Entry from October 15, 2002

Whenever I hear someone talking about his principles I think, here’s someone preparing himself for some betrayal. There’s nothing like high principles to reconcile a man to ratting on his friends. Look at Jim Jeffords. All he had to do was cross the floor and turn the Senate over to the Democrats and the next thing you know he’s sending out fund-raising letters full of praise for himself and those uncompromised, um, principles. “A little more than a year ago, I made the hardest decision of my political career,” he writes. “I felt I had a responsibility to do what I truly believed was in the best interests of our country. The only way for me to continue, without compromising the principles I had stood for all my life, was to leave the party and become an Independent.” Now, he says, he needs our help. “If you believe my decision was the right one, risking my career by leaving the Republican Party, I ask for you to help me now. Please send $35, $50, $75, $100, $250 — or whatever you can afford.”

Well, I mean to say, if the fellow has risked his career by selling the pass, the least we can do is reward him for it. “I know this is a great country, a country that rewards independence,” says Gentleman Jim. And who could be more independent than a man who refuses to let the claims of loyalty or honor sully his precious principles? So great was the volume of praise heaped on him by the media for just such “independence” that now two of his senatorial colleagues are also weighing the benefits of turning rat. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island is said to be contemplating moving, like Jeffords, from Republican to Democrat, while Zell Miller of Georgia may, if the price is right (some say he has been offered Trent Lott’s job as party leader), consider moving from Democrat to Republican.

So I suppose that it can hardly be considered surprising if not a single voice was to be heard in the press criticizing Carter for accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, essentially on the condition that it should be regarded as a criticism by foreigners of his country’s president and his country’s policy with regard to Iraq. The point isn’t that Carter himself shares the foreigners’ doubts. His own views on questions of peace and war in Iraq are irrelevant. Once Gunnar Berge, the chairman of the Nobel Committee, agreed that the award of the Peace Prize to Jimmy should “be seen as a criticism of the policy that the current US administration has adopted in relation to Iraq,” Carter really had no other honorable choice than to refuse it rather than to undermine his president’s authority by acquiescing in a foreigner’s condemnation. Instead, he chose to emphasize his agreement with Berge’s criticism.

More principles, I guess — the excess of which in the first place are arguably the reason why Carter has had so much time as ex-president to play the do-gooder. Carter, by his dithering and feckless handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, could be said to have made a considerable contribution to the disrespect in which America is held by Middle Eastern tyrants and fanatics, a disrespect which is ultimately responsible for the present Iraqi crisis. A more forceful response on his part and we might never have had either the Persian Gulf war or September 11th. Now he has the nerve to undercut his successor at the very moment when he is trying by a show of resolution in the region to undo some of the damage Carter did.

Of course one has every confidence in the sincerity with which Carter — presumably like the Nobel committee — believes that his maundering about “human rights” and “peace” has been and is likely to be more effective in actually bringing about peace than a show of force. But not having been entrusted by the voters with the decision this time around, it is mean-spirited, petty and dishonorable for him to second-guess the man in charge, and give encouragement to the enemies of his country, however great the probabilities in his own mind that he could have made friends of them.

Interestingly, Carter is not quite without a tincture of honor. When asked if he had used the occasion of President Bush’s congratulatory phone call to scold him about his foreign policy, Carter replied: “I feel very strongly about it, yes. . . But I didn”t think it was appropriate to mention it. I haven”t spent the last 22 years walking around saying what I would or wouldn”t do if I were still president.” Why then does he start now, while the whole world is watching eagerly for signs of division and weakness among the Americans?

Something of the mystique of kingship still clings to the American presidency — “a magistracy comparable to that of the Dalai Lama and to nothing else on earth,” said Wyndham Lewis — and bad as it would have been for Carter to collude in the Academy’s disrespect of President Bush even if he were only the head of government, it is far, far worse to do so against a head of state. Of course Carter himself, our first jogging president, never had much of an appreciation for the dignity of the office when he held it himself. Why should we expect him to have any more of one now that it is occupied by someone with whom he happens to disagree? After all, we are, as Senator Jeffords observes, a country that rewards “independence.”

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