Former President Jimmy Carter is backing off his remark this weekend that the Bush administration's foreign policy "has been the worst in history," telling TODAY during an exclusive interview Monday that his comment was "careless" and widely misinterpreted.
Carter's remarks to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Saturday were in response to a question about the foreign policy of President Richard Nixon, Carter, the 82-year-old former peanut farmer from Georgia, told TODAY host Meredith Vieira.
"I think Richard Nixon had a very good and productive foreign policy. My remarks were maybe careless or misinterpreted, but I wasn't comparing the overall administration, and I certainly was not talking personally about any president," said Carter.
"Are you saying now that you believe now that [your remarks] were careless or reckless?" Vieira asked.
"Well, I think they were, yes, because they were interpreted as comparing [Bush's] whole administration to all other administrations," Carter said. "What I was actually doing was responding to a question about foreign policy between Richard Nixon and this administration. I think this administration's foreign policy compared to President Nixon's was much worse."
"But not the worst in U.S. history?" Vieira interjected.
"That's not what I wanted to say," Carter said.
Carter's criticism of Bush's foreign policy, particularly about the war in Iraq and the failure of the U.S. to push for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, had brought a swift response from the White House over the weekend.
Traveling in Texas with Bush on Sunday, White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters, "I think it's sad that President Carter's reckless personal criticism is out there. I think it's unfortunate. And I think he is proving to be increasingly irrelevant with these kinds of comments."
The flap was not the first for Carter, who has been one of the most outspoken former presidents in history. Carter’s public comments have been stirring controversy for more than three decades.
Many may still recall his most-famous remark, made during a candid interview with Playboy magazine in 1976.
“I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times,” Carter told the men’s magazine. Carter has been married to his wife Rosalynn for more than 60 years.
In 2001, Carter criticized President Clinton's controversial pardon of a major Democratic Party contributor, Marc Rich. Carter called Clinton's action "disgraceful.”
In September, Carter told the BBC he was concerned about the increasing influence of religious factions on U.S. politics.
During a weekend interview with BBC Radio, Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, also assailed outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "abominable, loyal, blind and apparently subservient" to Bush when it comes to the war in Iraq.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, who appeared on TODAY prior to Carter on Monday, said the former president has a right to speak his mind but stopped short of specifically endorsing Carter’s remark about Bush's administration.
"I've had a lot of criticism of the Bush administration as well, and have used some strong descriptions," Clinton said. "I am going to continue to criticize the President. I think it is the duty of every American to speak out when you feel strongly that your president is heading in the wrong direction. I think we need a debate in this country, and I think that's what is going on ... I welcome everyone for that."
Asked by Vieira if he felt it was "appropriate" for a former president to criticize an incumbent, especially during a time of war, Carter said there are boundaries and he tries not to cross them.
"I've been very careful, and still am, not to criticize any president personally," Carter said.
Carter, the nation’s 39th president, was in New Orleans Monday with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild homes lost during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Habitat for Humanity so far has built 1,000 homes in the region, and organizers hope to raise enough money to build a thousand more.