The Carter letter: reactions

It’s not every day that former presidents write us letters. And here at FP, we knew we had quite a document on our hands when Jimmy Carter took the unusual step of writing in to defend his legacy in response to Walter Russell Mead’s article,"The Carter Syndrome." As Jared Keller of the Atlantic noted, "This ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

It's not every day that former presidents write us letters. And here at FP, we knew we had quite a document on our hands when Jimmy Carter took the unusual step of writing in to defend his legacy in response to Walter Russell Mead's article,"The Carter Syndrome." As Jared Keller of the Atlantic noted, "This comparison may be relatively commonplace, but the reaction was not." Since the letter appeared, it's been fascinating to watch the reactions to the letter from both sides of the political spectrum.

It’s not every day that former presidents write us letters. And here at FP, we knew we had quite a document on our hands when Jimmy Carter took the unusual step of writing in to defend his legacy in response to Walter Russell Mead’s article,"The Carter Syndrome." As Jared Keller of the Atlantic noted, "This comparison may be relatively commonplace, but the reaction was not." Since the letter appeared, it’s been fascinating to watch the reactions to the letter from both sides of the political spectrum.

Obama’s critics were understandably delighted that it was Carter, who was upset by the comparison to Obama. Fox News’ Sean Hannity was positively giddy: 

Former President Jimmy Carter is fuming. Given his disastrous record in office you would think that he would be happy to be compared to the Anointed One, but apparently President Obama has made such a mess that even Carter is now distancing himself.[…]

Judging by the way things are going, I predict by 2012 President Obama will want to be compared to Carter.

Rob Port of the Say Anything blog had a similar reaction:  "You know things are bad when Jimmy Carter doesn’t want his legacy tarnished by comparisons to you."

As Drew Grant of Mediaite pointed out, this isn’t quite correct. Carter’s letter was a defense of his own record, and contained no criticism of Obama’s. Carter was objecting to the idea that his legacy should be considered a benchmark for failure.

Other writers took note of the anger of Carter’s tone.  "[Carter] can get good and cranky when he feels his legacy is being misrepresented," wrote Politico’s Glenn Thrush. Tigerhawk said the letter showed that Carter "has the thinnest skin of any postwar president with the possible exception of Richard Nixon. " At RealClearPolitics, Jeremy Lott put the letter foward as an example of "how not to defend your legacy":

Normally, when a piece appears in a major media outlet that riles up a former U.S. president, he calls a few former aides, advisers, and sympathetic academics. They launch a coordinated attack on his behalf without ever quite admitting that they were put up to it. This creates the illusion of a groundswell of support for a venerable public figure and it allows the one time commander-in-chief to appear above the fray. Reporters will ask him about it and he can quote the experts who came to his defense.

Instead, Carter decided to take matters into own hands. The results are not good. From first sentence to last, his letter demonstrates paper thin skin, arrogance, and the flawed judgment that turned him into a one-term president.

Not all commentators found the letter unconvincing, though. For instance, the New America Foundation’s Michael Cohen called Carter and Brzezinski’s letters "a pretty compelling case on behalf Carter’s foreign policy legacy."

The funny thing about all of this is that, as Mead himself has wrote in his response, the article wasn’t even really about Carter but about "the intellectual, cultural, and political challenges [Obama] faces.”

Responding on his own blog to the article’s critics, Mead writes:

"Of this group of dissenters… President Carter is the only person I’ve voted for, and I  am honored to have his reply, even if we don’t reach the same conclusions."

Joshua Keating is a former associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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