Carter's Book Tour from Hell

Jimmy Carter has been called a bigot, an anti-Semite, a liar, a plagiarist and a coward. By the time the former president appeared on the Jay Leno show toward the end of a grueling national tour to promote his book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," Carter was losing his voice. He'd been building houses in New Orleans's Ninth Ward with Habitat for Humanity, one of his many pet projects, and it was cold, and the commercial flight to the Coast didn't help. Leno seemed astounded that a former president didn't take a private jet. "I would if I had one," Carter quipped. Don't you have friends in high places that would send a plane for you? Leno pressed. "Not since this book came out," Carter said with a wry laugh.

The book, or rather the book tour, is the focus of a new documentary, "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains," by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, and it is bound to revive the controversy over Carter's use of the word "apartheid" to describe the state of the Palestinian people. The film is in the genre of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," the camera following a lonely political figure through airports and broadcast studios as he attempts to spread the truth as he sees it. Public-radio host Terry Gross says Carter must have known the title would be trouble. Why not call it, "The Never-Ending Middle East: What Each Side Should Do," she asks. Carter, showing a flash of humor, suggests she's welcome to use that title when she writes a book.

If it weren't for that single word, apartheid, Carter's book would likely not have become a best seller. "I devised the title myself," he told an audience of former aides and supporters after a screening Tuesday evening in Washington. "I wanted to precipitate a debate that has been totally absent and is still totally absent." It was the first time he had seen the film on the big screen, and he felt it had turned out well despite his initial trepidation. He commended Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for convening a Mideast summit in Annapolis, Md., next month, but decried what he called "a complete dearth" of leadership among the presidential candidates for a balanced approach in the Middle East. In Carter's view, the pro-Israel lobby has made an open discussion "political suicide." In the film, former Air America radio host Al Franken (now a Senate candidate) says getting a conversation going is a good thing, but then, not to put too fine a point on it, he asks Carter, "Why do you hate the Jews?"

The two-hour film begins to feel like the book tour from hell even as it captures Carter, his moral certainty, his spirituality and his relentless drive to improve himself and the world, undiminished at 83 years of age. In one priceless moment, Carter laments that he's not fully fluent in Spanish, that he has a course on his computer and if he just spent an hour or two a week, he'd have it. He tells the Simon & Schuster publicist traveling with him that he and Rosalynn take turns reading the Bible aloud at night, and often read from the Spanish version. As president, he jogged; now he swims, and the camera catches him, a lonely figure in the early-morning quiet of a hotel swimming pool.

The anger generated from his book has to be weighed against the peace treaty he negotiated as president between Israel and Egypt, and his obviously deep commitment to peace in the Middle East. In an anguished statement following the screening, Carter's former domestic policy adviser, Stu Eizenstat, said the book title implies that racism and Zionism are the same even if that's not what Carter intended. "I'm not going to criticize you," he told the former president. "I want you to criticize me, tell me where I'm wrong, as you did so many times in the White House." Carter replies softly that there are very good explanations on both sides, but now the plight of the Palestinians is getting worse by the day. The film builds toward his lecture early this year at Brandeis University where he urges the students to visit the West Bank and see for themselves. You see it, you decide, he says, and he gets a standing ovation. Viewers too can make up their minds as they travel the red clay dirt roads of Georgia with Carter and visit the grave of the black woman who cared for him as a child, took him fishing and taught him about life.

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