after women, but only in his heart.)

Only those who know little of the two former presidents would be surprised. The enmity between them dates back to 1980 when Clinton was in his first term as Arkansas governor and Carter in his first term as president. A Carter policy, Clinton believed, caused him to lose the governorship after only one term (he later won it back). Both men were depressed losers that November 1980. The enmity festered, heightened by Carter's ham-handed public criticism of the Clintons before they moved into the White House and the Clintons' high-schoolish -- junior high-schoolish even -- snubbing of the Carters at the first Clinton inauguration. Jimmy Carter repaid Bill Clinton and then some by going his own way on foreign affairs in the 1990s; by publicly rebuking Clinton's morals when he was at his nadir; after Monica, after the Marc Rich pardon; in that schoolmarmish manner that only Carter can muster.

Worst of all, as if some angry deity were directing things and punishing Clinton, Carter, the failed president, became a highly admired post president; a humanitarian par excellence, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, a man who built the Carter Center as an incubator for good ideas and good works. Carter mostly eschewed the $350,000 speeches that have made the Clintons millionaires many times over and Carter still sometimes uses commercial airliners. He became a model for how a post-president should conduct himself.

Bill Clinton had no choice but to pay attention. Still he had no intention of looking, sounding, being anything like Jimmy Carter; so he made his post-presidency into a glittering version of Carter's. Clinton's sleek, expensive library has been criticized for being mostly about self-aggrandizement. His good works -- fighting AIDS in Africa -- are very good to be sure, but still tinged by the glitz of his star and billionaire studded annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meetings in New York, his trips to Africa on board the lavish private jets of his billionaire buddies. Clinton is cool, the rock star; Carter, the Sunday school teacher, is not.

If Carter does bestow his coveted superdelegate vote on Obama, and if Obama ends up winning the nomination, Jimmy Carter will have had the last word in a long quarrel between two hugely ambitious men whose backgrounds would not have suggested to anyone but them that they would one day occupy the White House; two of the most unlikely presidents of the 20th century whose relationship could make the Great American Novel, if it were not non-fiction.