Carter’s ‘Amazing Grace’ deserves admiration

President Jimmy Carter shaking hands with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty on the grounds of the White House,  March 26, 1979. Photo:  Warren K. Leffler, courtesy Library of Congress

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Former President Jimmy Carter’s relationship with the American Jewish community has been problematical, during his presidency from 1977-1981  and especially so in his post-presidency years. 

Carter was the president who achieved the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. But in the years since leaving office, he has been harsh and, in the opinion of many, one-sided in his criticism of Israel.

Regardless of how one feels about Carter’s total record in public life, all but the most hard-hearted were extremely moved by his gracious, almost serene news conference last month at Emory University’s Kinship Cancer Institute, where he announced that he had cancer that had spread from his liver to his brain but felt “perfectly at ease with whatever comes.” 

Wearing a blue blazer, necktie and jeans, combining his informal style with the seriousness of the occasion, the 39th president calmly talked about the full details of his diagnosis and his plans. His statement and his smiling, reassuring demeanor in the face of his grave illness has been greeted with universal admiration.

One of the perks of serving as an editor at an American Jewish newspaper has been the opportunity to meet and interview famous people, including presidents of the United States. During my four decades of association with the Light, I have had the honor of meeting Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. No matter one’s political inclinations, meeting a president turns even 

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the most hardened journalist into a ninth-grade social-studies student.

Just to realize that you are face-to-face with a successor to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is in itself a “Rushmore moment.”

So it has been through the years when I have had occasion to meet with Jimmy Carter, sometimes closely in one-on-one interviews, at other times in more formal settings, including at the White House.

Carter, the soft-spoken peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, burst onto the national political scene as a symbol of the New South, a Democrat who went against the racist and segregationist majority of his party as it existed during his father’s lifetime and career. 

Intellectually brilliant, Carter graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and entered the U.S. nuclear submarine program. He studied nuclear physics at Union College. He left the Navy after his father died, taking over the family’s peanut farm.

Carter challenged President Gerald Ford, the genial, reassuring former congressman from Michigan. Carter’s face graced the cover of Time magazine in a pose and hair style that readers said reminded them of the face of John F. Kennedy. During the presidential campaign of 1976, our bicentennial year, he captured the hearts and minds of increasing numbers of Americans.

During that first Carter campaign, I received an invitation to meet the former Georgia governor for an interview at a stately mansion in the Central West End where a fundraiser was to take place later in the day. I found myself in a one-on-one conversation with Carter. I can recall his distinctive face, which alternated between gravely serious and displaying a wide grin, which became a favorite subject for editorial cartoonists.

Naturally, I was eager to get Carter on the record about U.S.-Israel relations.

“I would never ask the premier of Israel to do anything that I would not do if I was premier of Israel,” Carter told me. 

That quote was the most direct Carter comment on the U.S.-Israel relationship other than an earlier interview of Carter by the late Adolph Rosenberg, then the editor of the Southern Israelite of Atlanta. Carter also expressed his support for freedom for Soviet Jewry as well as for a healthy environment. 

The Israel quote was picked up by JTA and Jewish publications throughout North America. Carter went on to defeat Ford in the general election and took office on Jan. 20, 1977, amid great hope that the former nuclear physicist would be a transformative president.

Perhaps Carter’s most significant and long-lasting positive accomplishment was his successful negotiations of the historic peace treaty between Israel,   led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egypt, led by President Anwar Sadat. 

One of the greatest thrills of my tenure at the Jewish Light was being among 1,200 invited guests on the south lawn of the White House to witness the signing of the peace treaty that Carter had negotiated at Camp David. On that sun-drenched day in March 1979, the sight of the American Southern Baptist president flanked by Israel’s Jewish prime minister and Egypt’s Muslim president was stunning, a moment that remains etched in the memory of everyone who had the privilege to witness it.

Carter did not have long to savor the moment of his signature achievement in the Middle East. In November that year, a mob of radical Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 U.S. hostages for 444 days. Carter was defeated in his re-election bid by Ronald Reagan, and the hostages were released the moment Reagan completed his oath of office Jan. 20, 1981.

At his news conference last month, Carter expressed regret that he did not send more helicopters in an ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages.

“If I had done so and we had freed the hostages, I might have been re-elected,” he said with a smile of resignation.

Carter also said that prospects for a two-state solution are dismal, and he placed all of the blame on the government of Israel.

Since his presidency, Carter has become increasingly harsh in his criticism of Israel, accusing the Jewish State of “horribly mistreating” the Palestinians. He published a highly controversial book in 2006 titled “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid.” The title, which Carter admitted was “deliberately provocative,” caused 14 members of the Carter Center board and its executive director to resign.

In 2009, Carter published a follow-up book, “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work,” which was much more nuanced than the previous book. 

The last time I came face-to-face with Jimmy Carter was at Left Bank Books  in downtown St. Louis when he was promoting “We Can Have Peace.” I stood in line while he signed copies of the book and, when it was my turn, I recalled our interview and a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House years earlier. 

“Glad you have such positive memories,” Carter said, flashing his megawatt smile.

And now Carter is facing his greatest personal crisis with incredible graciousness. He said he hopes to live longer than the last guinea worm, a vicious parasite the Carter Center is trying to stamp out. 

Carter deserves to be judged on the basis of his entire career, which, like those of any U.S. President, includes a few bumps in the road. But it also includes some remarkable achievements, such as the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty that has lasted to this very day and has saved countless lives by preventing another vicious war between the two nations.