Since the publication of his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, Jimmy Carter has courted the sort of controversy that most ex-Presidents, and all would-be Presidents, avoid. Jonathan Demme’s exceptional new documentary, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, highlights that controversy, providing an intimate portrait of a man on a mission. The Nation‘s John Nichols spoke with Carter about the book, the film and the 2008 presidential campaign.
Q: There is an intensity to this documentary that is not usually associated with someone a quarter-century out of the White House.
A: This was my twenty-fourth book, and I’ve been on book tours on just about all of them. This is the first time that there has been that degree of intensity and drama and unpredictability–almost an urgency. I wanted to meet as many critics as I could and…it turned out to be quite a remarkable journey.
Q: Early in the documentary, you refer to US media coverage of the Middle East as “abominable” and entirely lacking in objectivity. Did you see yourself as doing battle with the media on the book tour?
A: I was presenting a point of view that the American media rarely have a chance to cover. It would be almost inconceivable for any member of the House or Senate, Republican or Democrat, or any person campaigning for President, Republican or Democrat, to make the statements that I’ve made concerning the plight of the Palestinians or Israel withdrawing to its 1967 borders with modifications, or things of that kind. So this was a new opportunity for them to cover the Mideast issue from a completely–I’d say almost unprecedented–perspective.
Q: Do you think you moved the political debate forward?
A: Oh, no. It would be amazing for me to hear any candidate for President even mention it–even begin to address these issues in a serious way.
Q: It is accepted today that a former President may, if he is willing to take some hits, say bold things about the Middle East but that candidates for President can’t. Isn’t that our crisis?
A: That was one of the reasons I wrote the book–and it is the reason I continue to talk about these issues. I saw a complete dearth of any sort of substantive debate. For six years, now seven years, there hasn’t been a single day of substantive negotiations between Israel and either Syria or the Palestinians. I wanted to precipitate some movement on the peace process and also bring the issue to the forefront. In other countries, by the way–I’ve been to Ireland and England and other countries in Europe lately–there is a pretty intense debate. But over here, zero.
Q: Obviously, this is a continuing project for you, initially with the book and now the documentary. As we come into the 2008 presidential election, is there any way that this issue can be made a part of the discussion?
A: I don’t think it’s possible for candidates to talk about it. But it may be that some of the facts and some of the issues will sink into the consciousness of whoever is going to be in the White House beginning in 2009, and that they will see some responsibility and some way, some path toward a peace process. As you know, it is not generally expected that they will do this in the first year or two of their administration. President Clinton did not do it until his last year in office, and President Bush now is saying that he is going to try and do something. I’m not bragging about myself, but I started in the first two months of my administration. We finished it the second year I was in office. It is possible to achieve progress, if you start early enough and make it clear that peace is a priority of the administration.
Q: You entered the national political consciousness as “the man from Plains,” the peanut farmer with few ties to Washington mounting an outsider campaign. Could you–same background, same scenario–run successfully for President today?
A: No. It wouldn’t be possible. In the first place, in 1975 and ’76, I didn’t have any money. We ran a campaign with my family, basically. We had seven of us every day campaigning in different places. We didn’t even have enough money to stay in a hotel or motel. Then, President Ford and I both in the general election just ran on the $1-per-person checkoff. We didn’t receive any contributions for the general election. That technique, that situation, is completely passé now.
Q: Did winning the presidency as an outsider free you to try new approaches in the Middle East?
A: Definitely. There were two things: I didn’t owe anybody anything when I got in office, so I could speak freely. I could act freely. The other part was that I didn’t worry so much about the question, What do you do when you get in office to be re-elected? And I have to say that I neglected that part of my political career.
Q: You didn’t calculate carefully enough.
A: No. I really thought the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt would be enough to solidify my political support. But there are so many nuances of that issue that it didn’t work out that way. Israel and Egypt remain at peace, however. There is consolation in that and I hope a good message to the next President. It is possible for an American President to advance the peace process, to achieve meaningful progress. It is also necessary–more necessary now than it has ever been.