Isn't there some expiration date for the title "elder statesman"? If not, there sure should be, since former President Jimmy Carter wore out his welcome on the world (and, indeed, domestic) stage some time ago.
The uproar caused by Carter's declaration that racism was driving various criticisms of Barack Obama is just the latest embarrassment partly caused by the unwelcome interference of America's 39th president.
After being soundly drummed out of the White House in 1980 by Ronald Reagan -- following a term characterized by economic malaise, an energy crisis, a 444-day hostage standoff and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- one of Carter's first "acts" as an ex-president actually helped cover him in glory. Attaching his name to the Habitat for Humanity charity, he helped build houses for the poor (ably assisted by an army of volunteers). What made Habitat such an ideal charity was that it was far more a hand-up than a hand-out. Recipients weren't given the house. Rather they put in their own sweat equity -- right after they helped build someone else's home too.
By lending his name to Habitat, Carter began to craft a brand new legacy: From failed chief executive to "America's greatest ex-president." That was partly cemented with the work of his Carter Center which monitored elections. Any good that the Center did early on as an objective monitor organizations has been tainted in recent years with approval of suspect elections in Venezuela.
For a man who advocated the importance of human rights while in the White House, ex-President Carter seemingly loves kissing up to dictators and authoritarian strong men. Carter essentially broke the long-standing bipartisan isolation of Fidel Castro by speaking in Havana in 2002. Mild criticisms of Cuba's human rights violations were more than tempered by a full-throated call for the U.S. to end its embargo. But perhaps Carter's most reprehensible action in recent years was the one that helped sunder the organization that bears his name. By writing a book comparing Israel's treatment of Palestinians to that of blacks under apartheid South Carolina, Carter caused one Carter Center scholar and 14 members of the center's advisory committee to resign.
The pattern in all of these incidents is the same: Carter either adopts positions, gives a speech, or writes a book that is explicitly contrary to the stated announced policy of the United States. Even when "playing ball," Carter is hopelessly naive and still messes up. As a special envoy to North Korea under then-president Bill Clinton, Carter helped broker a deal that was supposed to prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon. Fifteen years later, the Pyongyang is as close to completing one as can be.
In this sense, the current flap over racism is much of a piece with his earlier actions in the international area. This statement and controversy is not helpful to Barack Obama. Quite the opposite. Even if it were true, it's not a conversation that the president wants. It's a lose-lose for Obama: Even if he wanted to, Obama can't afford to create -- or participate in -- a racial flap. Been there, done that. Who knows? Maybe the one-time peanut farmer was feeling guilty about the way he once shamelessly played racial politics when he was Georgia governor and running for president?
The great irony is that previously pundits predicted that Bill Clinton would be the problematic former president -- especially with his wife as secretary of state. Instead, it's rather obvious that Obama has strong respect for Clinton -- despite the sharp elbows thrown during the, yes, South Carolina primary last year.
In fact, the trust between Presidents 42 and 44 could be seen in Obama's tasking Clinton -- not Carter -- to go to North Korea to help free imprisoned journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, Earlier this week, the two men had a private lunch in New York City.
Figure on Obama having a lunch with Jimmy Carter anytime soon?
Don't hold your breath.