Jimmy Carter has made a post-presidential career of going his own way and doing his own thing, sometimes much to the annoyance of the current occupant of the White House.
And it’s all his mother’s fault.
“When she was 70 years old, she said, ‘If there’s one wish I have for my children, it would be for them to do what they think is right and adventurous and exciting and titillating, and not to worry about what anybody says about them,’ ” the former commander in chief told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira on Monday in New York.
Carter was on TODAY to promote his 23rd and most recent book, a tribute to his mother, Miss Lillian Carter, titled “A Remarkable Mother.” But Vieira had to ask him about his recent controversial trip to the Middle East, where he drew the wrath of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for talking to the leaders of Hamas in Israel and the president of Syria. Rice said that Carter had been told not to talk with either.
“Secretary Rice, who I respect very much as a truthful woman, is mistaken,” Carter said with affable bluntness. “I was never asked or warned not to go. I probably would have gone anyway, because I thought it was important.”
Both the Bush White House and Israel refuse to talk to Hamas because, they say, the Palestinian group is a terrorist organization. The White House has also refused to talk to Syrian President Assad about the ongoing dispute over the Israeli occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights.
But Carter said talks with Hamas, which won a majority of the Palestinian Parliament in 2006 in free elections supported by the United States and Israel, are necessary.
“There’s no way to have peace in the Middle East without bringing the Palestinians back together, and Hamas represents at least half of the Palestinian people,” Carter said. “Hamas won the election fair and square. They got a majority of the seats in the Parliament, and I stayed over a couple of extra days to work between Mahmoud Abbas, the president, and Hamas, to try to organize a unity government. And it was all set.”
But the White House and Israel, which had believed that Hamas would not win the election, stepped in, he continued.
“The United States and Israel declared that there wouldn’t be a united Palestinian government. Then they declared that Hamas was a terrorist organization. They refused to negotiate with them,” he said. “They refused to give food and water and electricity and other supplies to people under Hamas leadership in Gaza, and that broke the whole situation down.”
On his most recent trip, Carter said he won an agreement from Hamas to declare a cease-fire in its ongoing battle with Israel in Gaza. That, too, was rejected by Israel, which has criticized Carter for legitimizing Hamas.
“The Israelis know that I was not the one that legitimized Hamas,” Carter told Vieira. “They were legitimized by their own people in a free and fair election. They were elected to lead the Parliament of the Palestinians.”
Carter said he thinks his mother would have approved of his actions — although she might have teased him about them. He told Vieira how Miss Lillian liked to put him in his place. “She always said that Billy was the smartest,” he said, referring to his brother, whose beer-fueled adventures frequently brought embarrassment to the Carter White House.
He said he gets his willingness to speak his mind from her, also. To illustrate the point, he related an anecdote about walking down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House after his inauguration in 1977. During the walk, his press secretary, Jody Powell, told the group that nobody was to talk to anyone.
“Jody, you can go to hell,” she told Powell. “I’ll speak to whom I please.”
Apparently, so will her son.