Election Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The perils of ex-presidential good works

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter listens as wife Rosalynn Carter (not pictured) speaks during "A Conversation with the Carters," during the annual public event at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tami Chappell

We have Jimmy Carter to blame. After being booted out of the White House at the age of 56, he decided that rather than retire into the customary obscurity of former presidents he would become a prominent private doer of good works.

The result was the Carter Center, and besides the conventional presidential library it was part university think tank, part public health agency, part conference center, and part goodwill mission. The thing got off to a rocky start, as I discovered when I investigated it for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987. “Carter Center plagued by staff cuts, confusion over its mission,” ran the headline.

Logo of the Carter Center

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Logo of the Carter Center


“It’s a little bit the problem Jimmy Carter has had all along,” Carter’s former press secretary, Jody Powell, told me. “He’s concentrated on getting things done and not on letting people know what’s going on.”

To pay for his vast aims, Carter turned to some pretty shady characters — a Japanese wheeler dealer named Ryōichi Sasakawa and Aga Hassan Abedi, the Pakistani head of the fraudulent Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Both provided the former president with planes to fly around the world (promising the Chinese prosthetic devices here, promising African leaders to wipe out diseases there).

When the law caught up with Abedi, who had given his Center more than $8 million, Carter told the New York Times that he was “shocked and disturbed,” saying he believed Abedi’s interest was in humanitarian work.

How could anyone who supported such a mission to the world not be pure of heart?

Well. You fly into a developing country with the former president, receive his appreciative introduction to the welcoming public officials, and you’re off and running with all the business opportunities you need.

Let’s call Carter naive. Bill Clinton not so much. Does he imagine that all those folks sluicing cash into the Clinton Foundation have simply been interested in advancing the world’s health?

Not everyone who gives is a Sasakawa or an Abedi. Just being able to rub shoulders with Bill, Hill, and their friends may be all the incentive many of them need. And if you’re a little careful about who you solicit, the downside risks may be worth it.

But the risks increase when you’re married to a U.S. senator, even more when she’s a secretary of state. And Politics 101 says you arrange to shut the thing down as soon as she says she’s running for president.

Hell hath no fury like a do-gooder scorned. After my story on the Carter Center appeared, the 39th president of the United States tried to get me fired. Likewise, the Clintons have let loose their minions on critics of their Foundation.

“Somebody is going to hell” for attacking it, said good old James Carville.

What gives supporters of the Clintons the willies is the thought they would risk letting the country go to hell because they couldn’t see their way clear to doing the right thing.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Seriously, why should anyone give Jimmy Carter the benefit of the doubt? He was and remains a self-righteous fraud. I always remember that he went on TV early on the morning of the 1980 Wisconsin primary, announcing that he had solved the Iranian hostage crisis. Oddly enough, the hostages remained in Iran until Ronald Reagan assumed the office of President.

  • Dig a little deeper, BillWAF. The deal was done before Reagan assumed the office of President. The release came after (a slap at Carter and a deliberate manipulation of our election). Still the author is right, whenever money is involved the righteous find themselves doing deals with the devil. Care is required. Do the ends every justify the means? Sometimes.

  • If there were a deal between the Reagan campaign (or those representing it or Reagan) and Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after the 1980 election, that deal would have been made after the conventions, long after the Wisconsin primary. Therefore my contempt for Carter stands.

  • On a whole I’d say there’s a world of difference between the money machine that is the Clinton foundation and the “do good er” Carter foundation. And the old reprobate James Carvel needs to review the gospel in relation to who is and who is not going to hell.

  • The clever creation of the Clinton Foundation as a tax-tree money-laundering scheme for the influence-peddling Clintons, (“who left the White House flat-broke and in debt,”) is a far cry from Jimmy Carter’s feeble efforts at raising a few bucks to build shanties around the world for Habitat for Humanity. Silk, you might try a little even-handedness here.

    The Clintons have put themselves out of reach of any government entity that might have any oversight over the foundation’s clandestine operatons. Barack Obama didn’t have the cojones to stand up to his own Secretary of State, and hold her to the promise she made for hand’s off when doing the people’s business, and complete transparency regarding the foundation’s finances. Instead, he’s now taking lessons from the Clintons, since Democrats just build on any bad example, and don’t let it go to waste. Just wait until The Obama Foundation makes its debut!

  • I agree. Carter’s intentions have always been good, though execution lacked sometimes. He’s served as a wonderful example of a righteous man and an example of how power and influence can be used to benefit humanity. While he may not have been very successful as a politician, President Carter been very successful as a human being.

  • The deal between Reagan and the Iranians was never that much of a secret. But feel free to maintain your condemnation of a really decent person if it suits you.

  • BTW, I don’t know about the Clinton Foundation yet. There have been uncountable accusations and insinuations, but nothing factual yet.

    I know that righty billionaires like Scaife, Kochs and others have spent $millions over the course of 30+ years to smear the Clintons. That doesn’t make me believe the Clintons are innocent of any wrong doing, but it does make me skeptical of yet another “investigation”. Republicans throwing pasta at the wall has become very tiresome.

  • Jimmy Carter was always a piece of garbage. When the Chilean secret police murdered Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffat in a bombing in Washington DC, he ultimately responded with very minor sanctions against Chile. Ronni Moffitt was an American citizen from New Jersey, but her death did not matter to Carter.

    Union City, New Jersey is my home town. Some of the actual murderers, whom the Chileans hired came from Union City: they were right-wing Cuban terrorists from Omega Seven. When the Justice Department needed support in order to force the extradition of the next suspect in the investigation, Carter betrayed them. No doubt Carter felt that decency compelled him to protect Pinochet.

    Let us turn to Nicaragua, where Carter’s CIA began supplying the Contras before Reagan came to office. No doubt decency compelled Carter to support right-wing terrorists.

    Perhaps South Africa is a better place to look. Unfortunately, in 1978 South African forces launched a deep raid into Angola which killed hundreds of refugees in a refugee camp. Carter’s administration was rather silent about that. No doubt decency led Carter to look the other way when South Africa slaughtered hundreds of civilians.

    When your Mr. Decent became President, there were 61 liberals in the Senate, but he would not support Ted Kennedy’s version of national health insurance because it was not his preference (and he always had a bug about Ted Kennedy). Thanks to Carter, we had to wait decades for national health insurance.

    Finally, the man was an incompetent buffoon. He seriously damaged the Democratic Party, setting the stage for Reagan. Basically, he was not fit to be president. He was a failure who should not have run for a second term.

    But please, tell us that he is decent.

  • Look, it’s pretty clear that you hate President Carter with a vicious passion. Okey dokey. Nice having a calm, reasoned discussion with you. Bye.

    (One of the things I’ve learned from comment sections such as this – I don’t beat my head against a brick wall. When a commenter’s mind is made up, it’s made up.)

  • I would say that I loathe him. He is not worth hatred. However, I provided specifics supporting my view. (You could call those reasons.) I notice that you did not dispute them. In that sense, my views are reasonable. Unusual as it may be, I like evidence.

  • The deal was between the Carter administration and Iran. The Iranians delayed keeping their part of the bargain until Inauguration Day for Reagan.

  • You have nothing like the real picture on the history of which you speak. Jimmy Carter could have been an effective president if the Democratic Party of his era hadn’t been such complacent pork-barrelers. He was sandbagged, D and R. And likely sabotaged by the Washington “intelligence community.” The Beltway PTB were aware of the likelihood that the downfall of Nixon would be followed by a swing to the Left by the electorate, and they planned accordingly. Carter got stonewalled worse than Obama. Because it was largely his own party doing it. Carter made some mistakes, and he didn’t have a great reserve of personal charisma. But his party wouldn’t even hear out his own ideas on the agenda for his administration. Carter wanted to set a course away from the fossil fuels industry and the pork barrel, and no one in the Democratic Party establishment of that era wanted to follow where he wanted to lead them. That accounts for his ineffectuality, ultimately.

    It’s also plain that the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress were much happier doing business with Ronald Reagan than with Jimmy Carter. One reason why Republicans are now so fond of looking back to the 1980s, the halcyon era when Democrats were “reasonable”- because they were basically big-government Republicans. Deficit spenders, guns and butter, fossil fuels status quo on energy, good old boy networks, drug warriors, genuflecting to social conservatism and the punitive moralism of the culture wars, lower taxes (except for raising the payroll tax to undergird Social Security). All-American rhetoric and globalized free trade. Consumer materialist values. Money as the measure of all things.
    The triumph of politics.