WASHINGTON — When Jimmy Carter speaks up and criticizes President Bush - as he did a short time ago - I listen. Oh, I know that current historians are rating Mr. Carter as no more than an average president. But I think that the revisionists of tomorrow will do better by this highly intelligent, exceedingly hard-working, and very decent man.
Four years was not enough for us to find all of Jimmy Carter. Since then, we've discovered Carter the humanitarian, as he has gone out with hammer in hand and helped build housing for the poor. And we've seen an extension of the diplomatic skill Carter showed in his Camp David achievement as he worked effectively abroad to iron out problems and ease tensions.
Carter's not a hater, either. He and Gerald Ford had some angry things to say about each other in that 1976 presidential race, which Carter barely won. But they buried the hatchet and are buddies today. Carter also attended the George W. Bush inauguration, obviously wishing him well.
So, when Carter had some critical words recently to say about Mr. Bush, they clearly weren't coming from a highly partisan Democrat who had just been waiting for a chance to bash this youngish Republican president. Carter obviously had expected - or, at least, had hoped - that Bush would take a different course, particularly in world affairs.
As I read Carter's words in a Georgia newspaper interview, I concluded that the former president's chief disappointment is with Bush's relatively hands-off relations with the Mideast and, in particular, his failure to demand the removal of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Carter says that Bush should follow his father's precedent in making this demand: "George Sr. took a strong position on this, and so did I."
As I read Carter's words, he seemed to be saying that Bush should take a strong, even-handed position in the Mideast and stick with it - but that George W. shouldn't spend great amounts of time in dealing with the Mideast situation. Instead, Carter recommended that Bush focus more on the problems in Africa.
"I noticed when President Clinton was in office," Carter said, "his secretary of state made 26 visits to the Middle East before going to any country in Africa. I think the devastation of the wars in Africa is much more serious than conflicts in the Middle East."
When he was president, Carter moved the Mideast peace process dramatically forward with his brilliant "bicycle riding" diplomacy with Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat at Camp David. But his insistence on equal treatment of both sides in the Mideast - and, in particular, his continued demand for the end of settlements on the West Bank - didn't help him with many American Jews who withdrew their financial support from a president with such an "even handed" approach. Their contributions for Carter (there were large amounts in 1976) were substantially reduced when he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
On other important issues, Carter said that Bush should support the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and called Bush's idea of a space-based shield against missiles "technologically ridiculous."
Sure, these aren't words that George W. is going to agree with - or particularly like. But he's talking regularly with one former president, his father, who will give him a Republican, conservative slant on issues of the day. Why not have regular conversations with another former president with a different point of view and with advice - on subjects like the Mideast - that doesn't always conform with the position of many other Democrats?
Actually, I was delighted to see the warm welcome George W. gave Jimmy the other day when Carter presented the campaign reform recommendations he is pushing. Could this be the beginning of a closer relationship? I hope so. I think Bush would find it profitable to listen to the views of this smart fellow from Plains, Ga., who is often being hailed by political observers as the best former president this nation has ever had.